Finally, it feels the way it must feel. Relief, that community radio stations will be a reality soon, and excitement, that there is much to look forward to. An NGO can now get a license to air radio programmes relevant to the community it serves. After years of meetings, letters, discussions, workshops, petitions, and even some international pressure, New Delhi has decided to move forward and open up radio broadcasting in a way it never was until now.

Granting limited permissions for community radio broadcasting, the Cabinet on 16 November has allowed registered non-profit organisations to apply for broadcast licenses. The government says that "civil society and voluntary organizations, State Agriculture Universities (SAUs) institutions, Krishi Vigyan Kendras, Registered Societies and Autonomous Bodies and Public Trusts registered under Societies Act or any other such act relevant for the purpose" will be able to apply. The Cabinet decision is a policy- level move, as opposed to legislation, and it will now be taken forward by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. The MIB is expected to frame the detailed terms and conditions for NGOs to apply for and receive licenses.

In India, until now, non-commercial organisations were prohibited from operating radio stations; only private corporations with big pockets - like Radio Mirchi, Times FM, Big FM - and educational institutions could get broadcasting licenses. With the Cabinet decision, that distinction is a little reduced. Coming after a long and frustrating wait, the move has triggered modest celebrations on a number of community radio and development e-mailing lists, which are the watering holes for CR enthusiasts, NGOs and broadcast professionals. They have been eagerly tracking developments since last month, when reports emerged that a ministerial group had cleared the policy as the first step, before it was to go to the full Cabinet. But because successive governments at New Delhi have given false alarms, the most recent one being in October 2005, the hopeful CR enthusiasts had nonetheless kept their fingers crossed.

Their hopes have now been met. A number civil society organisations - from Gujarat to Jharkhand to Karnataka - who, along with citizens (rural and urban alike) have already pioneered radio programming for broadcast over AIR, can now apply for licenses of their own.

In community radio, members of the listening community finance and/or participate in the operations of the station. In most countries, CR falls is considered non-commercial broadcasting, and only non-profit organisations and educational institutions are given these licenses.

 •  Between cup and lip
 •  Radio policy: untying the knots What next? How quickly applicants will get their licenses will depend on the clearance process at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which is known for its notoriously slow processing. Also, in true sarkari fashion, this policy announcement comes with the usual questionable twists.

Prohibition on news and current affairs

One, community stations have been barred from airing news and current affairs. One the one hand the government insists that 'Programmes for broadcast should be relevant to the educational, developmental, social and cultural needs of the community.' On the other hand, a PTI news report has quoted Information and Broadcasting Minister Priyaranjan Dasmunshi as saying that the community radio stations will not be allowed to broadcast news and current affairs programming. The implication is that local news and local current affairs programmes are not relevant and would not meet the 'developmental, social and cultural needs' of the people in a district or rural block or suburb in a city. Clearly, there is a contradiction between the avowed purpose of community radio and the prohibition against carrying news and current affairs.

This contradiction is not new, nor is not unique to this policy. Commercial FM stations are already barred from airing news, and so are university (campus) radio stations. Across governments of seemingly different political ideologies, ministers and officials have expressed the worry that if private radio stations were to independently produce and air their own news programmes - like their television and print newspaper counterparts - they might carry politically sensitive and 'anti-national' programming and stir up riots! Some cabinet ministers and bureaucrats alike appear to feel a deep disquiet over thousands of low-power local language-based independent radio stations airing their own news programmes. And because monitoring these stations would be impractical - as opposed to television where there are fewer news players to keep track of - they prefer to simply bar radio news itself.

So even as the left hand has decided to finally respond to the widely asserted and felt democratic impulses in the country, the right hand is unable to get over its license-raj worries. This attitude is a mistaken one, and only shows that while change does come from Delhi, it is slow. It indicates that a vestige of the control-oriented paradigm continues to linger in the halls of governance and public administration. As a result of this short-sightedness, All India Radio will continue to have a monopoly over radio news.

But the ministry's position may yet be overcome. The definition of what constitutes 'developmental and social programming' and not 'news and current affairs programming' is murky territory. This itself is will provide enough latitude for well-meaning broadcasters to craft creative and educative programming without worrying about New Delhi hovering over their shoulders. A few lawyers may even be able to persuade a few judges to agree to this.

Regulatory mess

Secondly, from what is known about the draft policy that went to the Cabinet, new CR stations will be allowed be broadcast only at 100 Watts and an antenna height of 30 metres (above average terrain). This will give the stations a nominal range of 5 kilometres around the antenna. While this may work for rural areas, metropolitan areas will be better served by non-profit broadcasters if their transmitters were allowed to radiate at 500 to 1000 Watts. And why not? If our governments feel that a municipal corporation such as Bangalore or Pune can administer a 100-200 range, a non-commercial broadcaster (with local affairs and developmental programming focussed on the city) could also serve a community of listeners in the same demography. With the texture of our urban areas being what it is, 100 Watts simply won't do. It is not for nothing that investor-financed private-FM stations broadcast at tens of kilowatts to reach lakhs of listeners in a large urban area. The MIB will do well to not lump all non-commercial radio broadcasting prospects into the same low-power 100W slot.

A third short-coming stems from the absence of law. A policy is not a substitute for legislation; the communications sphere in India is still running on a patchwork of policy notes, limited legislation, and limited regulation (telecom). In making this decision too through policy, the government is playing safe and wants to keep the power of issuing broadcast licenses, at least for the time being, to itself. This must change. The Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) - which incidentally green-lighted community radio licensing in its recommendation to the government in 2004 - is well suited to regulate the broadcast sphere too. In fact even as communication technologies converge, it makes sense to consolidate all communications regulation - telephony, cable, broadcast, and satellite - into a single regulator. The framework for the grant of licenses for non-profit as well as commercial radio, permissions for news and current affairs, and limited advertising room for non-commercial radio could all consolidated into the legislation and the mandate of the regulator itself.

It is worrying that despite repeated indications from TRAI that it was interested in broadcast regulation, the UPA government has chosen to opt for the creation of a new body. When the revised Broadbast Bill returns to Parliament, this lacuna should be addressed, and the patchwork of policy replaced by legislation that covers the entire gamut of communication in a coherent manner. On the other hand, like in the monsoon session of Parliament, if the government attempts to once again institute a crippled, feebly mandated regulator, keeps licensing power to itself, and continues to let AIR hold its monopoly over radio news, it will merely be another example of slow progress.

In the meantime, for the community radio movement in the country, 16 November, is a momentous and historic day. It is eleven years since the Supreme Court asked the government in 1995 to open up the airwaves. It has been long series of stops, starts, forward and backward moves since then. But the gates have finally opened more equitably, and the most recent hurrah is to radio itself.