By Angela Walker
SHIVPURI, India, 13 November 2009 – Ramvati Adivasi didn’t let the fact that she can’t read or write stand in the way of her burgeoning radio career. Today she’s conducting interviews, editing programmes on the computer and performing scripts as a member of a newly inaugurated local radio station, Dharkan 107.8 FM.
“My name is known in the community as a radio person,” said Ms. Adivasi, who wore a beautiful blue sari and sparkling red bangles. Traditional tattoos decorated her arms. Her work at the station has brought her new respect, she added.
Residents of Shivpuri, located in India’s Madhya Pradesh State, turned out in force for the recent launch of the station, which will broadcast to scores of villages in a 15-kilometre radius of the city. Traditional musicians beat drums, while girls with bells tied around their ankles danced in celebration.
The crowd burst into peals of laughter when a programme was played, featuring Ms. Adivasi as a difficult mother-in-law arguing against exclusive breastfeeding.
Rather than preaching educational messages, the station uses humour and local entertainers to inform its audiences.
A voice in media
Dharkan 107.8 FM is collaboration between the community near Shivpuri, the district administration, two non-governmental organizations – Ideosync Media Combine and Sambhav – and UNICEF. Besides education, the station’s goals include improving community participation and giving villagers a voice in media.
A large proportion of the Shivpuri community is made up of traditionally disadvantaged groups. Nineteen per cent are so-called ‘scheduled tribe’ members, like Ms. Adivasi, and 11 per cent are ‘scheduled caste’ members.
A recent survey found that radio was the medium most readily accessible to the community; more than half of respondents said they tuned in several times a day. The survey also found that the audience wanted to participate in programming.
Radio technology has advanced so far that it doesn’t take much more than mobile phones and laptop computers to get a radio station off the ground. The project in Shivpuri costs only a few hundred US dollars per month to maintain.
“Electronic media was once accessed only by the elite in cities,” said N. Ramakrishnan of Ideosync. “Now mobiles, the Internet and globalization have changed that entire process. It’s liberating communication that gives people a platform.”
Community members, who may have little or no formal education, can use icons and to perform basic editing, added Mr. Ramakrishnan. “It’s quite easy to do, because they all know how to listen. You are only limited by your imagination,” he said.
Vandana Dube, the station’s first manager, helps to produce programmes on hygiene, health and the importance of education. She said that listening groups, which have formed throughout the district, are having a major impact.
In particular, more women are now contributing to important debates on caste discrimination, female foeticide and female empowerment – issues that concern them directly.
“People listen to the radio very seriously,” said Ms. Dube. The medium, she believes, “will have a real impact and help them to speak out.”
Ms. Dube works long hours, often arriving home at 10 p.m. or even later. But her family is so committed to her blossoming career that they have relocated to be near the station. “My daughter says, ‘I will be an NGO worker like you,’” she said proudly. “She wants to be like her mother.”
Bridging gaps in knowledge
In 2005, Shivpuri was selected as a UNICEF-supported integrated district. As part of this project, representatives of the ‘panchayat’, or councils, at the village level were elected to identify community needs. Today, more than 1,500 village volunteers are working to advocate for the rights of children by connecting families with available services.
“This huge mobilization of community leadership has dramatically improved the use of government services,” said UNICEF’s Chief of Field Office in Madhya Pradesh, Hamid El Bashir. “Many didn’t even know [services] were available,” he added.
Ms. Adivasi herself serves as a bridge between the community and health services, referring expectant parents to ambulances so that their babies can be delivered at a hospital. Between 2000 and 2005, maternal deaths in India declined from to 540 to 300 deaths per 100,000 live births. The number is continuing to fall.
Organizers of the radio project hope that such information, when provided by Dharkan 107.8 FM, will move the community to adopt improved sanitation and health practices. The station also hopes to improve low literacy rates through continuous dialogue and education awareness.