[cr-india] "Uttarakhand crisis underlines community radio’s importance"

sajan venniyoor venniyoor at gmail.com
Sun Jun 30 22:05:02 CDT 2013

Uttarakhand crisis underlines community radio’s
Osama Manzar | Live Mint | Jun 30, 2013

Information can make or break you. Information can enable or disable you.
You can have information and feel empowered or you can be deprived of
information and opportunities, rights and freedom. In the disaster in
Uttarakhand, information was the biggest casualty. How?

Although stories of devastation and horror are flowing out of Uttarakhand,
we have almost no real information on the exact situation in the upper
reaches of the Himalayas. The massive floods that struck Uttarakhand is a
wake-up call to the government as well as citizens. The tragedy is also an
institutional disaster. Before the cloudburst and flash floods wreaked
havoc, the Indian Meteorological Department had warned of heavy rainfall in
Rudraprayag, yet disaster management agencies made little effort to
prepare. The lack of coordination in states prone to natural calamities
makes quick response in such a situation nearly impossible. India’s most
hi-tech communication lab, Defence Electronics Application Laboratory
(DEAL), is in Dehradun, but even after two weeks of the tragedy, the
government failed to take assistance of DEAL to establish communications.

While different states announced aid, the Uttarakhand government seemed
clueless about how to handle the situation. It’s not surprising that in
such a situation, it is important to have a high-resolution map of the
region and terrain. However, rescuers in the affected areas found it
difficult to locate and access survivors without appropriate maps.
According to experts, good disaster management planning requires 1:500
ratio maps of the regions or terrain, but we don’t have that kind of
high-resolution maps of the flood-affected areas of Uttarakhand.

During natural disasters, and for some time afterwards, people affected by
them ask many questions and are desperate for information. When this
disaster took place, unlike in the past, we are living in the era of
real-time information and media and the sources are many and diverse—radio,
television, Internet, SMS, mobile phones, and so on. Yet, we could not find
many of those real-time media playing any decisive role in finding
solutions. It is often noted that the real effective solution to many
disasters, where government action is always inadequate, like we have in
India, local communities remain the first responders. Their role,
especially youth, in saving lives during the first few hours after a
disaster, is critical. Incidentally, we have two very strong community
media in hand—community radio and mobile phones with its seamless feature
of SMS, video, photo, voice and Internet.

The role of community radio is tremendous in natural calamities. A public
radio station with a reach of 15-20km becomes highly powerful with the
integration of mobile telephony in real time. The region, brutalized by
floods, has only three community radios running—Kumaon Vani (Mukteshwar),
Henvalvani (Chamba Valley) and Mandakini Ki Awaz (Rudraprayag). These radio
stations have been broadcasting live programmes that inform and sensitize
communities and tried to reach all flood-affected families.

Since community radio has proved to be an excellent empowering media tool
on the ground, kudos to the government for making it possible that NGOs can
have permits to run such operations. Yet, it takes five ministries to get a
licence, the bottleneck being the ministry of communication and information
technology’s wireless planning and coordination wing, which provides the
wireless operating licence. In the past one year, this wing has not awarded
even a single permit to any of the 239 applicants for public radio stations
although it has collected annual fees from each of them.

In a country like India, where 70% of the people live in rural areas, where
governance is a casualty, information is a miss and media is non-existent,
community radio is a must. It is perhaps time once again for people to come
on the street to demand their permits and the exemption of licence fees as
has been promised by the ministry.

*Osama Manzar is founder-director of Digital Empowerment Foundation and
curator of the mBillionth Awards. He is member of the working group for
Internet proliferation and governance, ministry of communication and
information technology.*
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