Other Voices

"When we hear on the radio that another village’s problems have been solved, we will also make an effort to do something about our own situation."
An extract from VINOD PAVARALA and KANCHAN K MALIK’s book on community radio.

Book extract:

 

Other Voices

The Struggle for Community Radio in India, pp. 202-209

Sage Publishers India Pvt. Ltd. 2007

 

 

BUILDING SOLIDARITIES: PUTTING THE COMMUNITY FIRST

 

 

Alternative media as a vehicle of participatory democracy and a resource for community development help local populations to reconnect with the civic and cultural life of their communities. In the face of a nexus between the national government and the corporates to control commercial and political power, community media are key to creating a strong, socially responsible civil society and to promote local democracy. Many scholars have noted that involvement in alternative media production can be politically empowering for participants (Atton, 2002; Downing, 2001). In contrast to mainstream media, which consistently have been found to exclude the voices of ordinary citizens, alternative media offer spaces that broaden the scope of public debate by introducing topics and participants

generally excluded by mainstream media. Streitmatter (2001) argues that alternative media have the potential to serve as conduits for the political agendas and have helped ignite social movements through their advocacy of various disenfranchised social groups. Culturally and politically, such media may thus be considered as ‘oppositional’ in intent, as their ‘information for action’ has social change at their

heart (Atton, 2001b: 6). This harmonises with Williams’ (1983: 250) optimism that the culture of the new social movements, while being termed an ‘alternative’ culture, was ‘at its best ... always an oppositional culture’ (as cited in Atton, 2001b: 16).

 

During our field trips, we asked why people would want to listen to the programme even when their own village and its problems do not always figure prominently. While people were eager to have the problems of their village being represented in the programme, they offered a much broader understanding of the functions of a radio programme such as Chala Ho Gaon Mein. The following exchange among members of the focus group at Mahe-Dema reveals their hope that the programme can help forge some kind of solidarity among the marginalised sections. Keshav Ram: Even if there is no benefit to our village, other villages in the neighbourhood are gaining something from the programme. At least it is the poor somewhere who are getting benefited.

 

Loki Mahato: When we hear on the radio that another village’s problems have been solved, we will also make an effort to do something about our own situation. Tilak Singh: We hope that when someone else could develop, so will we. We feel happy that some development is taking place somewhere (FGD). In order to assess what people are deriving from the programme, beyond the tangible benefits, we asked all the focus groups, ‘How would you feel if this programme is stopped from next week? What difference does it make to your lives?’ Apart from those who reacted with utter disbelief at the suggestion, responses ranged from the more philosophical to those who felt it would stop all development in the area. Shashikant Mahato, a 22-year-old visually impaired man in village Pipra, thought that the programme promoted an atmosphere of debate and discussion on important issues, such asilliteracy and child marriage. In his words, the programme has ‘brought light to those who have been living in darkness’ (andhkar mein jo log rahte hain, unko prakash milta hai).

 

Fifty-six-year old Jogeshwar Singh, a small farmer in village Dema, retorted angrily to our hypothetical question. ‘Close down the programme, no problem. If the programme is coming today, we listen. If that were stopped, we would not even come to know what’s  happening outside’ (FGD).

 

Radhakrishna Oraon, a 25-year-old teacher in AID’s non-formal school from Purushottampur, predicted dire consequences if the programme were to be stopped. It will certainly make a lot of difference. Word does not reach from one village to the other. Society will remain just the same—poverty and unemployment. We eagerly wait for the programme every week. We like it. If you stop broadcasting this programme, our villages will become weaker. People gain some experience from listening to the programme, there is some influence (FGD).

 

Sixty-year-old Loki Mahato of Mahe was confident that the programme has had a positive effect on the lives of the people. ‘When all of Jharkhand listens to us, including the minister and the MLA, everyone will come to know that the people of our village are now awakened. Through radio, we started understanding each other’s problems better and we started tackling them together. We got new strength’ (FGD).

