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Community radio stations are bridging the gap between migrant and local populations, one song request at a time.


Ujala and Vandana, anchors from Gurgaon Ki Awaaz and RadioActiv. | Gurgaon Ki Awaaz

Cheek-and-jowl with Gurgaon, the world of snazzy malls, technology parks and a plethora of fine dining restaurants, exists the Gurgaon of low-income migrants: Those who travel bumpy roads in auto-rickshaws stuffed full of people, eat at thousands of tiny roadside eateries and settle across the length of the city, looking for work. Here, in the basement of a building named Udyog Vihar, a community-based radio station called Gurgaon Ki Awaaz (the voice of Gurgaon) is straining to hear the voices of migrants in the city.

One of 179 community radio stations in the country, Gurgaon ki Awaaz compiles approximately 22 hours of broadcasting every day. While there are many more commercial radio stations in the country (245 over 50 cities), community radio stations reach approximately 25 million people, and can be utilised to address developmental issues that are relevant to low-income migrants, in a way that commercial radio stations, which have to cater to popular, urban tastes and meet competitive advertising targets, cannot.

In 2015, a manual by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization on internal migration, said most community radio stations exist in parts of the country where migration is a significant issue. In areas where migration is frequent, if the primary audience and participants of a community radio are migrant voices, populations assimilate faster.

“This is because community radio is of the people, by the people and for the people,” said Vandana Thaplyal, 25, the anchor and Station Manager at Gurgaon Ki Awaaz.

Image Credits: Gurgaon Ki Awaaz

Thaplyal migrated with her family to Gurgaon from Paudi in Garhwal, Uttarakhand when she was a nine-year-old. If it were not for her job at the radio station, Thaplyal said, she would have relocated from Gurgaon a long time ago.

“I began to see Gurgaon in a completely different light when I began working here in 2010,” she said. “Thanks to the radio station, migrants can feel at home in a strange land, and can work for their own well-being.”

As both a source and destination for migrants, Gurgaon in Haryana is a perfect case study: Its massive technology parks have been built by migrant labourers from other states, the lands on which these parks are built, were also sold to other, wealthier migrants by locals.

The issues most migrants face when they reach their destination city, include the tangible and intangible, according to Mukta Naik, a researcher who specialises in migration at the Centre for Policy Research in New Delhi. While issues like housing, schools and health care can be taken care of by the government, community radio stations can ease the process by addressing the cultural aspects of migration.

Thaplyal for instance, recalled how much she hated Gurgaon when she first moved cities as a child, for reasons that had little to do with infrastructure – back home, she was allowed to peacefully co-exist with the boys in her neighbourhood and school. In Gurgaon, the sudden cultural conservatism came as a shock – she found herself in classrooms where speaking to to one’s male classmates was frowned upon, she had to wear long kurtas as part of her uniform everyday. These experiences, she said, translate on-air when she speaks to other migrants in the city, who might feel the same sense of dejection she once did.

Image Credits: Gurgaon Ki Awaaz

Naik also makes an important distinction between low-income and middle-class migrants. “Middle-class migrants come with a sense of entitlement.” she said. “They also don’t have to work hard to find housing or healthcare.”

This is primarily why community radio stations can be a boon for lower income groups – they provide information without wasting money or time. When they started their radio station in November 2009, Gurgaon Ki Awaaz’s team realised that there were three distinct populations in Gurgaon: The economically weaker migrants, culturally alienated locals and a cosmopolitan crowd. From the very beginning, they chose to cater exclusively to the first two. Their programmes range from career counselling, queries about heath and employment, educational shows to folk music. Anchors venture into the field to record folk songs from the community.

Talking about a revolution

Radio Activ, a community radio station in Bangalore airs programmes on a wide range of issues relevant to the cosmopolitan city. One of its shows, “Kasa Shramika Parisara Rakshaka” broadcast every weekday, between 11 to 11:30, is hosted by a cheerful couple named Salma Siddique and Mansoor, who work as waste-sorters and scrap dealers in the city. The show’s title translates as – waste pickers are silent environmentalists.

In most parts of the country, waste-pickers are among the most marginalised communities. In Bangalore, like most cities, waste-pickers come from states like Orissa, West Bengal, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.

The fact that Siddique and Mansoor are unlettered has never deterred them. They are second generation migrants, and use their air-time to discuss safety and health issues related to waste picking, and ensuring that other low-income migrants have information on housing and employment. Since they are multi-lingual, they engage the migrants who interact with them, in their own language.

Ramya Rao, a student at Bangalore’s Jain College said she listens to Siddique and Mansoor’s programme every day.

“I saw rag pickers in my street all the time, but I never thought about where they came from, or how tough it is for them to survive in a city like Bangalore.” she said. “When I heard Mansoor talk about their work, I became acquainted with a new group of people, who come from different parts of the country to make a living here.”

A software engineer in Bangalore, Debashish Roy, admitted he had only started listening to the show recently, but was hooked.

“Last week, there was a waste picker who spoke about how he missed his hometown near Siliguri.” he said. “I am from Siliguri too. It just struck me how different our journeys to Bangalore have been.”

On one of Gurgaon Ki Awaaz’s shows, the anchor in the studio plays antakshari with the show’s listeners. On it, Gurgaon’s local Haryanvi population frequently sings Bhojpuri songs. The station’s director, Arti Jaiman, laughed as she recounted this – when the station first began playing Bhojpuri songs in 2010, they repeatedly received threats from the Haryanvi community, which wanted them to stop playing “other people’s music”.

Gurgaon ki Awaaz persisted with the songs anyway, interspersed with the voices of Bhojpuri-speaking migrants.

“Community radio also prepares the local community to understand problems the migrants face.” said Jaiman. It took a period of several months for the local population to soften.

Sounds of the silenced

According to Jaiman, one in five Indians are internal migrants who have moved across district or state lines. “Migrants add to the economy” she said. “Cities need to be planned in ways to receive migrant populations. Their concerns, especially regarding employment, education and health, need to be taken into account, and people need to be made aware of such plans. There are primary health care units in villages around Gurgaon, where migrant and low-income workers can go but don’t, because they simply don’t know about them.”

Naik feels that community radio stations can still do a lot more. While some stations have become an experimental ground for those who want to further their careers in commercial radio, others face financial constraints. Gurgaon Ki Awaaz, for instance, runs on the money it earns from some government advertisements, some local advertisements, and its parent non-profit organisation, The Restoring Force.

It is also important for community radio stations to enable a two-way channel of communication – as a result, many of Gurgaon Ki Awaaz’s programmes are conducted by its listeners. According to Thaplyal, some of the listeners record for nearly three hours, when asked to send material for a half-hour slot, because they enjoy hosting it so much.

Savitri Devi moved to Gurgaon with her husband from Ara in Bihar, when he got a job as a construction worker in Sikanderpur. “I used to be very shy two years ago when we moved here.” she said.

“The language was different, people were different. When I listen to Gurgaon Ki Awaaz, I feel more at home. And I hope I will muster courage one day to go to the station and host the show.”

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Published on: 14 December, 2016