Ear to the ground

How a community radio station in a Haryana district tentatively carries on the conversation of change.

Written by Irena Akbar | New Delhi | Published: March 4, 2012 2:46 am

How a community radio station in a Haryana district tentatively carries on the conversation of change.

Elderly men,dressed in white kurta-pajamas and turbans,sit on a jute cot,smoking hookahs and soaking up the February sun. It’s a typical sight in Mewat,a largely rural district in Haryana. To this gathering walks up Shahid Husain,a 22-year-old man,dressed in trousers and a shirt,with a voice recorder and a list of questions. He is here to interview Mohammad Ishaq,sarpanch of Ferozepur Namak village,for a programme on Radio Mewat,a community radio station,which began in late 2010. In the conversation that ensues,about the increasing number of girls in school,and immunisation drives,is a sign of change.

Though Mewat is only about 45 km away from the glass-and-steel suburbia of Gurgaon,its inward-looking community of Meos or Mewati Muslims has steadfastly resisted the unsettling transition to the 21st century. Women can rarely be spotted in its mohallas and open fields,or cajoled to speak to outsiders. Only five per cent of homes in the district (which has a population of 10 lakh) owns television sets,that ubiquitous symbol of aspiration across the country. The Meos are influenced by the Tablighi Jamaat,an Islamist movement that denounces “worldly education” and exposure to the world outside.

The radio,in this context,is the least threatening window to the outside world. That explains the success of Radio Mewat (90.4 FM),which started with two hours of programming a day and now produces 10 hours of on-air content. It got “the best sustainability model” award by the Union Information and Broadcast ministry at the National Community Radio Sammelan in February,and is one of the 10 case studies profiled by the Unicef in its book Abiding Voices.

“The Meos now want and demand change,” says Archana Kapoor,a documentary filmmaker whose NGO Smart has been working in the district for the last 10 years,imparting primary and vocational education to girls,and which now runs Radio Mewat. “In 2001,when we first came here,local boys snatched our camera as we were taking photos and broke the reel. But three years later,after we had established our base,nobody objected when we were filming a documentary. And we did manage to get a few women on camera,” she says. Radio Mewat operates out of Mewat District Administration (MDA)’s transit hostel,and its modest office ¯ a refurbished flat,the kitchen serving as the editing room ¯ overlooks the lush fields of Nagali village in the district headquarters Nuh.

The community is still deeply conservative but the crawl of change has begun. The literacy rate,over the last decade,has grown from 9 per cent among women and 24 per cent among men to 33 and 54 per cent respectively. “That’s a quantum leap compared to the rest of the country. Also,good roads,with a national highway that eases access to Gurgaon and Alwar,have exposed Meos to progress elsewhere,” she says. “Our surveys showed that Meos want to know how to get a kisan credit card or how to file a complaint at a government office. More than being educated,they want to be informed. Radio was the best way to give information,as FM can be accessed on mobile phones,” she says.

Radio Mewat’s programmes are,thus,centred around information. If Swasth Ki Baat involves around interviews with government medical officers,who tell listeners about ambulance services,vaccinations and medicines available in hospitals,Khel Khaliyan Ki Baat interviews agriculture experts on issues faced by farmers.

The need for information and “being on a par with others” motivated Husain to accept a job offer from Radio Mewat. “My father,a farmer,is illiterate. He would dread going to a government office or a thana because he couldn’t understand what they would say. He only understands Mewati,and his knowledge is limited to farming and his village. He didn’t want me to be like him,” says Husain,who is the first graduate from his village,Husainpur,and a “celebrity” there. “I have done my village proud with my job,” he says. Trained on the Rs 7,000-per-month job,he can now use a computer and the internet,write scripts,conduct interviews,upload and edit audio files,and anchor shows.

His colleague,23-year-old Mohammed Arif,from Bhadas village,is the day’s anchor. Inside the carpeted recording studio,fitted with an AC brought from Delhi,this former madarsa student and a BA in political science from a local college,adjusts the volume on the sound mixer,an equipment he “hadn’t heard of before”. Apart from programmes like Gaon Gaon Ki Baat,which profiles villages of the district,Arif also plays Mirasi geet,traditional folk songs of Mewat,which the station began airing after people started calling in with requests. Mirasi singers also call up and perform at the studio,like Mubarak Ali,a 15-year-old schoolboy who has come from Advar village to the studio with his harmonium. “Most Mirasi songs,played to harmonium,bhapang and dholak,are message-laden,lamenting illiteracy,dowry,and the deforestation of the Aravallis,” says Arif. After playing a song that laments the early marriage of girls,he announces on the radio,“Don’t marry off your daughters early,educate them.” That’s in line with the station’s advocacy of the uplift of Meo women. Husain,who does Gaon Gaon Ki Baat,always asks the sarpanch about the number of girls in the village school,and a nurse about how many women opt for hospital deliveries. He tries speaking to women but “most women don’t want to talk to unknown men here”.

The young Meos at the station ¯ 11 in all ¯ take pride in their work. Arif’s colleague,also called Mohammed Arif,from Tain village,says that villagers have moved on from shyly giving interviews to calling up the station with their demands. “We get about 80 calls a day; some are for Kalakar ki kala,a programme where anyone can come over and sing in the studio. Some ask us to feature their village,and others request songs,” he says. They,however,deny requests to play film songs,unless they are of the ’60s or before. “Some youth call us to play a Munni badnaam hui,but we politely tell them the community wouldn’t like it,” he says. Listening to the radio is a group activity,a “baithak” in Mewat; a group of mostly elderly people place a transistor on a cot,and listen to the radio,he tells us.

Being sensitive to such social reservations is the key to success,says Kapoor. If Radio Mewat,which began with a fund of Rs 8.5 lakh,has become economically sustainable today,having got sponsors for three programmes,as well as corporate donations,it is because it is “socially and culturally sustainable,” she says. “We engage Meos not just as listeners,but also producers; we have a content committee which includes district officials,sarpanches,and a maulvi,” she says.

One of the programmes that resulted from such discussions is Urdu Deeniyat,hosted by madarsa teacher Shaukat Ali,who comes to the studio from his village thrice a week to record Urdu lessons for children. “We don’t have enough Urdu teachers in government schools. Radio is a good medium to reach out to children who don’t go to school,” he says.

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