Commercial radio companies, civil society organisations, as well consumer interest groups have asked the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) to exercise caution while allowing section 8 companies to provide community radio services (CRS). While the Association of Radio Operators of India (AROI) opposed the inclusion of section 8 companies completely, civil society groups and non-profits offering community radio services have asked the government to implement a filtering mechanism that will allow only deserving section 8 companies to operate community radio services.
Community radio stations
The Government allows non-profit organisation to set up community radio stations, which serve to bring day-to-day concerns of local communities into the forefront and satisfy their specific information and entertainment needs. Community radio is seen as an important instrument for empowerment and social development. Therefore, it is also referred to as the radio of the people, for the people, and by the people.
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While initially only allowing educational institutions, such as IITs and IIMs, to set up community radio stations, in 2006, the Government revamped its policies around community radios to allow non-profit community-based organizations, apart from educational institutes, under its ambit. This included civil society and voluntary organisations, State Agriculture Universities (SAU), Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) institutions, Krishi Vigyan Kendras, registered societies and autonomous bodies and public trusts registered under Societies Act or any other such act relevant for the purpose.
Inclusion of Section 8 companies
Now, the Government is also deliberating the inclusion of Section 8 companies into its ambit, to allow them to set up community radio stations as well. Many organisations for the public good, including certain NGOs, and organisations with goals to promote art, commerce, science research, sports and charities also operate under Section 8, as per the Companies Act. However, the proposal to allow section 8 communities to operate community radios as seen some opposition on all sides.
Starting with commercial radio operators, AROI responded to TRAI, “CRS, though at a smaller scale, still consumes the valuable and scarce frequency spectrum at an extremely low cost, in view of their natures and objectives. Private FM players, on the other hand, pay a huge cost in license fees, spectrum, and other infrastructure charges.” Therefore, AROI suggests improving the infrastructure for existing CRS setups, rather than allowing additional companies to set up community radio stations.
Transparent, democratic filter needed
Civil society organisations, such as the UNESCO and Community Radio Association, while acknowledging that some NGOs do operate as Section 8 companies asked the government to set up a transparent and democratic filter, which would allow only deserving companies to set up community radio stations.
UNESCO Chair on Community Media at the University of Hyderabad noted, “at least a third of the community radio participants in our meeting expressed their apprehensions about widening the provision to allow section 8 companies to enter the community radio sector.” Noting that, while community radios were allowed to provide vital information into media dark sections of the Indian population, especially around local content, the participants stated that this content might be side lined for more professionally managed fare. The participants also noted the special privilege granted to companies under Section 8 might allow the companies to have deeper pockets, which might eliminate local NGOs and community-based organisations in this space.