There is something unique and inspiring about this radio station. Located in one of the most backward and semi-arid areas of the country, it is run by an all-women team of illiterate Dalits.
Sangham FM Radio, set up by the NGO Deccan Development Society (DDS), is indeed well tuned in. Located in Machnoor village in Andhra Pradesh's Medak district, since the past few months the station has been airing programs for an hour every alternate day in this village in the backward region of Telangana. Set up with the idea of focusing on rural development issues - food sovereignty, seed sovereignty, control over natural resources, organic farming, women's health, children's problems - the radio is an autonomous media, owned and controlled by Dalit women. The station has created media history of sorts by providing a forum to the local marginalized women.
Says P.V. Satheesh, Director, DDS, "Such media autonomy was crucial because a majority of these women were illiterate and hence treated as second-class citizens." This, despite the fact that the villagers' illiteracy does not hinder their capacity to work sagaciously with their environment: as farmers, they have established complex ecological systems; as healers, they have a fascinating repertoire of knowledge of herbs and plant medicines, their knowledge of trees and plants is phenomenal; and they raise a range of livestock with a full understanding of animal care systems. They are barefoot foresters, bankers and primary governors of their communities. In other words, their range of skills is deep and wide.
"However," laments Satheesh, "just because these villagers couldn't read or write, they were deprived of the chance to participate in development processes that had been completely hijacked by urban professionals, governments and international financial agencies."
The existing media in the region was also party to the imbalances as with more and more private channels mushrooming, spaces for rural people, the poor and the women had shrunk abysmally, overshadowed completely by corporate/urban interests. "Programs were filled-in spaces between advertisements," adds Satheesh, "Even the public media had abandoned its public good niche and was merrily following the template set by private channels, trivializing issues that seriously impacted the villagers' welfare."
With rural communities not finding media space to articulate their concerns, their voices were completely drowned in the cacophony generated by the exponentially growing urban FM stations propped up by corporate money. Given this backdrop, DDS was keen to address the marginalized women's need for an autonomous media, owned and controlled completely by them to amplify their issues and concerns.
The Society, which has been working closely with over 5,000 Dalit women in Medak since the last two decades, thus approached UNESCO for funding and procured a Rs 22 lakh grant (US$1=Rs 46). With the grant in place, a studio building came up last year - a dome-shaped shell, bang in the heart of Medak - crafted from locally sourced, low-cost building materials. Two 16-channel mixers, two studio recorders and two 100-watt FM transmitters with a coverage radius of 100 villages were also acquired.
The station kicked off recently after a green signal from the Central government. But, guided by DDS, Medak's Dalit women have been making programs for the last 10 years. In fact, with the Dalits' strongly entrenched oral culture and an ethos of consultation, DDS has been encouraging these women to save on tape recorders the issues of common concern that were articulated from village to village. This horizontal movement of ideas and exchange of views has helped the Society to record issues that were of concern to the community. Hitherto always consumers, the Dalits are now active participants in creating a huge human resource base of information.
Today, almost 100 villages in Medak district tune into Sangham Radio, partaking of a repertoire of quality community-based programs, including folk songs and theatre. There is also hope that the radio will help resuscitate languishing oral storytelling folk traditions like the 'Bichapola Patalu'.
Says a beaming Narsamma, one of the radio station's programmers and one of the 500 women who now work full time for Sangham Radio: "The station has provided us with a wonderful platform to air our community problems like women's health issues, child-related problems, organic farming and other development issues." Adds Kotyamma, 67, another villager: "Our radio station is truly democratic - of the people, by the people, for the people. We feel empowered by the creation of this forum which not only signals the democratization of airwaves but also helps us raise issues close to our hearts."