Towards the end of its stay in power, the Vajpayee government's Broadcasting Ministry joined hands with civil society advocates for the creation of a progressive radio policy. This move came after over five decades of independence, and nearly 9 years following a landmark 1995 ruling of the Supreme Court that virtually outlawed government or commercial monopoly over airwaves. While it is tardy, it is nonetheless positive.

In the meantime, all over the world, radio has come to stay. Radio stations are relatively cheaper to establish, operate, and run than television. Advertising revenues are lower than those from TV, but the numbers of radio stations are several multiples of the numbers of TV stations. Radio is a local and personal medium. Given a good balance of regulation, grievance redressal, public service programming, community and commercial broadcasting, radio audiences will grow, and so will the developmental and cultural experiences of listeners. This has been observed in many countries, both West and East.

But in stark contrast to regulation of TV, telecom and recently mobile telephony, successive governments have been unwilling to give up their control over radio broadcasting. Even today, AIR remains the dominant player and is the only public broadcaster funded with tax rupees. The few commercial FM stations licensed so far have run into a viability crisis barely a couple of years into their operation, thanks in part to exhorbitant license fees. (see Frequencies of expectation, May 2004). There are even fewer non-commercial stations, notably ones run by the Indira Gandhi National Open University, and the most recent one at Anna University, Chennai.

In 2003, the Amit Mitra committee reviewed the crisis in the commercial FM sector and made definitive recommendations. The committee did not delve too deeply into issues tying down community broadcasting and non-commercial radio, but two recent developments have brought this element to the fore. First a Community Radio (CR) workshop in New Delhi saw top bureaucrats from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, several stakeholders and practitioners from Indian civil society and UNDP executives coming together to talk enabling community broadcasting in India. This engagement led to broad sharing of concerns from both sides of aisle, government and people. Second, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has commenced holding a series of consultations on phase II of FM licensing that includes licensing and regulation of non-commercial FM stations. What's more, the regulator has recently announced that it will hold separate consultations for regulatory issues on CR.

For its initial consultation paper, TRAI must be commended. The document has a clarity that has been sadly uncommon in our government. For each broad issue in FM radio regulation, the TRAI paper outlined the problems, placed the Amit Mitra FM committee's recommendations next, and then proceeded to pose the questions that the public could answer. This structure made it possible for several informed but time-constrained individuals and civil society organizations to send in their inputs before the May 7 deadline. India Together submitted one as well.

Both the Ministry-UNDP workshop in Delhi and the TRAI initiative have created a buzz among campaigners for radio, as well as applicants for future non-commercial licenses. It is now hoped that consultations will help bring an informed discussion on several policy questions and concerns, and allow an enabling framework for both non-commercial and commercial FM radio to emerge.

Will the new government be more willing to accept that whatever policies are pursued, they must not end up placing freedom-of-speech restrictions on non-commercial stations?
The questions on the table are serious. Many centre on whether or when licensing policy must differentiate between non-commercial and commercial stations. May both be allowed to broadcast news and current affairs? Must the same revenue sharing and entry fees be levied on both types of stations? Must we permanently reserve sets of FM frequencies for non-commercial broadcasters? Can there be narrow content restrictions on non-commercial stations with monitoring from the government? Surely, there are distinctions. But a uniform constitutional framework should guide the regulatory role in both commercial and non-profit radio broadcasting. In addition, there is an abundance of international experience for reference.

This momentous phase of consultations coincided with the elections; democracy has just delivered a new executive to run the nation. New governments have a tendency to bring uncertainty to all policies advocated by the outgoing one. But this is also a time of opportunity for the incoming political leadership to look at its own history of decades of tying down radio and yet demonstrate its differences from those just evicted. In the broadcasting world, this turns largely on this question: will the new government be more willing to accept that whatever policies are pursued, they must not end up placing freedom-of-speech restrictions on non-commercial stations? Civil society groups that remain engaged with the TRAI consultations are keenly interested in the answer.

In a truly progressive society, determination of what we mean by the word 'progressive' is ultimately done by citizens and communities themselves. Policies conscribed by the government's understanding of this word, however well-intended they may be, may not meet the public's interest recognized by the courts. The telecom authority as well as the government must bring and retain this consideration at the forefront of their discussions.