 

An educated young man, Ajay Kumar in village Cheri called Chala Ho ‘a tonic’ for the people in the region. Prakash Narayan, one of the community reporters for the programme, suggested that one of the significant gains from Chala Ho is the coming out of women  from their homes to participate in public life. This view finds its echo in the opinion expressed by 21-year-old Sanjukta Devi, who is an active member of a self-help group in village Cheri. ‘We women were earlier very inhibited. When the men used to sit outside for discussions, we used to sit inside. Today, after this programme, we feel we too have a voice and are confident to come out of the house to even take part in processions’ (FGD).

 

The Ujjas radio programmes’ popularity in the Kutch region is to a large extent because of its focus on locally relevant issues. The community reporters of KMVS travel in and around the villages, carrying back with them reports of local problems and developments, folk songs and folk tales from the region, and record plays on local issues with performers from the villages. When broadcast, these issues strike a chord in the listener invoking instant recognition of familiar names and places and forging solidarity among those placed in a similar socio-economic situation. ‘Also, because it talks about our daily problems and issues—Hamari baat radio par aati hai.’ The community reporters say that it is their responsibility to highlight people’s problems at the village level and help give a voice to the marginalised. The programmes of KMVS use local folklore, legends, music and characters to voice silenced cultures and to stoke up a debate between tradition and modernity. The programme, they add, is also aimed at giving opportunities for suppressed artistic talent (dabe hue kalakar).

 

The space for the rural poor within public media is consistently shrinking and the private media have always been oriented towards urban, young, rich people and the elite. DDS people, therefore, gradually started looking at autonomous media that would be rooted in the ground realities of the region, so that people can identify with its content. Pushpalata, a 40-year-old single woman from Pastapur puts it succinctly: We want to talk about Saama and Sajja (some minor grains). We are always talking about marginalised grains, marginalised people, marginalised language and marginalised issues. This does not interest the mainstream radio. This is the reason we should have our own radio to allow us to discuss our issues  (FGD).

 

The 36-year-old karyakarta (active member) of the Bidekanne sangam, Samamma, pointed out definite advantages of ‘our radio’ over the ‘government’ radio in terms of local appeal:They talk about issues happening in our country, which we do not listen to so often, where as our radio talks about our problems, our difficulties, our agriculture, our development. We make these cassettes, so we find them very interesting. We have got special affection towards this radio, because the people who talk in it belong to our villages, our community. We feel very happy when we hear familiar voices. We often discuss with each other about that. The people of our village feel proud about the people who talk in it (FGD).

 

 In the focus groups where we had assembled the radio committee of DDS, the members said that their radio programmes always covered issues that touched the lives of the people directly and came out with several examples. Machnoor Raju said that there are programmes ‘about festivals, about Dalits, poor people, and divorced women, about women who are away from their husbands due to quarrel and about farmers when there are no rains and no crops, or if the crop of a farmer gets damaged because of excess rainwater.’

 

When we made a suggestion that the government could be persuaded to open a radio station here that could help preserve their language, culture and talk about their issues, a 28-year-old Dalit woman, Metlakunta Susilamma, reacted: We can’t accept government radio. It becomes their propaganda tool. They will go to a village and say we have given so many buffaloes in this village; we have given so much land in this village... that radio will not allow poor women to dialogue on their own problems and issues. Our radio helps us in our own analysis of our experiences and our problems (FGD).

 

Algole Narsamma pointed out the difference between their and mainstream radio. ‘Mostly they will advertise on fertilisers, pesticides or Colgate paste or on soaps. We will do the programmes that will be useful for the poor. We will take poor people, village people, but they will go for educated people’ (interview).

 

‘General’ Narsamma elaborated further: Those programmes are meant for only big farmers—how much fertiliser to put; how much DAP to mix; which pesticide to use—what we are doing is only for small farmers. How much organic manure you have; when to breed cattle; where to buy the seeds; And how to store them. We will explain about the crops which will give good strength like jowar, korra, etc. How our people are using hybrid food grains and facing health problems; how people should send their children to school—all this is useful to the public and for me also (interview).

 

The popularity of Namma Dhwani in Budhikote, Karnataka may be gauged from the fact that people in the villages surrounding Budhikote also wish to be connected through cable to access its programmes. Several volunteers, who assist in the production of programmes and in covering local events, belong to the villages of

the larger Budhikote sector. They are unable to listen to the programmes and are hoping that the license to broadcast would be given soon for the sake of other villages.

