Riding the air wave

Published in The Hindu on 6 August 2012
Local communities find solutions on the radio

Local communities find solutions on the radio
For Shahid Hussain, the third weekend of July was a satisfying opportunity to see the power of grassroots journalism at its best – in the avatar of community radio – in action in the Haryana district of Mewat.

While the national media thronged neighbouring districts that weekend, tracking stories of industrial violence in Manesar and protests against land acquisitions in Rewari, the 22-year old Shahid, a staffer of Radio Mewat, was busy covering a local drama.

“I had gone to the village of Khedlidosa on that Saturday, and suddenly I was mobbed by a big group of women. They were all complaining about an illegal liquor racket in their village, and they wanted me to bring it up on the radio station,” he says. Shahid captured their voices, all speaking over each other in the local Meo dialect, on his trusty recorder and carried it back to Radio Mewat’s modest office on the Nuh road.

“When I first started out (with Radio Mewat last April), many elders were sceptical, and women would not be willing to come anywhere near me at all.” Despite its location, an hour’s drive away from the glitzy malls of Gurgaon, time seems to have stood still in Muslim-majority Mewat, with traditional mores still ruling the farming community.

“But now when I enter a village, saying I am from Radio Mewat, everybody offers me tea and cool drinks,” laughs Shahid. “They are eager to talk to me, even the girls, because they know we are making a difference.”

Started in 2006, the community radio movement has taken off over the last couple of years with 130 stations across the country. The government plans to give licenses to over 230 more. In Mewat, the station was launched by Delhi-based SMART NGO, but is completely staffed by local youth like Shahid, who is still in the process of completing a BA in history and political science.

After suitable editing, the women’s grievance regarding the illegal liquor racket was quickly added to the showlist of a new weekly programme being launched by the community radio station a few days later. Initiated by Senior Superintendent of Police Pankaj Nain, the programme allows listeners to call in with complaints and interact directly with the senior-most police official in the district.

“In my earlier posting in Panipat, I had taken part in a live cable TV show called Hello Police where we took questions for half an hour. But this community radio programme is better because it has a wider reach – people listen even on their mobile phones – and they can call in on a 24-hour helpline,” says the SSP, who was posted in Mewat three months ago.

As the show begins at mid-morning on Monday, anchor Basant Singhal presents the various complaints – an abduction case, delays in dealing with a petty crime, a warning against a “most wanted” criminal, and several gripes about the overloaded trucks that ply the Alwar highway, causing an increasing number of accidents in the area. Mr. Nain promises quick action on the police cases, and offers listeners a chance to be proactive with an accident helpline number. “If you take accident victims to hospital, you will get a reward and a police commendation certificate. You don’t need to be scared that you will get yourself involved in a police case,” he exhorts listeners. In the tiny control room adjoining the studio, the day’s producer 20-year old Nisha Malik – the station’s sole woman staffer – mimes the countdown to a break in the programme. As music and promotional jingles play, Nain explains his rationale for slotting a community radio show into his schedule. “When I sit in my office, I have a maximum of two hours to actually interact with people, and only a few influential people have access to me. There is no way for the common man to get through to me.”

As the programme returns from the break, Shahid’s big moment is at hand. The complaint of the Khedlidosa women is presented, their voices heard by the district’s senior-most police official, as well as their fellow villagers.

“It is empowering when we provide a platform for their voices, give them a chance to be heard,” says Shahid.

“Earlier, Mewat had no wide participative forum like this,” adds Mohammed Arif, the station’s oldest staffer who handles the agricultural beat. “The media meant the city newspapers, who are only interested in politicians, or crime stories, not in daily life issues. But now, with Radio Mewat, it is our own problems being talked about by our own people in our own language.” For Shahid, the high point comes later that evening. Fulfilling Mr. Nain’s promise of quick action, a police team raided Khedlidosa, seized several cases of illegal liquor and rounded up those involved in the racket. The sarpanch called Radio Mewat with personal thanks.

Now that’s called a journalistic impact.

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