Tuned in: Community radio leads rural India’s virus battle

Special Tuned in: Community radio leads rural India’s virus battle
Radio Mewat staff at the broadcast station in June 2020. (Photo courtesy: Radio Mewat)
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Updated 01 September 2020

Tuned in: Community radio leads rural India’s virus battle

Tuned in: Community radio leads rural India’s virus battle
  • Local dialect programs air pandemic updates and fight misinformation

NEW DELHI: Farheen Khan takes a deep breath and responds to a female caller on the phone-in show on Radio Mewat, a community radio station in Haryana, north India.

The caller is a domestic violence victim. She tells Khan that after her husband lost his job because of the pandemic two months ago, he has stayed home and harassed her.

“Do you mind if I speak with him?” Says 21-year-old Khan, a reporter.

“This is the time to help your wife with household chores and learn new skills. Look for tasks where you two can collaborate. It will strengthen your bond,” Khan tells the man.

Radio Mewat is among more than 300 community radio stations across India that have helped people — particularly rural populations — survive the coronavirus pandemic through special broadcasts.

On March 24, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown that lasted over 100 days. The government is now easing restrictions in different phases. 

“Men have been spending longer hours at home since the beginning of the pandemic. For many families, this results in an increase in domestic violence,” Khan told Arab News.

In the first two months of the lockdown, government data shows that more than 30,000 domestic violence complaints were made by women. The number of complaints made in the first two months of lockdown were higher than any other March to April period over the past decade.

Khan said she often shares government helpline numbers with callers.

The Indian government has launched health, education and agricultural programs in about 117 districts across the country. Many of them have low literacy rates and media penetration.

“Community radio acts as a credible tool in these districts as it curates and disseminates content with a local perspective and language,” Archana Kapoor, Radio Mewat’s founder, told Arab News.

The station began in September 2010, and is one of the first community stations in Haryana started by a non-profit.

“Our station is a bridge between the administration and the community. Since the beginning of the pandemic, local authorities have approached us every time they had an important announcement to convey to people here,” Kapoor said.

With over 3.3 million coronavirus cases, India recently registered the highest single-day spike in the world. It took the country only 16 days to register its latest million cases. India’s tally is third only to the US and Brazil.

At the start of the outbreak, radio stations relayed government updates, urged listeners to opt for early detection and addressed misinformation.

“Earlier, we would go to the office of the medical officer or an expert would visit our studio for an interview. During the crisis, we learned how to work remotely. It was a new experience for us. Now, many experts and local officials call us and their messages are relayed live from the station,” Khan said.

Even as the government eases lockdown measures, Radio Mewat still dedicates three hours of programming to the pandemic.

“We are repeatedly telling people that the crisis is not over yet and they should continue to take precautions,” Khan said.

N. Ramakrishnan, executive director of Ideosync Media Combine, said that community radio’s advantage lies in being able to broadcast in local dialects.

About 19,000 languages and dialects are spoken across India.

“The majority of announcements by the government on various platforms are in English or Hindi. At times, stations also put the information in perspective depending on popular narratives,” Ramakrishnan said.

“Such stations are also able to address fake news before it creates any problems in the community.”

India has about 139 million migrant workers — men and women who migrate to urban centers for work, including New Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru.

During the lockdown, thousands of migrant workers returned home after losing their jobs, creating an unprecedented situation for state governments. More than 1.5 million workers returned to Bihar state alone.

For Kripa Shankar, station manager at Radio Rimjhim, a community radio station in Bihar’s Gopalganj district, said the mass movement created new challenges. 

Like staff at other stations, his team feared contracting the virus. Even so, they felt they had a duty to address pandemic-related questions.

“Large sections of our listeners comprised of COVID-19 deniers. Through facts and interviews, we had to convince them that the virus was a reality,” Shankar said.

“Among the people who returned to our district, there were many who were not willing to be quarantined. Our programs told them the significance of isolation.”

Radio Mattoli in Kerala acknowledged the threat of coronavirus as early as January.

Around 1 million Keralites live in the Gulf region.

Father Bijo from Radio Mattoli said that when people began returning from the Gulf, he knew the spread of the virus was inevitable.

“With the help of Indians living in the US, we have acquired 1000 new radio sets and have distributed about 300 so far,” he said.

“At least five times a day, there are announcements and updates from the government on our station.”

The station caters to a half-million-strong tribal population in Kerala’s Wayanad district who have no access to electricity and TV.