 

Twenty-three-year-old Hamesh, a volunteer from Linkaldurga village, says, ‘When we see things here [Budhikote village], we feel that what all is happening is good. But how will the people in the other villages know? We know that Namma Dhwani hasn’t got the  permission, but then what about the other villagers? There has to be

some way to give them access also.’ His associate Baithapa from Kotur village adds, ‘We are not doing this for our own sake, but from the point of view of the people. We are doing this so that the surrounding areas and we ourselves can improve’ (FGD).

 

Women in all focus groups in Budhikote village were keen to see all-round prosperity in their village and considered sanghas as a means to prosper and to ‘stretch out our hands for those who are relatively more poor and underprivileged.’ The women informed that there are various castes and sub-castes in the village. There are people belonging to both scheduled caste (SC) and scheduled tribe in

the village. The Ambedkar (SC/Dalit) colony is separate, at a distance of 1 km. From the discussions with the management committee it was clear that Dalit women too have joined the sanghas. The members said that after they had joined the sanghas, people sit and talk with them. ‘Earlier they weren’t admitted inside the compound.

 

Now they are. Though they can’t enter the house they have got the chance to come till the door.’ The Muslims are treated at par but the backward caste people are still singled out in several ways. ‘It will change slowly,’ the women said and acknowledged that Namma Dhwani was promoting this change by providing open access to ‘all kinds of people—there is no discrimination here.’

 

Twenty-six-year old vegetable vendor Triveni, a member of the management committee said, They also have a chance of progressing and associating with members of other sanghas. If they prosper, there’s no problem in that—they too must have the chance—if we move up and leave them there, it will not be good. We are all the children of one mother, humanity. Namma Dhwani provides a means

for all sanghas to come together—otherwise, you live to yourselves and we

live to ourselves (FGD).

 

FORGING SUBALTERN COUNTERPUBLICS

 

Community radio may thus be seen as providing to the marginalised an arena, outside the state apparatus, that may be used as a potent instrument for democratic deliberations and negotiations. Such an institutionalised space for discursive interaction and for political participation through the medium of talk could be looked at as an alternative post-bourgeois model of public sphere that Habermas (1962; translation: 1989) stops short of developing in The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere.

 

While Habermas’ idea of the public sphere is indispensable to the understanding of democratic political practices, certain assumptions underlying the concept are problematic. His assumptions that proliferation of other forms of public discourse and activity necessarily weakens the democratic attributes of the single allinclusive public sphere or that it is possible for interlocutors in a public sphere to bracket status differentials and deliberate as if they are social equals are farfetched in stratified societies. Also, his bourgeois conception of the public sphere stresses its claim to be open and accessible to all but in practice women of all classes and

ethnicities were excluded from official political participation on the basis of gender status, while plebeian men were formally excluded by property qualification.

 

Fraser (1992) critiques the singularity of Habermas’ public sphere and argues that arrangements that accommodate contestations among a plurality of competing publics better promote the ideal of participatory parity than does a single, comprehensive overarching public.  She claims that such a public sphere tends to operate to the advantage of dominant groups and renders subordinate social groups less able to articulate and defend their interests. She proposes the forging of what she calls subaltern counterpublics, spheres parallel to that of the dominant social category where ‘members of subordinate social groups invent and circulate counter discourses to formulate oppositional interpretations of their identities, interests and needs’ (Fraser, 1992:123). She claims that subaltern counterpublics on the one hand, function as spaces of withdrawal and regroupment; and on the other they also function as bases and training grounds for agitational activities directed towards wider publics. This dialectic enables subaltern counterpublics partially to offset, although not wholly to eradicate, the unjust participatory privileges enjoyed by members of dominant social groups.

 

Our analysis of community radio initiatives suggests that they offer to people opportunities to debate issues and events of common concern and to set counter-hegemonic agendas. Such forging of subaltern counterpublics through a process of shifting control of media technologies to those excluded and marginalised from the dominant public sphere helps expand the discursive space, which could eventually facilitate collective action and offer a realistic emancipatory potential.

 

NOTE

1. Representatives of governments, international and regional organisations,

civil society and the private sector attended the second phase of the UN convened World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) held in Tunis from 16–18 November 2005. The agenda was to promote people’s access to and use of information and knowledge for human development.

 

 

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