After years of turning a deaf ear, the Government of India finally appears to have realised the virtues of community radio in the country. Judged by recent trends, including the rolling of policy for university radio, there is every chance of community radio and community media being endorsed by the law of the land in due course.

The view that the community media and radio could be misused doesn't hold much water. Any medium is vulnerable to misuse. Legitimacy in many ways only reduces the possibility.
Under the "market is the mantra" climate, public/private lines in media have blurred to say the least. Paradoxically the need for these media to play an active role in governance and development has never been starker as it is today. The current Human Development Report statistics confirm this point. India's decline in overall performance despite its democratic institutions has been attributed to disturbing levels of performance particularly in the education and health sectors. Against a backdrop where government and private media's impact on governance has been in many ways tenuous, can community media make a difference?

The good news is that inspite of an unequal playing field; marginalised communities continue to demonstrate simple and powerful ways to ensure that their voices are heard. The question is, will New Delhi listen?

"My experience in Namma Dhwani (Our Voice) is huge. Because of this community audio production centre we can reach 22 villages by narrowcasting programme like agriculture, medical, educational and cultural programmes…" (Balu, community worker, Boodikote village, Kolar District, Karnataka)

"The children come in their free time from nearby villages, they give suggestions and make their own educational programmes …we need these kind (community audio production) centers all around the country (Amresh, community worker, Hunkaldurga village, Kolar District , Karnataka.

Balu and Amresh are two of eight community workers at the Namma Dhwani audio production centre who regularly produce and narrowcast programmes on a range of issues from organic farming, to rain water harvesting, HIV/AIDS, Drip Irrigation and many other local development issues.

The flip side of the coin is, notwithstanding their innovative use of technology to better their lives they have, as yet, been denied the right "broadcast" their own programmes. In the absence of this right Balu, Amresh and their band of seven are compelled to fall back on "narrowcasting" - a process where the audio cassettes are play to relevant community groups at various village centers. Despite these constraints, the impact of the production centre has been significant. Says Mangala Gowri, a member of the team and one of the studio managers," on seeing some of the school children participate in Namma Dhwani, some parents have begun to send their children to school." Other members of the local self help groups who are a part of Namma Dhwani's management committee and a driving force of community development in the area are justifiably gung ho about the centre." By disseminating these programmes, people have been motivated to join self - groups…"

Some members illustrate other examples of how the programmes have improved their lives. "There have been improvements in agriculture in the last two months since people started using organic farming methods."

The raison d'etre for Namma Dhwani is evident even at face value. A partnership between poor farmer groups in the Boodikote sector in Kolar, MYRADA and VOICES (Both NGO's committed to development and communication), the project is situated in Boodikote village about 80 odd kilometers from Bangalore. There is no local radio in the area, which is primarily covered by AIR Bangalore and more peripherally by AIR Kadappa and AIR Chennai situated about 270 kms and 300 kms from Kolar respectively. As Boodikote is on the Karnataka - Andhra Pradesh border, the community speaks a mix of Telegu - Kannada which does not even appear on the fringes of AIR Broadcasting. Admittedly, All India Radio Bangalore has played a facilitative role in terms of technical support and has even broadcast - from time to time - programmes made by the community. However not surprisingly, it is unable to regularly service the local information needs of the community. As a community member points out, "their language and ours is different." Moreover, it is unlikely that the local community would open up to mass media groups in the same way as they would to other members of the community.

Underlying all this, is the enormous potential that community radio could offer this region in the context of development. A survey carried out by MYRADA about two and a half years ago and which covered about 3000 families in the Boodikote sector affirmed that about "64.8 per cent of the families are below the poverty line." Most of their occupations come from agriculture and coolie labour. It hardly needed reiteration to underscore that radio could be a vital player in bridging the gap between illiteracy and development. Its relevance wasn't only echoed by the local community. Inspired by the community's efforts to use audio/radio as a medium to better their lives, UNESCO came forward and supported the construction of a full-fledged professional audio analogue studio that was inaugurated in September 2001.

