CR broadcasters protest spectrum fee hike



CR broadcasters protest spectrum fee hikeTej Prakash Yadav/ OneWorld South Asia

While the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting looks at ways to promote community radio in the country, an order by the Ministry of Communications and Information Technology to hike spectrum royalties has confounded community radio advocates.

A move by the Government of India to increase fee for using spectrum has invited wide-ranging criticism from the fraternity of community radio operators in the country.

The restlessness comes in the wake of an order issued by the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology that ordains a new formula for calculation of the royalty charges for assignments of frequencies to `Captive Users`.

According to the order, community radio stations across the country will now pay a royalty of Rs 91,000 against an earlier fee of Rs 19,700. The money accounts for an annual spectrum fee, mandatory for continuing operations.
The steep hike has come to light following the Wireless and Planning Co-ordination Wing (WPC) of the Ministry of Communication and Information Technology serving a notice to the Director of Radio Madhuban, a CR Station operating from Rajasthan, along the country’s western border.

According to report in the Hindi language daily Dainik Hindustan, officials of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MoIB), and WPC have confirmed the decision. MoIB is planning to take up the matter with the Ministry of Communication headed by Kapil Sibal.

Notably, the community radio is an effective means of communication in a state like Rajasthan, given the huge distances between villages and the difficulties people face in accessing information.

While the government’s proposal to increase the annual spectrum fee pertains to all the spectrum users, yet the community radio broadcasters would be most impacted by the fiat. India has over 130 functional community radio stations, 38 of which are operated by grassroots and non-profit, community based organisations.

The spectrum fees have been raised across the board. It is a crippling blow to the community radio movement in the country, which unlike the commercial FM radio business will not be able to take the beating. The move is particularly crippling because, given the nature of community radio stations they cannot generate revenues like commercial FM radio channels.

Interestingly, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting values the service these community radio services offer despite a dearth of resources. Most community radio stations are beset with problem of revenue generation and struggle to sustain themselves financially.

The steep hike in annual spectrum fee has not only attracted condemnation from the operating and aspiring community radio stations, but also from agencies providing financial and technical support to the community radio movement in India.
Unacceptable frequency

The Community Radio Association of India (CRAI), a body representing more than 50 functional community radio stations across the country, has strongly condemned the decision taken by the WPC Wing. In a letter issued on its website, CRAI has termed this move as “unreasonable, illogical and unacceptable”. Arti Jaiman, Director of Gurgaon ki Awaaz and an office bearer of the Community Radio Forum, has described the action of WPC as a direct attempt to kill the community radio movement.

Members of CRAI are planning to take up the issue with the ministry at National Consultation for the review of CR policy which is being organised on 9th and 10th May 2012 in New Delhi. Likewise, CRAI’s South Zone has passed a resolution demanding an immediate rollback. “This step would hit the existing stations hard and dissuade the educational institutions/NGOs interested in establishing new station,” the resolution reads.

Posting her protest on Facebook Rukmini Vemaraju, Programme Officer at Commonwealth Educational Media Centre in Asia, an organisation supporting many of the government’s programmes on Community Radio, has urged the community radio fraternity in the country to take up the matter strongly and demand a roll back. In her wall-post on Facebook, Rukmini said that the “decision would not only discourage the new community radio applicants but also to the existing community radio stations who are already facing financial crunch”.

The decision of WPC Wing has come as a jolt to the Indian Community Radio Movement, which in fact has been mulling for the review of existing community radio policy in the country. Now, in the tenth year of its journey, the community radio has been a slow start in India as opposed to its less developed neighbours, Nepal and Sri Lanka, precisely because of the promotion of the community radio as a means of communication in those countries. The Ministry for Information and Broadcasting has, of course, tried very much for promoting the community radio as a means of radio communication in the far-off communities in the country.
Confusing signals

Shashwati Goswami, Associate Professor at Indian Institute of Mass Communication, was especially critical of the move. Speaking to this correspondent on the issue, she said that the government was never serious in their attempt to encourage community radio movement in the country. “It will gag the grassroots organisation and then the government will have all the excuses in place to give away the spectrum to the private players,” she said.

During the second National CR Sammelan held in February this year, Uday Kumar Varma, Secretary, of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, unveiled a seven point agenda for community radio stations in the country.

“Financial sustainability is an important issue and the mechanical response to financial sustainability is to that the government should come out to support CR stations financially. However, there are several problems like, what should be the mode of this funding. We need to do more than what we are doing now,” Varma had said.

As the agenda goes, the government envisages setting up more than a thousand community radio stations by 2015.

The move by the government to hike the fee is, therefore, confusing observers, especially because the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting plans to set up a community radio fund to provide financial support to the community radio network.

(The views expressed in the article are of the writer.)