The postman hands over a bunch of postcards to the Ranchi branch office of Alternative for India Development (AID), an NGO that has been working in the areas of empowerment, gender and social equality since 1982. The first postcard, which has come all the way from a village in the interiors of Jharkhand, has words of joy scrawled on it. A woman has written in to say that after listening to 'Chala Ho Gaon Mein', which is part of the community radio programme that is broadcasted on the AIR, her alcoholic husband has been making an effort to control his drinking problem. Another woman writes that the episode about educating girls, prompted her to send her 12-year-old daughter to the village school. Someone else says that the advice they dole out on radio has helped her improve the economic situation of the family.
The Ranchi office of AID receives scores of such postcards every month in response to the six programmes that are part of its community radio initiative. 'Villagers send in postcards with messages about the impact that the programmes have had on their lives and societies,' says Alok Deo Singh, the Project Manager at AID. While some of them talk about the change in their attitude on issues like child marriage and education for girls, others send in issues that they want featured on the programmes.
The community radio programme was started by AID in 2001. It had already been working on various issues concerning the villagers and tribals of the area which include lack of proper information and access to mainstream media, ignorance about basic rights and other problems such as those of rural migration, starvation deaths etc.'We realized that all these problems were stemmed from the fact that the people of the region were unable to express themselves and speak freely about the problems that they were facing. So, setting up a radio programme seemed like a good way to give a voice to the voiceless. A programme for the villagers and by the villagers that would not only address their issues and make them more aware, but would also reach out to other people who could make a difference to their lives.' explains Alok, 'Programmes on radio were a distant concept for these people till then and they could never imagine their own voices and issues being aired through this medium. But once 'Chala Ho Gaon Mein' was launched, most of them were very enthusiastic about it and many of them wanted to participate.'
'Chala Ho Gaon Mein', broadcast in the Nagahi language, initially dealt with social issues like child marriage, alcoholism, dowry deaths and education for the girl child. But over the years, it has started addressing local governance issues in the episode. Also earlier broadcast once a week; the programme is now aired twice a week. The programmes are broadcast on the AIR as well as narrowcast in Gram Sabha meetings, village fairs and bazaars and other social events. Issues are also addressed in cultural forms, where villagers put up street plays to create awareness.
Narrated and prepared by radio reporters, the complete process of putting together a programme involves identifying issues, brainstorming sessions, scripting, rehearsing the module and then recording the 30-minute programme in the NGO's studio, before it is handed over to the AIR for broadcasting. Alok explains that they buy time slots on AIR for their programmes, but are in the process of setting up their own radio station at Meral village in the Garhwa district of Jharkhand.
AID has also carried out follow-up studies to track the impact that community radio has had on the villagers. From a decrease in dowry deaths to an increase in the number of girls going to school; an improvement in the PDA system and the working of the local schools, 'Chala Ho Gaon Mein' is helping the villagers help themselves, one step at a time.
Amader Awaj, which means 'our voice' in Bengali, works towards health awareness. Broadcast in Santhali and Bengali, this radio programme educates people about AIDS, STDs and health issues concerning women and adolescents. 'There are quite a few national highways as we move towards Orissa and West Bengal, and the dhabas that flank the roads are places that many poor women from the hinterland throng to , to eke out a living as a sex worker. Most of them contract STDs and through our programme, we try to educate the villagers about tests and treatments,' says Alok.
'Amader Awaj' has also been able to educate people about the basic health facilities that they can avail at the local health centers and Government health departments. An influx of patients in the local clinics, more people visiting the HIV testing center at Dharagorha and pregnant women seeking information on nourishment and health, are some positive signs reflecting the impact that the programme has had.
'Abua Hature Abua Raj', another programme that is narrated in Ho, the tribal language of the West Singhum region, also deals with health issues. Apart from that, the programme works towards making people aware of their rights and entitlements. 'There are certain Acts sanctioned by the Constitution of India that have been created with the aim of granting rights and protection to the tribal people. But because they were not aware of this till now, many of the multi-national companies which seek out the region to set up power plants and mica mining plants, take the people for a ride,' explains Alok.
Inspired by the episodes on 'Abua Hature Abua Ra'j, the tribals of the region have formed a self-help group called the 'Ho Samaj', which fights for the rights of fellow tribals. Another programme, 'Abua Disum Abua Raj', which translates into 'our rule in our village', highlights the various government schemes that villagers can avail of. Enlightened by the knowledge, people have started tackling their governance issues at the Gram Sabha level.
'Awaz Aapki Prayas Hamari', is for the 13% of the population that lives in the slums of Ranchi, under harsh conditions and without any civic amenities. The episodes focus on health, housing, labour wages, rations, provisions for migrants, sanitation and drug abuse.
Alok tells us how this programme caught the attention of a Ward Commissioner, who finally installed taps and tube wells for fresh drinking water in the slums. He shares another incident where an episode about the lack of toilets in Government schools, prompted the authorities to build some for the students.
The sixth programme has been started recently and is broadcast in Orissa. Aimed at health awareness, this programme is in the process of educating people of the three deadly diseases that plague the region i.e. TB, HIV and Malaria.
The programmes not only help the listeners who huddle around their modest radios and transistors to listen to programmes exclusively created for them, but also empower the radio reporters who come forward to participate in the programmes.
'Quite a few of the reporters are women who have been working in self-help groups created by the NGO and it's generally the ones who are bright, helpful and active in community activities, who come forward.' Alok explains that while the confident ones choose to narrate and enact the stories, there are other villagers who come forward to create the music score or participate in mimicry. The community radio programme draws them out from their shy selves and gives them a mission in life - a mission to educate their fellow villagers, an aim to help their own cause and work for the betterment of their community.