The drive down the East Coast of India to Nagappattinam is not an easy one - it is 10 hours by public transport from Chennai. If you travel another 22 kilometers from Nagappattinam you come to Vilunthamavadi. Here the weariness of your journey begins to lift as you meet a dedicated team of young women working for the Kalanjiam Samuga Vanoli (Kalanjiam Community Radio Station). You could take this gaggle of young Class XII pass women cycling down the village, to be students on their way to college.
Meet K Manjula, P Gowsalya, G Sripriya, V Manimegalai, A Porkodi and S Jenci. For the past two years Manjula and Porkodi, who have undergone training in community radio have been interacting with their local community and coaxing them to speak about their experiences, which have then been transformed into valuable information packed radio programmes. The remaining girls have joined this endeavour over the past few months.
After the devastating Tsunami in December 2004, the Madurai-based DHAN Foundation started working in the affected fishing and farming communities along the coast with a long-term development focus. Given that DHAN already had experience in audio and video production it sought to use this experience to build awareness on disaster risk reduction and mitigation. The project was initially supported by the United Nations team for Tsunami Recovery Support under United Nations Development Programme to bring in a community radio in the disaster prone coastal district of Nagapattinam.
Over the past two years, DHAN Foundation set up Village Information Centres (VICs) connected with internet facility in the five villages and broadcast its programmes through a public address system. Technical support is provided by VOICES, a Bangalore-based Development Communication NGO.
Gowsalya says, 'Earlier, I only knew my family members. Working in Kalanjiam l learnt how to make programmes and I now know my neighbours and many other people in the five villages that we cover. I have also learnt a lot.'
Even as Gowsalya was learning the ropes, one day as she was moving around the village, she happened to interact with Pakarisamy a yoga tutor. During the interview he told her that for few months he was unable to walk and by practicing yoga he had beaten what was sure to have been an amputation. Realising the essence of information and the utility of yoga for her fellow villagers she now makes a daily episode on yoga.
This programme was well received and 'this motivated me to do the series of yoga programmes. I also encouraged children to opt for yoga so that they could be alert and be able to concentrate better on their studies,' Gowsalya explains. Manjula who has been associated with Kalanjiam Samuga Vanoli since it moved to the village says that earlier she used to do some tailoring work and had learnt Tally. However, she was not satisfied with what she had been taught and when DHAN Foundation was looking for community volunteers for their radio project she took this opportunity to learn another skill.
Kalanjiam Samuga Vanoli - which has been testing its transmission over the past few months - has been set up at Vilunthamavadi village of Keelaiyur Block in Nagapattinam District, Tamil Nadu. The station was inaugurated on July 12 2009, by the District Collector C Muniyanathan and covers a community within 10 kilometers around Vilunthamavadi.
The Keelaiyur Vattara Vayalagam, a federation of farmers promoted by DHAN Foundation, owns the station. A 21-member board of governance works with a professional deputed from DHAN Foundation and a team of local volunteers. In addition, a small advisory group consisting of teachers, health workers, farmers, fishermen, women and children has been set up to advise on content.
The station is equipped with very basic infrastructure needed for producing audio programmes - a recording and transmission room both without any sound proofing. The station is connected with the VICs set up by DHAN Foundation in the village through Local Area Network. Until now, this VICs narrowcast two hours programmes daily through the Public Address Systems fixed over towers.
DHAN Foundation's Project Executive Naguveer Prakash who is based in Vilunthamavadi says, 'Recordings are done at the studio or in digital voice recorders in the field and these volunteers handle all the pre and post production work.' Even as they have waited to go on air, they have used the time to brush up their skills. 'As part of the Tsunami rehabilitation efforts we covered and made programme across 50 to 60 km of the affected East Coast. We were making these programmes at a time when people were just trying to get their lives back in order. Although ours was a team of newcomers, the series caught the fancy of AIR's Karaikkal FM station,' says Prakash. Kalanjiam Samuga Vanoli did 40 slots of 15 minutes duration each weekly with this immensely popular local channel.