Since then, the Namma Dhwani team has come a long way. On the one hand, the community centre continues its informal association with All India Radio. Programmes produced by the community continue to be broadcast from time to time from AIR Bangalore. At the same time, narrowcasting programmes on a weekly basis link the centre to about 34 villages in the Boodikote sector.

The audio production centre however, has also enabled the team to touch the lives of the local community in various innovative ways. Every Tuesday, the village santhe/mandi (market) takes place just outside the production centre. Spices, vegetables, clothes take centre stage - transforming the area into a colourful, bustling arena. It is also a time when people outside Boodikote - from nearby villages - visit the market. For about an hour in the evening when the market is particularly popular, the Namma Dhwani team gets their act together. It's simple and it always generates an encore: The team narrowcasts relevant social and economic messages and announcements, using loudspeakers to get across to the crowds at the market place. Information about goods being sold, and crop prices jostle for space between social messages and even birthday greetings. Everybody buys into the idea: the local vendors, the consumers and even the occasional tourist.

The narrowcasts have in many ways brought Namma Dhwani in touch with the larger community. Says Usha Rani, a student at the nearby school, "I know Namma Dhwani from the announcements about vegetable prices during the Tuesday market. Like Usharani, several other school children participate in making audio programmes on a number of local issues. These are subsequently narrowcast through audio cassettes at educational and community centers. This mix of knowledge and fun has reaped positive dividends.

Prema studying in class six says, "I have made many programmes in this place about cruelty towards animals by man, protests against animal sacrifice and various other topics…" Her ambition is: "I want my story to be played on air."

Munichandra studies in class eight. After his induction into the audio production centre, he is determined to make radio programmes. He says, "I have come to the Namma Dhwani center many times. I have seen all my friends come here and make the programmes…This gives me a lot of pleasure."

Sharada another student from Class eight wishes that Namma Dhwani programmes would include "computer education and the news." Sridhar, from Class 7 is more pragmatic. "I know the Namma Dhwani center very well. I have heard plays and music programmes that have been made in the studio I have joined many of my school friends and given programmes related to education… ". Sundar Reddy, a year senior agrees with him, but would like to hear programmes on general knowledge. We want to know about the news here, in the country and the world."

The enthusiasm of these children is palpable. But herein lies the rub. Can, narrowcasting provide sufficient and sustainable sustenance? In a bid to enhance community participation, the Namma Dhwani audio production centre is connected by cable to the local school in the village. Programmes made by the children and other members of the community are 'cable cast' regularly. If audience response is anything to go by, these programmes need to be broadcast in every home.

Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights has clearly endorsed the Right to Communicate "without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers." Strengthening the case for community radio legitimacy in the country was the Supreme Court judgement of 1995 declaring the airwaves are public property. But it is not solely from a rights based perspective that the case for community radio requires articulation. The Right to Information movement in the country has gained increasing relevance and momentum. Five states already have the act in place underscoring the recognition that information and its access is a critical requisite if the gap between the rich and the poor needs to be bridged. Community media, especially community radio could provide a vital bridge in such a development paradigm.

The view that the medium could be misused doesn't hold much water. Any medium is vulnerable to misuse. Legitimacy in many ways reduces the possibility. This is amply demonstrated by the community radio experiences of our neighbours - Sri Lanka and Nepal. Kothmale's much loved Community Radio station continued to function at the height of Tamil insurgency. Nepal's experience goes arguably a step further. The government and the Sri Lankan Broadcasting Corporation support Kothmale Radio, while Nepal boasts a number of independent community radio stations. Notwithstanding Maoist uprisings, these radio stations act as critical hubs of community information.

Neither does an oft-repeated argument questioning the number of existing demonstrable models seem relevant in the current context. Like Namma Dhwani, other less privileged communities in Pastapur in Andhra Pradesh, Kutch district in Gujarat and Lesligunj and Panki divisions, Jharkhand demonstrate tangible examples of community participation in radio and audio. All these initiatives could play a powerful role in the battle against poverty and illiteracy. How long must they be compelled to remain marginalised voices waiting in the wings?