Your neighbor's voice: reducing vulnerability to disasters through community radio

By Elizabeth Stevens
If we get information about rain upstream, we will take some precautions. We'll open the sluices to divert the flood. - Sethurajan, a farmer whose village has an Oxfam-supported community radio.

Manoj Prabakar's radio address on water management is delivered flawlessly, and when he steps out of the studio, he is congratulated warmly—especially by his grandmother, who puts her arms around him.

Manoj is 13, and his audience is the village of Mangalamapatti, India. The studio is an information center—a single room that serves about a hundred purposes for five communities, and the machine used for sound editing is the only computer in town.

This is community radio, where a village fashions the programs it wants and needs, and fast-talking DJs and advertisers need not apply.

Diverting floods and planting trees

The Advanced Center for Enabling Disaster Risk Reduction (ACEDRR) of the Dhan Foundation, an Oxfam partner, has helped launch a pilot community radio project to serve around 100,000 people in rural settlements of Madurai district, because they see its potential in improving disaster response and risk reduction at the village level.

When emergencies like floods and fires strike remote communities, it's friends and neighbors who are the first responders. Notifying a village quickly of an emergency in a neighboring community can make all the difference in how effectively help is mobilized.

And localized weather and flood forecasts can help natural hazards from becoming community disasters.

"If we get information about rain upstream, we will take some precautions" says Sethurajan, a farmer whose community has a reservoir for irrigation purposes. "We'll open the sluices to divert the flood; we'll cut off the big bunds to divert the route so excess water can be drained off."

But in communities that struggle with the everyday disaster of poverty, anything from a poor crop to the loss of a farm animal to a serious illness can create a household emergency, so villagers are eager for information about anything and everything that can improve the security and well-being of their families.

Men seem enthusiastic about radio shows on outbreaks of livestock diseases and on the latest agricultural techniques. One suggests that local radio could help revive kudi maramaithu, the ancient practice of careful community maintenance of the village reservoir and water works.

Women, says a radio enthusiast named Vijia, like programs about health, legal matters, and the importance of tree planting. "We get a lot of information about our daily lives,"" she says. "As women, we are happy about that."

Radio: it's practical

The radio is a medium that ensures that almost everyone has access to information, no matter what their age and reading level.

"I'm illiterate, but I'm learning so much," says Manoj's grandmother Podai Amma.

Although televisions here are widespread—gifts from the state to households in even the smallest, poorest villages of Tamil Nadu—they're not as practical as radios in that you have to stop what you're doing to watch TV.

"With radio," says Sethurajan, "we can keep on working."

Young women take the lead

Each radio station has an operator—a person who functions as the primary producer and announcer. The operator gathers ideas for program topics, carries out research, interviews guests, edits sound tracks, and ensures that the program reaches its target audience. The job has generally fallen to young women—to their delight.

"Through this job I'm learning so much and getting exposure to so many things," says Bhuvaneswari. "I'm learning, so I'm happy."

In traditional villages where young women are kept close to home, the level of independence this job requires sometimes raises concerns among parents, but when operator Amutha rani completes a program and joins an admiring crowd in the village square, her mother looks on with unmistakable pride.

"The community respects the operators," says a young woman named Raji, who speaks from experience. "Everyone should be a community operator."

The essence of community radio

The afternoon's programming ends with music. It's a song about poverty, and the words and melody are sad, but the woman's voice is beautiful, and listening to her in the village square at the close of the day is a lovely experience. Only a few of us know who's singing—our Oxfam colleague Mareeswari, who made this recording earlier in the day—but word spreads quickly.

"This is the difference in community radio," says ACEDRR director Sangeetha Rajadurai. "Everyone is curious to know whose voice they're hearing."

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