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Radio days in Indian villages

By Sandip Das

In villages across nine Indian states listeners are getting hooked on to radio shows featuring women sarpanches and journalists fighting social and economic inequities through panchayati raj institutions. In the process, listeners are spurred on to participate in local institutions of self-governance themselves

An innovative community-based radio programme titled 'Panchayat Vani' (People's Voice), recently broadcast on All India Radio (AIR) Darbhanga, has been spreading awareness about the functioning of panchayati raj institutions in Muzaffarpur, Madhubani and Khagaria districts of Bihar. The pilot initiative, produced by CENCORED in collaboration with the Delhi-based Participatory Research In Asia (PRIA), was initiated in early 2003 to inform local communities about the need to strengthen panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) and ways to strengthen them.

'Panchayat Vani' has prompted Vinita Choudhary, a middle-aged housewife from Benipati block in Bihar's Madhubani district, to participate in the village's next gram sabha meeting. Vinita plans to mobilise the women of the village to attend meetings and help strengthen panchayati raj institutions.

Sister Mercy, a housewife from Kasargod district in Kerala, listened to the radio programme 'Swayambharanam' (Self-governance) on AIR Trivandrum, and became interested in the Kerala Development Plan. In fact, 'Swayambharanam', produced by Sahayi, created a great deal of interest amongst local communities. "This programme helped the people understand the process of governance and also helped elected representatives assess the reactions of the people," says Sumangala Mohan from Nemmeni panchayat in Kasaragod district. 'Swayambharanam' featured talk shows, interviews, panel discussions, responses from the field and the experiences of villagers.

Bhutadia Pravinbhai of Banaskantha district in Gujarat is a fan of the radio programme 'Ganda No Dhabkar' (Heartbeat of the Village) recently broadcast on AIR Ahmedabad, Vadodara and Rajkot. Pravnibhai wants to know more about the gram sabha and development programmes targeted at people living below the poverty line (BPL). The pilot radio programme, developed by Unnati, in collaboration with PRIA, revolves around a characters including a newly-elected sarpanch, an ex-sarpanch, a ward member, etc. Broadcast in Gujarati, the programme depicts the ground realities at the village level and the heroic efforts of a woman sarpanch to fight social and economic inequalities through the gram sabha.

Judging by the listeners' responses (300 written responses for 11 episodes), the impact of the programme, broadcast all over Gujarat, has been significant. A listener from Barwala block in Ahmedabad district, who did not want to be identified, was spurred to write in about the corrupt practices of a government official in distributing land. Another listener, Shivabhai, chairman of the social justice committee of Varna panchayat in Dholka block of the same district, talks about corruption in the Sardar Awas Yojana.

The programme 'Ama Hate Ama Shasana Dori' (We Hold the Power to Rule), which is about the life and work of a journalist, was developed by the Bhubaneswar-based Centre for Youth and Social Development (CYSD). Consisting of 13 weekly episodes, which were broadcast on AIR Cuttack and five other regional centres, the programme tells the story of a journalist who visits a village to mobilise the masses, and subsequently activates the gram panchayat.

Bhopal-based development organisation Samarthan takes the audience through its programme 'Apna Gaon Mein Apna Raj' (Village Self-rule) by focusing on the roles and responsibilities of the gram sabha, gram sabha committees, participation of dalits in gram sabhas, etc. 'Roshini', a programme by the Rohtak-based Nav Yuvak Kala Sangam (NYKS) in Haryana, discusses issues relating to women's participation in panchayats, the role of gram sabhas and various developmental schemes, through talk shows and plays.

These pilot radio programmes have been initiated in the nine Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Kerala, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh. The project, part of PRIA's programme for strengthening panchayati raj institutions, is supported by Ford Foundation While seven states have already completed broadcast, Himachal Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh are in the final stages of production.

In a bid to assess the impact of the radio programme on audiences, the Delhi-based Centre for Media Studies (CMS) has carried out studies in seven states where the programme has already been broadcast. The study revealed that people found radio a potent source of knowledge on development activities and local self-government. While 16% of the people surveyed by the CMS had heard at least one episode of the programme on panchayati raj, around 16.7% had heard the programme more than once. Says B G Verghese, member, Prasar Bharati Board: "Radio has a community-building capacity if you can create interest in the context of what is being broadcast. People identify with the programme and the situation. They feel that they are sharing (their problems) with others."

The CMS study was based on the four critical components of reach, listenership, recall/recognition and relevance/ usage of the radio programme. More than 3,000 people were contacted to identify the 705 respondents interviewed for the study. The study also indicated that non-interactive formats and presentation style were the main hurdles in getting people hooked onto programmes. According to the study, the drama format should be given priority, as its impact was the greatest.

Whatever the outcome of the study, what's heartening is that radio, which reaches almost 90% of India's population, is being accepted as the most popular and effective medium for popularising the concept of panchayati raj in the country.

(Sandip Das is a Delhi-based development journalist.)

InfoChange News & Features, December 2003