Uttarakhand disaster highlights need for community radio network

While the Uttarakhand floods have exposed chinks in the country’s disaster preparedness, it has also underlined the importance of community participation and appropriate community communication systems, especially community radio, to be in place. As Climate Change becomes a daunting reality, there is a growing recognition across the world to strengthen and link community media systems with internet and satellite media technology.

The United Nations-endorsed Hyogo Framework for Action (2005) emphasised this aspect when it urged early warning systems to take cognisance of local, cultural and demographic specificities. The role of community radio, in this context, is particularly significant. When disaster strikes, it is often the only functioning media technology.  The experiences of countries as diverse as Japan, Haiti and Nepal have demonstrated community radio’s effectiveness in disaster mitigation.

The good news is that India has community radio. The flip side is that a host of factors, including cumbersome license processing procedures, have handicapped its growth. In Uttarakhand alone, there are as many as 12 Letters of Intent issued to set up community radio stations, but the licenses to start broadcasting are yet to be given.

The experience of radio broadcaster Saritha Thomas, who was in Uttarakhand when the floods struck, underscores just why community radio could have made a difference. The  managing trustee of Peoples Power (Participatory OWnership Empowerment Radio) Collective, a not for profit organisation that supports participatory and community managed/ owned radio, Saritha  worked with BBC radio in the UK for several years before she returned to India to join the community radio movement. Based in Uttarakhand, Saritha and her colleagues, Shweta Radhakrishnan and Amol Ranjan work in partnership with Mandakini Ki Awaz Samudayak Radio, a community based organisation. Founded by Manvendra Singh Negi, it is one of the first community radio initiatives in the region, but remains as yet to get its licence to commence broadcasting.

With Prithviraj Nagar, a village by the Madakini river, as their base, the group started preparations to commence community based training programmes in early June. After four days of relentless downpour, the rains let up on June 18. Taking advantage of the respite, Saritha and Manvendra walked towards the village of Chandrapuri nearly 20 km away to purchase food supplies and training material. Given that their TV had packed up, they had no idea of the extent of the destruction that the floods had unleashed. Along the way they encountered yatris and locals whose narratives unravelled how, in the twinkling of any eye, “half of Chandrapuri had been washed away.”

An eye witness said, “Suddenly we heard the rumbling of the (Mandakini) river…It was swelling unbelievably. We could see the lights going off one by one...then…it was pitch darkness...we grabbed our families and ran…”

Community wisdom

But the problem was: Where to run? The roads, if they existed, seemed to lead to nowhere. An encounter with some yatris at Kandara village punched home the point. Enroute to Kedarnath, the yatris were stopped by ‘local cops’ at Banswadi and advised to get to the hills to be safe. The ‘cops’, however, had no idea where the hill road would lead to, but just asked them to take it. It was then, that community wisdom stepped in. The local residents took on the mantle of leadership showing the way. Although the training programme had to be deferred, the need for community radio was palpable. Saritha recounts several who came up to her saying, “Didi, if only we had community radio.”

Post the floods, community radio and emergency radio would appear to have become flavours of the month. Apex bodies like the NDMA has emphasised the need to develop a network of community based FM stations in Uttarakhand. While such initiatives are welcome in principle, the proof of the pudding lies in the eating. Similar pronouncements were made post the 2004 Tsunami and in 2008 during the Bihar floods.  However, there was no follow up action.

Rather than view community radio in isolation, risk strategies should build a mixed media communication network connecting the affected with the mainstream. The Aceh Radio reconstruction network in Indonesia is an apt example. Comprising 46 community radio stations in Aceh and North Sumatra, the network was dedicated to community based rehabilitation post the 2004 Tsunami. It combined community radio, website, telephone and fax lines enabling access to the last mile, last post.

There is also the need to review the current community radio guidelines in the context of mobile transmitters. Low cost mobile radio technology -- like the suitcase radio or Unesco’s radio in a box -- has demonstrated their effectives in other countries especially during times of disaster.  
Finally, it would be a travesty to view community radio as a magic bullet. The essence of community radio lies in community participation –which cannot be built overnight. As Ram Bhat, vice president of the Community Radio Forum of India which is working closely with the NDMA and MoIB, has affirmed, “Community radio enables community participation allowing relief efforts and information to reach those who need it the most. While portable and emergency radio may indeed be useful in mitigation, the need of the hour is to identify genuine community groups in disaster prone areas, build their capacities and equip them with community radio infrastructure. These groups will ensure that community radio can be a long term and sustainable solution for disaster mitigation.”

Comments (+)