There was plenty of entertainment on radio but nothing that represented the interests of the local Dalit farmer community in Medak district of Telangana. Poor and marginalised, the community — which survives on farming and wage labour — didn’t even have the means to communicate among themselves. “The outsiders were not interested in our issues or culture. And those who did chronicle our world did it with their understanding. Our voices went largely unheard,” says General Narsamma.
The 36-year-old today manages Asia’s first community radio for Dalit women. Titled Sangham, the Telugu-language radio headquartered in Medak’s Manchoor village is broadcast to nearly 200 villages that fall within its 30-km radius.
“It allows us to preserve traditional knowledge as well as our local culture,” says Narsamma, who was in Mumbai recently to talk about the radio as part of Godrej India Culture Lab’s event, “We the Nation: Micro-narratives of Change”. The programme sought to bring to the fore initiatives that project and focus on the invisible India.
Sangham was launched in 2008 by the NGO Deccan Development Society (DDS) but due to the lack of a license, they started with narrowcasting before they began the complete operations in 2010. “Each of these villages already has a ‘sangham’ or a group of women who are associated with DDS. They serve as reporters in addition to another eight correspondents we have on board,” adds Narsamma, who heads the radio alongside Algola Narsamma.
The radio focusses on women’s issues, such as out-of-school children, health and nutrition, among others. However, a large part of their programming comprises sharing of traditional knowledge by elders. These could be in the field of agriculture, dairy, home remedies and medicine. “Why would other radio channels, like the All India Radio, be keen on covering our hyperlocal issues? Through Sangham, we make an exchange of this knowledge possible. The radio often helps the villagers locate their missing cattle. This may seem silly or laughable to others, but it is important to the farmers,” says General Narsamma.
The radio, which broadcasts between 7pm and 9pm every day — leisure hours for the farmers after a long day’s work — has also been playing a crucial role in chronicling the soon-vanishing local traditions. Says Narsamma, “Film songs are replacing the traditional songs of sowing, harvest, birth, death and other important times of a farmer’s life cycle. There are other folk forms of storytelling that are also disappearing. We are trying to revive them through Sangham.”
The radio regularly invites local folk artists to the studio to perform. “There is a folk form of storytelling that draws from the area’s history and its folklore. The stories sometimes go on for five to six hours. We record these and air them episodically,” adds Narsamma.
While the radio has helped bring together a 20,000-strong community from these 200-odd villages, one of Sangham’s key contributions is empowering these women. Narsamma herself is an example. From the Dalit farming community, she was unlettered until the age of 10. With help from DDS, she completed matriculation and has been engaged with Sangham since its inception. “It has given me a purpose and I am committed to helping my people,” she says.