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Radio, Telephone, Internet and Empowerment.
An interview with Arun Mehta, head of the Society for Telecommunications Empowerment.
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This interview is reproduced with permission from Frederick Noronha at BytesForAll.Org.
Radio via cable TV? Empowering farmers with a telephone? All this and more is possible, and technology is the magic wand which Dr Arun Mehta wants to wield to make life more tolerable for the commonman (and woman) in India. This engineer heads the Society for Telecom Empowerment, and is using his skills and campaign background to improve the reality at the grassroots. Dr Arun Mehta, an IIT-Delhi educated electrical engineer, worked with computers since 1971. He worked with Siemens-Germany and in the US, and did a PhD on esoteric subjects like crane control. Later, he was an activist with Amnesty International and headed the India branch of this global body for a couple of years. Today, he is bent on using his skills to boost communications among the commonman. He spoke to FREDERICK NORONHA during a recent visit to Goa to outline his goals and dreams:

Q: What got you started on Net-related campaigns?

Arun Mehta: Issues were coming up vis a vis the Net, which weren't being handled in a civil liberties style. My first involvement with cyber-activism was when the Indian government was threatening to slap hefty Rs 1.5 million fees on kids running BBSs (bulletin- board services). We started the Forum for Rights to Electronic Expression around 1994.

Later there were plans to shut down ERNET, then the country's sole access to the Internet and e-mail. That was in 1995, before Indians had other options to get onto the Internet. The UNDP funding was finally, finally, finally closing, and the Government was not willing to step in with funding. After a joint campaign, we managed to get that decision reversed too.

Q: You are now campaigning for allowing local-level community radio stations. Where does that fit in with your interests?

Arun Mehta: Actually, it is THE ONLY electronic communication medium that the poor man in India can afford. It is something we automatically have to pay attention to in this country; but we are NOT.

It's a completely different medium from television, and it is now being re-discovered. The Internet is a major, major contributing factor to that now. Radio stations have become global. You don't need to have very high powered transmitters, or be a BBC or a Deutsche Welle, to go global via radio now. You can do it via the Internet.

The Internet has done a great service to radio. It has also made radio much more competitive. I have a choice of 8000 radio stations on the Net.

But the problem still remains that of the famous 'last mile'. Today, Internet radio is only accessible by someone who has a fancy computer and an Internet connection. But to be popularised, radio should be easily receivable on the cheapest possible device. That is an FM or a simple radio receiver. So, we have to find new ways of distributing radio waves, possibly through the cable TV operator.

Q: You mean a cable TV operator could send out a signal and I could receive it on my FM radio?

Arun Mehta: Correct. You see, depending upon the quality of the cable that is being used, it leaks power. The worse quality of the cable the more power it leaks. So radio is much more easier to receive (from lossy cables).

Radio requires much less signal strength. So you could get radio at 30, 40 or 50 metres from the cable. No problem. This way, one doesn't have to fight against colonial laws dating back to 1885 (rpt 1885) that block the citizen from starting a radio station without paying huge licence fees. You can start your own station. You don't have to ask anyone for permission.

Cable is a very, very important medium for the Indian environment. There are about 30 million Indian households with cable TV connections.

Q: What's blocking India from getting access to more people- friendly communication and broadcast options? Is it the unhelpful laws in place, or a lack of suitable technology? Or both?

Arun Mehta: I would say a lack of technological courage. If something comes to us from the US, then we start doing it, if they do it there.

But the fact is that the US doesn't need to solve this kind of that we have. A person here can only afford $2 for a communication device, and cannot afford monthly fees. We don't have that sort of situation in the US. Why will they solve it? We have to solve it!

The technologies are not rocket science technologies. It's just that we don't have this approach of using technology to solve our problems in our own way. In electronics, we like to ape the West in our R&D. That's a great pity.

Q: What are the options available?

Arun Mehta: As I said, the cable-TV operator can carry your radio station for almost nothing. Each one of your satellite TV channels can carry several audio channels. They can carry many languagues. All of those could be treated as independent radio channels.

It would need a cable operator to tune into. He could feed it via FM into the cable; so you receive it on a FM radio. You have to put things together and make it work. We in India are good at that.

Another possibility is satellite broadcasting of Internet content, like radio or newspapers. Just as you have a dish which receives TV, and you're receiving the same content as everybody else at the same time, you can do the same with data. That's not being done with data currently.

Q: Can you tell us of any interesting experiments being undertaken in South Asia on this front?

Arun Mehta: In New Delhi, Raman Nanda runs an Internet radio station. He has been doing news and current affairs. That's quite interesting. But, Internet radio is not a very good broadcast medium. If a thousand people start listening to the same station, the server packs up. Radio also somehow has to be wireless in your psyche. You can't be tethered to a computer.

Q: What about the experiment at Kothamalee in Sri Lanka?

Arun Mehta: In Kothamalee what they're doing is firstly just normal community radio. So that in itself in South Asia is almost unique. Sagarmatha (the community radio station recently started in Kathmandu) and Kothamalee are the only two proper community radio stations in South Asia.

That in itself is good; but what they are doing is also another very, very interesting thing in Sri Lanka. They do community Internet surfing for the listeners of that station. That means people can phone in their questions; those running the radio station will then surf for them, and give them their answers in the local language, over the radio.

Q: This all offers a huge potential for countries like ours...

Arun Mehta: Absolutely. The way I see it, is that the first thing the Internet is going to do is bring distance education. And in a country like India, there's probably a huge demand for courses in English. Because it improves your marketability and your monthly income too.

I'm not too comfortable with information mediaries, or someone else deciding whether my question is important enough. Plus, the beauty of the Internet is the followup. You're reading an article, you can do follow-up, and work on various links.

Q: Lastly, could you tell us something about your organisation?

Arun Mehta: We've recently set up something called the Society for Telecommunications Empowerment. Our goal is to bring telecom to the people, and empower people through telecom in all its forms. We want to find ways -- by getting changes in policy, in the legal position, also technology awareness. We want to showcase some examples that work.

Telecommunications are very important to people. Studies have calculated the number of miles the Indian farmer travels in vain. For example, going to a fertilizer depot and finding there's no fertilizer there. He could have saved these trips if there was a phone at both ends. If there was a phone at the fertilizer depot, there probably would have been fertilizer available there!

So one can think of the amount of saving of wasted hours of poor people. People who can least afford it. I get very angry when people talk of modern telecommunications as a tool for the rich. I think it's a tool for the poor, and they know how to use it for their own ends. It's a basic human need.

Non-techies get hypnotised when the word 'technology' is mentioned. Engineers meanwhile have tunnel vision, and don't look at the social impact. There needs to be much more social awareness among the engineers; it is coming. The social scientist must understand technology, and the role technology is playing.

The Internet did not come from the social scientist, who decided that people need to be connected. Here were technologists who thought that this was a great idea; and everyone has now got on the bandwagon. It's necessary for social scientists not to lag behind in this. It's important to overcome this.
(ENDS)

India Together
September 2000

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