India’s 12th Five Year Plan (2012-2017) talks of challenges emanating from the economy’s transition to a higher growth path, the structural changes that come with it and the expectations it generates. One pertinent challenge in India, in the context of economic growth at the rate of 8%, is the extent of progress towards the multi dimensional process of inclusive growth. Without doubt, the latter should result in lower incidence of poverty, significant improvements in health care, universal access for children going to school and increased access to skilled development.
These parameters are more critical for an estimated 833 million people in India who continue to live in rural areas and a very large proportion of whom, both men and women, are either wholly or significantly still dependent for their livelihood on farm as well as non-farm activities. A plethora of centrally sponsored flagship rural development programs such as the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act  (MGNREGA) have been given special impetus aimed at building rural infrastructure and providing basic services with the aim of reducing poverty. These are mandated to be implemented by the provincial governments through institutions of local self governance in the gaze of the well oiled administrative district machinery and increasingly in collaboration with the civil society.
An unprecedented injection of public funds during the 12th Plan Period through decentralized governance, calls for a renewed focus on the dynamics of grassroots empowerment that could enable rural communities to access information about their rights and entitlements made available under these programmes, both by law and policy. This consequently also has implications for accountability in the reach and impact of the public delivery system that the poorest approach. The key question, thus is, what kind of an accessible communication medium, amongst today’s robust social media, should be utilized during the next four years extensively to sensitize and empower the poorest in rural areas in partnership with civil society? Secondly, what are the governance challenges that need to be identified in the above partnership to make the benefits of the envisaged inclusive growth more transparent, participatory and bottom up?
The 2006 Community Radio National Guidelines  of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting envision marginalized communities in rural areas to manage, own and operate radio stations with the help of non profit civil society and voluntary organizations. The Guidelines are very specific about the fact that such organizations should have an ownership and management structure that is reflective of the community that the community radio station seeks to serve. Besides, fifty percent of the content should be generated in local dialects with the participation of the local community for which the station has been set up. Thus, with a transmitter having an effective radiated power of 100 Watts, the community radio station is expected to cover a range of 10 kilometres (6 miles). Besides, non-profit organizations are eligible to seek funding from multilateral aid agencies.
A grant of license to set up a community radio station is processed approximately in ten months in the Ministries of Information & Broadcasting and Telecommunications. Advertising or announcements relating to socio-economic development, local events, local businesses, services and employment opportunities are allowed for a maximum duration of 5 minutes per hour of broadcast in a day (minimum two hours of broadcasting). To seek advertisements from central and state government organizations the rate of airtime for an empanelled radio station with DAVP (Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity) is Rs. 4/- per second ($7 cents). Surplus, if any, after meeting with the financial needs of the CRS, has to be ploughed back into the primary activities of the non profit civil society organization for which it would be established.
A few projects that have been set up in consonance with the above Guidelines and are, infact, examples of projects deeply embedded amongst marginalized communities in rural hinterlands, deserve a mention. In Chanderi (Madhya Pradesh), the community radio station- ‘Chanderi Ki Aawaz’ (The Voice of Chanderi) has been initiated by the weavers’ cooperative. It is being run by a local community youth team that has been extensively trained (by digital media NGO OneWorld South Asia ) in community advocacy and focuses on women and child nutrition issues. While in Bhudikote (Karnataka) the community radio station ‘Namma Dhwani’ (My Voice) partnered by MYRADA  (a NGO), Voices (a media group) and UNESCO  has been owned, managed and operated with the active participation of women self- help groups focusing on livelihood security amongst the rural households.
The current number of such community radio stations in the country, of which a majority are housed in urban university campuses, is just 141. The first governance challenge, therefore, is to strengthen the single window clearance mechanism for expeditious approval of applications put in by non profit civil society organizations from remote rural areas on the lines of clearance granted to universities and government educational institutions. In the 12th Five Year Plan period this should enable the government to aim at setting up atleast 4000 community radio stations that were envisaged to be set by civil society organizations during the National Consultation on Community Radio  held in 2007.
The second governance challenge is to tap into the exciting public private partnerships in rural India underway between local bodies called Panchayati Raj Institutions  (PRIs) and civil society organizations and find a space and synergy for sensitization through community radio. As Constitutionally backed bodies, PRIs are the recipients of untied funds in areas of health, education and social/livelihood protection and also play a central role in implementing the centrally sponsored rural development programmes through tied funds. Policy makers should allow, with sufficient checks and balances, Gram Panchayats (lowest tiers of PRIs in villages) to manage, operate and run community radio stations along with allowance for airing of news broadcasts. This will have the added advantage of non profit civil society organizations accessing funds relating to Information, Communication and Education (IEC) activities under various programs such as MGNREGA for which PRIs are the central implementers in rural areas. Imagine the possibilities of generating synergies for dialogic empowerment in rural areas through community radio with over 260,000 Gram Panchayats in unison with over 2 million nongovernmental organizations in the fray!
The farsighted steps taken by the Central Government to institute the Community Radio Awards, a CR Facebook Page, and an Annual CR Convention have to be supplemented with further strengthening of stakeholdership through its Regional Capacity Building Workshops in rural hinterlands that reach out to potential civil society applicants and existing community radio station owners. Thus, the third governance challenge is to facilitate, through such workshops, a more targeted roler for community radio practitioners, technicians and activists alike. It has to be emphasised, especially for potential applicants, that a baseline survey in the community service area by the non profit civil society or voluntary organization should be a rigorous exercise to identify the ‘media gap’ that a community radio station’s programming has to address- be it about low cost sanitation, child care, primary education, livelihood security, skill development etc. Also, that while the licensing approval process may at times extend beyond a period of ten months for unforeseen reasons, no time should be lost to build capacities and train local youth volunteers keen to engage in rural reporting. These workshops also have to brainstorm and share the tremendous potential of networking existing community radio stations, where ever possible, with digital communication through the Internet and mobile telephony. It would be useful, in addition, for Ministry of Information & Broadcasting’s website  to share latest developments in the above regard in neighbouring countries such as Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Thailand, Philippines and Indonesia.
Building on the experience and learning during the Eleventh Plan Period, it would be extremely worthwhile to analyse the extent and impact of coverage by operational community radio stations of vulnerable sections of society such as scheduled castes, scheduled tribes, minorities, women and especially children. Thus, the fourth governance challenge would be to identify regions and themes where extra energies need to be devoted to motivate non profit civil society applicants to establish community radio stations. For example, in border areas (airing factual corrections to counter erroneous propaganda), coastal districts (effective communication for natural disaster management) and regions afflicted with Left wing extremism (feedback on information dissemination about poverty alleviation entitlements). Consequently, the proposed funding of community radio stations in the 12th Five Year Plan period should be made available exclusively for such regions and themes.
Finally, the Union Ministries of Agriculture, Education, Health, Rural Development and Panchayati Raj need to converge their 12th Plan Period activities and funds provisioned for IEC and community radio. In addition, a more stakeholder oriented coordination with the provincial governments and the field agency of the district administration would enable effective integration of the essential vision of the National Community Radio Guidelines with the local inclusive growth strategy for the remaining Plan Period. This alone would lead to community radio stations to be agents of organic participation in the diverse rural public sphere that is already being enriched by the pan India AIR  (All India Radio) and the profit oriented FM radio stations .
I am writing in my personal capacity.
Photo Credit: DFID - UK Department for International Development 
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