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Community radio falls silent

New Delhi, Oct. 26: A radio revolution the government expected to unleash has come to naught.

The government had claimed that up to a 1,000 community radio services would begin by the end of the year following a new policy approved by the cabinet in December 2002.

The report card: not one institution has been granted a licence. Not even one is half way into getting a licence.

In early January, Union information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj had announced the government’s decision to allow higher educational institutions and non-government organisations to set up community radio stations.

Her successor in the ministry, Ravi Shankar Prasad, promised that he would take the policy further, convince his colleagues in other ministries that community radio would be both a value added to education and a risk-free enterprise.

But a month later, the government moved to actually yank a community radio service off the air.

The department of telecommunication seized a transmitter set up by a World Bank-funder and state-government supported programme in Andhra Pradesh. Mana Radio, run by the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty, has not been up since.

Despite the move, the I&B ministry has projected a friendly face to potential community radio operators.

The ministry has been urging the Indian Institutes of Management, the Indian Institutes of Technology and public schools to apply and has also extended help.

A division of Prasar Bharati called AIR Resources has actually set up studios in higher education institutions for a fee and allowed them to use outdated low-power transmitters. More than 20 institutions applied for licences.

The policy allows institutions to set up transmitters with capacity up to 50 watts. In the plains, this would service a radius of about 20 km.

But the applicants are so caught in the bureaucratic tangle that few expect licences to be issued unless the procedure is streamlined.

Under the rules, community radio hopefuls have to apply to the secretary in the information and broadcasting ministry.

The applications are to be vetted and cleared by no less than five ministries — I&B, communications (Wireless Planning Commission), human resources development, home and even external affairs and defence.

Although licence fees have been waived, the WPC will levy a spectrum charge that could be about Rs 4 lakh annually.

After the ministries, the application will have to get the clearance of the Standing Advisory Committee on Radio Frequency Allocations.

Sources in the I&B ministry say other ministries often accord community radio applications low priority, if they do, or raise questions on the credentials of the service operator. Last month, the home ministry had expressed reluctance to grant clearance to Jammu University, an applicant.

Prasar Bharati officials now say that with FM radio to be expanded further to about 70 cities, community radio could be stillborn.

All India Radio is selling time to NGOs — such as in Palamu in Jharkhand and in the quake-affected Kutch in Gujarat — to buy time on its local bands and air development programmes.

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