The recent notification from Ministry of Communications and IT (MoCIT) announcing a five-fold hike in the spectrum fee for Community Radio broadcasters in the country heated things up, this summer. According to the Wireless Planning and Coordination (WPC) wing of the Ministry, the revised royalty and licence fee for the allocation and usage of spectrum has now shot up to Rs. 91,000, from Rs.19,100.
The absolute lack of a consultative process only made matters worse while exposing the WPC’s unilateral policy-making process. The lack of consultation and coordination between the MOCIT and the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB) is a case in point, with the former hiking the fee and the latter trying to bring CR advocates together for a policy consultation in Delhi. Decrying the hike, the Community Radio Forum boycotted the consultation meeting on May 9 & 10.
Despite ‘bigger’ spectrum stories grabbing headlines, MOCIT’s
announcement found coverage in some outlets in the mainstream media. I&B secretary Uday Kumar Varma was quoted as having said that ministry’s views were not sought before the decision was taken. “This five-fold increase in spectrum fee would have a crippling impact on the growth of community radio stations in India many organizations would find it impossible to meet this huge increase in royalty charges,” he said in his letter to Telecom Secretary R Chandrashekhar. The 36- member CR stations of the Forum observed ‘a day of silence’ on air on the first day of the consultation meeting.
Sevanti Ninan, media critic and editor of The Hoot, emphatically wrote, “True the CR licence fee has remained unchanged since 2003, but then elsewhere in the world the trend is to bring down costs of CR to enable its spread. Some countries have a free citizen band of spectrum,” highlighting the non-profit nature of functional CR stations.
The landmark Supreme Court verdict (MIB vs Cricket Association of Bengal case) in 1996 upheld the idea of the commons-that airwaves are public property and should be directed towards public good. The landmark judgement paved way for activists and advocates to help develop the current CR policy that enables communities to air their voices via their own CR stations. “Unlike commercial radio stations that have the money and the programming muscle to survive, 150 community radio stations spread across the country started operations mainly to cater to marginalised communities or residents who need a platform to discuss local issues”, she said.
Take for instance Henvalvani in the hills of Uttarakhand. “We just found our voice, after a five year-long battle with the government to get a licence for community radio,” says Rajendra Negi, Director, Henvalvani ruing the sudden fee hike. Ram Bhat, Vice-President, CR Forum said, “…such a method was to arbitrarily and unreasonably raise the barriers to entry, causing the smaller players to drop out. The fee rise would exclude the genuine and grass roots communities from the concept…” N. Ramakrishnan, General Secretary of the CRF, strongly feels that the government should recognise community radio as a resource. “In fact, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) had recommended zero spectrum fee for community radio.”
CR activists and advocates have been vociferous in condemning the rather maladroit CR policy shift that the hike has brought about. K Stalin, President, Community Radio Forum says the move is ridiculous. “Is the government trying to make money from this spectrum allocation, too? This is commodification of air waves. Will the government now apply the rules of the market to something that belongs to the community in the first place?” Joining Stalin was Sajan Venniyoor of CR Forum, who said “No one tells us why the charges were raised. It could be because of the Supreme Court ruling in the 2G case that all spectrum must be auctioned. But how can it be applied to local initiatives like community radio stations?”
 (Compiled from reports & columns in the media)