Sripriya who has recently joined, was earlier engaged with a Science Forum were she engaged with children and parents. Bringing in this experience Sripriya, who herself likes listening to the radio, now focuses on the children's programmes apart from putting together proverbs, songs, health tips and the doctors' programme.
While the DHAN Foundation provides the technical guidance, the enthusiasm of its team is its soul. Almost all the team members agree that earlier they had no idea how radio programmes were made. Manjula says they are totally motivated to make their programmes. 'When I first started working here, I had not even expected remuneration,' she says. Manimegalai adds, 'I have gathered a lot of knowledge while trying to make these programmes. The tips on health and how to keep the environment clean are very useful not only for the listeners but for us too.'
Porkodi, who feels she now has a greater self-esteem, says 'I am proud that I have been able to show my expertise. I have also been able to convince children who were initially hesitant to participate in the programmes. I have also learnt to take help from people who are referred to me by people I know.'
The team's success has not gone without recognition. Manjula and Porkodi were also part of the original team that was honoured with the Manthan Award South Asia 2008. Kalanjiam Samuga Vanoli Community Radio, India was awarded for Community Broadcasting along with Dambadeniya Community Radio, Sri Lanka and Equal Access, Nepal.
Their efforts are also lauded by the local community. Kanngaredheinam a farmer in Vilunthamavadi says that on the public address system Kalanjiam Samuga Vanoli could be heard within a 2 kilometer range. He says he and his family members listened to the programmes that were aired and have benefited from some of them. 'The programmes on prevention of seasonal diseases are very useful for community,' he says recalling that when 90 people in the village were affected by chickenguniya, 'Even as the disease was spreading in the village, Kalanjiam provided information how people could protect themselves and their families.' Prakash says simultaneously DHAN facilitated the services of a homeopath doctor to distribute medicines.
With Kalanjiam Samuga Vanoli now being broadcast, Kanngaredheinam says that although he does not have a radio at home, he listens to the radio programmes at a local shop. 'Now radio can reach the whole area. It is a gift that nobody here had ever expected.'
Farmer Karunanidhi is a bit of a legend in Vilunthamavadi. For several years now he has been experimenting with drumsticks. While drumsticks are available only for two months in the year, he sourced high quality seedlings which grew faster and made drumsticks available during the off season. In his crop planning he intercropped mango, coconut and vegetables with drumsticks at every fifth feet. While the vegetable was available for Rs 5 kilogramme during the season - April, May, June during the off season Karunanidhi was able to sell the same at Rs 20 a kilogramme.
Karunanidhi opted for organic farming practices 10 years ago and with the success of his drumstick crop Kalanjiam Samuga Vanoli interviewed him and he detailed how he had been working. After his 10 minute programme was broadcast several people contacted him and asked him for guidance on drumstick cultivation. He says, 'People used to approach me, I would show them my crop and I have given away 3 kilos of drumstick seeds for people to try their hand.'
Even as the team struggles with the initial teething problems with transmission, they are working towards making use of their available resources effectively in response to disaster management and developing a sustainable model for community radio so that Kalanjiam can manage on its own funds in the long run.
Says Prakash of the geographical terrain, people live in dispersed directions, in pockets which are isolated and scattered, and reaching out to them is a daunting task. To this he adds that mobilizing and facilitating communities is an issue.
The Government timetable for getting the licence did not match the funding and support period. If it had been faster, Kalanjiam Samuga Vanoli feels that they would have been able to overcome the hurdles that they are currently facing - both technical and from the community. These could have been better tackled during the period that they were being funded and supported.
They are also facing technical problems for evening transmission. 'When we had the funds we did not have the licence and now we have the licence but no funds. We now have to deal with the technical problems from internal organizational funds,' says Prakash. Promised promos of Government schemes have still no been shared with community radio stations.
Given the situation that Kalanjiam Samuga Vanoli is currently facing, Naguveer Prakash wonders aloud about the efforts to bring about a sustainable model after the initial funding and institutional support moves away. He says, 'The CR model in Nagapattinam was conceived to serve communities in disaster prone areas. We hope that in the time to come, the station will emerge as a response to disaster management.'
As an afterthought he adds, 'Only then will community begin to give importance to the work that is being done by the station.'