The cliché usually runs: From disaster to relief. But judging by a recent lead story of one of the country’s most well known newspapers, the reverse might well be true. Headlined, “No disaster communication system despite spending crores,” it points out that the Uttarakhand calamity has highlighted how advanced communication technology available with the government,was not deployed either for preparing for it or for quick response. “There were no early warning systems, and once disaster struck, no communication system for several days as mobile networks collapsed.”

Those who remember the 2004 Tsunami assault or the flood havoc caused by the River Kosi changing its course, may not be too surprised. During the 2004 Tsunami, it was the low cost community communication mechanisms that often showed the way despite sophisticated surveillance systems deployed by the government. The experience of the MSSRF Village Information Centre in Nallavadu – a fishing village in coastal Tamil Nadu – is a case in point. The warning that the local community received on December 26, 2004 did not come from the internet, or a government weather surveillance system, but from a former project volunteer who was based in Singapore one and was “watching a news item about the earthquake that had just occurred off the coast of Indonesia. Worried about the potential impact on his family of giant waves that were reported to be spreading across the Indian Ocean, he telephoned his sister in Nallavadu.” The information was disseminated through the MSSRF public loudspeaker. The result was that “not one of more than 3,500 villagers lost their lives.” In fact the potential of community radio as underlined by Navin Chawla (then I & B Secretary) when he acknowledged that it “was an important component in disaster preparedness.” Mr Chawla requested Dr Sridhar, then head of Anna FM, (which was the sole community radio station at that time) to set up a similar community radio station at the Nicobar islands. Unfortunately, there was little or no government follow up.

A similar scenario unraveled post the Kosi floods in Bihar in 2008. Despite efforts from community radio advocates to initiate emergency radio, their proposals fell on deaf ears  within New Delhi’s corridors of power. About three months post the floods, a field recce carried out by AMARC in North Bihar suggested that the relief mechanisms left much to be desired. While the promises were many, delays had aggravated a shortage of food provisions, health problems and infrastructure break downs. While village after village bemoaned the lack of timely information, the role of mobile telephony was applauded. Similar sentiments were evinced about radio.But there was a twist to the tale. It was BBC Hindi service that was unanimously applauded to be the most comprehensive information player. AIR Featured—but it appeared to come a distant second except for its farm radio programmes.

Now that NDMA have reiterated the critical importance of community radio and the relevance of a network of community based FM stations in Uttarkhand, we need to hit the ground running. All of us need to support and explore how we can strengthen the efforts made by community radio advocates and practitioners in CRF, CRAI, and like minded groups to make community radio stations a reality in the affected areas. From Nepal, to Haiti, to Japan community radio has proven credentials in terms of disaster mitigation and management. We can afford to ignore the writing on the wall – only at the peril of allowing relief to blindly hurtle into yet another disaster.

Ashish Sen
President, AMARC-Asia Pacific