In August 1953, B V Keskar, the puritanical Minister of Information and Broadcasting, delivered a broadside on commercial broadcasting. Commercial radio, he said, would fall into the clutches of foreign interests and become a slave to advertising revenue. These forces, Keskar warned, were bound to bring down the quality of radio programmes and convert them into a cheap vaudeville show. Fifty years on, commercial radio is back on the agenda, and the sale of FM frequencies in the year 2000 would have brought no gratification to Keskar.
In India, as in most countries, radio frequencies are held in trust by the government, which licenses these frequencies to broadcasters and other agencies. It took a Supreme Court order in 1995 declaring the airwaves to be public property to persuade the government to give up its monopoly over the FM spectrum and offer frequencies to private parties. However, their first impulse was to sell radio frequencies to the highest bidder, prompting one of the participants at a recent UNDP confab on Community Radio to shout, Does the government of India trust Rupert Murdoch more than its own citizens? He was presumably referring to Radio City which (supported by Murdochs STAR), broadcasts in six Indian cities while community owned and operated radio is yet to get off the ground.
It is instructive to study the development of community (operated) radio in our country where government-run radio and commercial operators are the only broadcasters. Community radio (CR) is traditionally the third tier of broadcasting, after public service broadcasting and commercial radio. While community radio movements flourish in Nepal and Sri Lanka, right in our own neighbourhood, this sector is conspicuous by its absence at home.
Three years after auctioning frequencies to commercial FM, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting framed an initial policy on community radio. However, it restricted licences to well established educational institutions/ organizations, making it quite clear that the government meant campus radio and not community radio. Even so, the guidelines proved so restrictive that, at the last count, only 45 applicants have come forward and only 12 licenses have been issued. On the other hand, Sushma Swaraj, former Minister of Information and Broadcasting, had promised 1000 community stations by 2003.
A solitary campus radio station in Anna University, Chennai, is all there is to show for that noble vision.
Meanwhile, the licensing of commercial FM stations had run into very heavy weather. It soon became clear that the bid amounts for the 108 FM frequencies in 40 cities were wild and fanciful. Company after company pulled out of the FM business, and the flurry of recrimination and litigation that resulted hasnt died down to this day. As the curtain comes down on the first act of the show, the number of commercial broadcasters in the fray is down to 19, and the number of private stations on air is just 22.
To its merit, our government recognized the failure of Phase-I of FM licensing. New Delhi decided to proceed more cautiously with Phase-II. In July 2003, the Ministry of I&B set up a Radio Broadcast Policy Committee under the chairmanship of FICCIs Amit Mitra, to work out a transparent and effective auction process for allotment of radio frequencies. While the Committee was entirely focused on commercial radio, there were some token references to policy for niche and non-commercial channels in its terms of reference. Still, there was not a word about 'community radio'.
True to its primary mandate, the Amit Mitra committee brought out a report whose main concern was to ease the way for private FM broadcasters to switch over from a license-fee regime to a revenue sharing system. Any resemblance to the Telecom model was intentional. But the Mitra Committee demonstrated social concern and recommended a Universal Service Obligation fund to support non-commercial channels. And that is as far as its good intentions went. The Committee said that such non-commercial channels will be initially required in all A+, A and B category towns, followed by its expansion in other cities in the future.
In other words, in Indias villages where more than 2/3rds of our citizens live, local FM stations were not required at all.
But it isn't just in the social angle that the Mitra committee's recommendations may have been in want. While deciding that only cities should have FM channels, one of the particular concerns of the Amit Mitra Committee seems to have been the scarcity of frequencies, and the need to use this scarce resource rationally, efficiently and optimally, presumably by selling them to the highest bidder. In reality, the government, however, has few reasons to agonize over the shortage of radio frequencies.
First, there is a National Frequency Allocation plan for everything from Ham radio to Radio Astronomy. Second, Radio frequencies in the 88 to 108 MHz range are set aside exclusively for FM broadcasting. No less than 34 channels can be accommodated in this range at a single location, allowing for a separation of 400 KHz between channels.
Small wonder that many cities in the developed and developing world -- including Bangkok, Jakarta and Colombo, to name a few in our backyard -- have a clutch of two dozen FM stations. India is an exception, with no more than 6 FM channels in its Metros and perhaps a single FM stereo channel in a dozen other cities. Overall, we do not come close to matching the number and range of radio channels in, say, Thailand, Indonesia, the Philippines, Korea or Malaysia. Indonesias 1000 radio stations or Thailands 500 may seem piffling compared to the USAs 13,000 until one looks at Indias 235 stations, 90% of them run by AIR. Even tiny Philippines has 350 stations and 90% of those are in private hands. And it is not as if any of these countries are poster-nations for democracy and free speech. Large swathes of the electromagnetic spectrum over India lie vacant while the government frets about the scarcity of frequencies.
The government did not act on the Mitra Committee recommendations directly. A new player entered the game early this year. On 19 Jan 2004, New Delhi brought broadcasting under the definition of telecommunication services, effectively making the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) the regulator for both radio and television. A month later, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting sent Mitra Committee report to TRAI for making appropriate recommendations.
This is when our depressing situation took a promising turn.
In response to the Ministrys invitation, TRAI produced a Consultation Paper on FM Radio that proved to be an eye-opener. Boldly interpreting the 10th Plan objective of expanding the reach of FM radio, TRAI said that the licensing process should improve the roll-out of broadcasting services in rural and remote areas, since 70 per cent of our population lives there. The licensing process, said TRAI, should expand the coverage of broadcast services to the unserved areas, particularly north eastern states, border region, hilly terrain and enhance the present 30 per cent population coverage of FM to 60 per cent by the end of the Plan. It pointed out that, in case we continue with the present city wise licenses, there would be no roll out of private FM in rural areas.
Though the TRAI Consultation paper is theoretically based on the Amit Mitra report, it raises issues not dreamt of by the Mitra Committee. For the first time, it uses the C word and asks, what should be the licensing regime for community stations so that these can increase rapidly? It discusses the possibility of provincial and rural licenses to improve roll-out of radio services in unserved areas. It also posits an entirely different and simpler - system of licensing in areas where there is no scarcity of spectrum (read: rural and remote areas). To put it simply, it appears that the telecom regulator has been seized of the social and developmental purposes of radio.
Following up with the release of the consultation paper, TRAI is holding Open House discussions on 7 May in Chennai, 11 May in Delhi and 15 May in Mumbai.
For a copy of the TRAI consultation paper and details about the Open House discussions, click www.trai.gov.in.
Still, the process of consultation goes beyond the consultation paper: TRAI is also holding Open House discussions on the subject - on 7 May in Chennai, 11 May in Delhi and 15 May in Mumbai. (For details, click on the Calendar).
Civil society is seldom given a chance to influence public policy in India. For those who have observed the inaccessibility to public airwaves with growing concern, this is an opportunity to speak up and be heard. Both individually and collectively, we must write to TRAI and address the issues that they have raised. It will give a fillip to the development of CR Policy if the Chennai, Delhi and Mumbai are well attended. Those attending can assert their views on non-commercial radio both for the communities they represent and, more importantly, for the communities that have no voice to be heard in big cities.