Rural Indians turn to radio over Maoists

Tired of violence, some villagers shun both the government and the rebels and find their own voice.

When villagers in this restive corner of India realized that an official was siphoning off food and fuel meant for the poor, they had a choice. They could go to the authorities, or turn to Maoist rebels.

Worried the government would get bogged down in bureaucracy and the Maoists would only invite bloodshed, the villagers chose a new route: They broadcast their case on community radio.

After their report aired two years ago, administrators were questioned, and the corrupt official was promptly sacked. Distribution of food essentials resumed. Soon after, residents of a nearby village followed suit and drove out an official who was pilfering rice and wheat.

"Such action is unprecedented. It made us marginalized people heard for the first time," says Satendra Kumar Mehta, a local farmer who exposed the Bauraha official on the radio. "It solved our problem."

Tired of the daily toll of Maoist violence, rural people in India's Jharkhand state are experimenting with radio as a potent new tool that promises social transformation – without bloodshed and gore.

"They [the Maoists] come and kill the corrupt. But that doesn't solve our problem," Mr. Mehta says. "Community radio [on the contrary] empowers people to kill corruption."

Local villagers say they are excited to find a voice of their own on the airwaves. During broadcasts, people gather at village schools and community halls with a radio set – still beyond the means of many – for group listening. Many villagers – literate and illiterate alike – actively report stories, and participate in making these radio programs.

Alternative for India Development (AID), a grass-roots nongovernmental organization runs two 30-minute radio programs a week called "Come, let's go to our village" on the government-owned All India Radio. The effort began four years ago in Jharkhand state, and several NGOs are running similar programs in other parts of India.

The program has raised local issues menacing rural people including dowries, feudalism, child labor, alcoholism, education, and healthcare. Slowly, villagers are realizing the power of radio to solve their issues. Often, a story is taken up to shame the torpid administration into action.

Through repeated broadcasts, villagers across Jharkhand were alerted of their rights to demand employment from the government through India's ambitious new Rural Employment Guarantee Program. After hearing of it on the radio, a group of 200 women in the village of Merul barricaded the local Block Development Officer in his office for two days, after he failed to provide work to them. He was let out only after he promised to provide work to all villagers through the program.

A 2001 study by the US-based Rockefeller Foundation says that community radio is one of the best tools to reach the marginalized segments of society who lack other means of communication. The study notes that experiences from Latin America, dating as far back as the 1940s, have demonstrated the potential of community radio for social change – especially in third-world rural areas. And with community radio stations multiplying by the thousands all over the world in the past five decades, the same was being repeated in Asia and Africa.

Radio, analysts say, has several comparative advantages over other media as a tool for social change and participatory communication. It is cost-efficient, for those who run the station and the audiences. Its language and content can be targeted to local needs.

"Ours is a program of the poor, by the poor, and for the poor [using the] power of the radio medium for peaceful social change," says K.T. Arasu, the director of AID. Stories on AID's radio program are presented in the local Maghi dialect, mostly in the form of a musical play. It's something ordinary villagers, many of whom are illiterate, find easy to relate to.

A recent study by Sudhir Pal, the founder of Manthan, a group that runs another community radio program in Jharkhand, reveals that community radio is far more effective in highlighting issues from India's remote countryside than the mainstream media. In the scramble of news pertaining to cities, issues of poverty and development in rural areas get overlooked.

India's Maoists, or Naxalites, claim to be battling government corruption and indifference in the name of those at the bottom rung of society. But that effort, many counter, has come through unlawful means. Naxalites are infamous for imposing "levies" or taxes – between 20 to 30 percent – on those carrying out infrastructure projects in their "domain." Highway contractors, builders, and local businessmen trading in forest produce are all forced to cough up "their share."

The Naxalites are also known to rally the masses and call general strikes – partly by intimidation of the gun.

"We're socialists, too, but our lethal weapons are words, not weapons," says Suresh Kumar, a coordinator with AID. "[Unlike Naxalites] we don't gather masses at gunpoint. We gather them by lending a voice to issues that affect them."

However, Naxalites maintain that in a large, iniquitous society with a diverse population, India can only survive under a socialist regime – and to reach that end, violence is necessary. "Otherwise the rich will get richer, and the poor will only get poorer," says a Maoist leader in an interview in Jharkhand. "An armed agrarian war is the only effective way to make the system break."

A local Naxalite outfit has warned AID to stop their radio program in the region. Two years ago, they gutted one of their audiovisual vans. And the rebels often browbeat local reporters from AID. While the Maoists refused to comment on this issue, many here view this friction as a sign of insecurity over losing influence.

"We must probe for means other than violence," says a former Naxalite. He left the movement out of exasperation with the bloodshed that has left nearly 100 people dead this year in this region alone. Part of mainstream society again, the former rebel now works in community radio, but fears the occasional tiffs with former colleagues.

The government has also been slow to embrace the radio effort. Despite a 1995 court ruling that the airwaves are public, community groups haven't been given licenses to establish their own stations. Broadcasting out of a government-owned station curbs their editorial freedom.

"History teaches us that nonviolent methods are always slow," says Mr. Kumar. "Our results however, are lasting, not ephemeral. We create options for villagers. Unlike the Maoists, we never impose our ways."

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