Maraa: This is what change ‘sounds’ like

A young media and arts collective, Maraa is transforming the way people consume Community Radio. Here they talk about their ideas, their work and the problems that they’ve faced, convincing people that the right to speech is as important as any other fundamental right.

1.  How was Maraa conceptualized?

While conceptualizing the organization, we had three simple ideas in mind:

  1. We need to walk our talk – so we must start an urban community radio station. A radio station that broadcasts philosophy and literature with as much ease as it does justice and equality.
  2. Media creates reality for millions, gives voice to people and yet makes others invisible, and shapes public opinion. So people-owned independent media is worth fighting for
  3. All development and no creativity make the world a dull place. We want to pay attention to the transformative and indeed liberating power of the arts. We wanted to use arts to engage with the city in which we’re based (Bangalore) – paying attention to creative practices for survival and mindful of the violence that is brought about by infrastructural transformation

2. What is Maraa’s story?

We started in February 2008 with no corpus funding to even buy stationery, or set up an office. Luckily, we had applied for a grant to a UNESCO project called International Project for Development of Communication (IPDC). In this project we had requested funding to train and set up India’s first 8 community radio stations – the first 8 that had received a license as per the revised policy guidelines in 2006 issued by Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. These stations were located in Uttarakhand (The Energy Resource Institute), Jharkhand (Alternative for India Development), Bundelkhand (Development Alternatives), Karnataka (MYRADA), Tamil Nadu (PARD).

This funding allowed us to start working with some of the earliest community radio stations that were licensed to community groups affiliated to these NGOs. At the same time it gave us some latitude in setting up formal operations from Bangalore.

By the time we were done with this project in 2010, we were known as community radio trainers. We were approached by donors and radio stations asking us to do more training with other radio stations. Several earlier radio stations also asked us to continue training through independent partnerships. This allowed us to keep traveling, and keep building relationships with community broadcasters’ efforts

3. Tell us about a few ongoing projects?

Currently, we are training women broadcasters from eight community radio stations in the North Indian zone and eight community radio stations from the South Indian Zone. Each radio station nominates two people from their staff who become master trainers and each radio station has trained about 15-20 community members in their area of work. Ultimately, through this project we hope that about 300 community members across North and South India have been trained. This project is supported by Commonwealth Educational and Media Centre for Asia (CEMCA). This is one way of scaling up our work.

The other work we are doing is exploring e-learning. In partnership with Commonwealth of Learning (COL), we are working with NGOs like us from around the world – South Africa, Jamaica, Malawi, Canada, Kenya and so on. Together we develop curriculum on Communication for Development. This course is hosted on a Moodle platform and learners get certificates from Caribbean Institute for Media and Communication (CARIMAC). The course is offered for anyone living and/or working in Commonwealth countries around the world.

We’re working with a community radio station in Gurgaon, called Gurgaon Ki Awaaz. We’re training and working with them to build a participatory communication programme called Chaahat Chowk – it’s a programme on learning about sexual and reproductive health. It’s become one of their most popular programmes. This work is also supported by Commonwealth of Learning.

We’re working with Ministry of I&B, and Ministry of Communications & IT to look at technical aspects of community radio. These include access to spectrum, use of mobile and Internet for community radio and also policy research (This work is supported by Ford Foundation in New Delhi).

Lastly, we are also working on shaping community radio policy. We are working with the government to identify ways in which FM spectrum can be optimally used and repeated so that the number of frequencies available for community radio can increase in order to meet the listening needs of communities.

4. How is Maraa different from other online forums? 

Although media is a large part of our work, it’s ironical that we’re not very active online ourselves. The arts work of Maraa is situated in public spaces in the city – and not in public spaces of the Internet. The media work too is structured around fieldwork – workshops with radio broadcasters, shaping policy with government. I don’t know the rest of the forums that are online but I think we’re different in terms of the sheer diversity of our work, our open attitude and willingness to work with absolutely anyone and everyone. All of this means we’re more chaotic and shambolic that other organizations but in our opinions, the merits outweigh by far the liabilities!

5. What kind of an impact do you want to create?

It differs in terms of the work we do. In terms of the media work, we want to introduce thousands of people to the concept of participatory and people-centred media/communication. At another level, we want to work towards shaping public policy that prioritizes spectrum and other communication infrastructure, which is in favour of marginalized people across remote, rural and hilly parts of the country.

In terms of the arts work, the impact would be in opening up public spaces – both parks and government spaces to accept diverse arts works. Not just from well-known and famous artists, but also from lesser-known and independent artists who are looking for spaces in the city.

6. How do you measure the success of Maraa?

We measure the success of Maraa in terms of the human networks we have built. The more people want to connect with us, the more we see ourselves as successful. The other big indicator of success is if Maraa becomes entirely dispensable. If others see the point of what we’re trying to do, and if they take interest, then we are not needed. It becomes a people’s agenda. That would be a big indicator of success.

7. What continues to be the biggest hurdles?

Several hurdles in our line of work

We’re a small NGO but very unlike other NGOs. We have no support when we began. What documents are needed, what rules have to be followed, where to register, what are the systems to be followed exactly. We struggled and learnt everything on the job. So the initial years were extremely messy in terms of compliance and administration, and much of this is hard to set right due to the sheer amount of bureaucracy involved in the non-profit sector.

Increasingly non-profit sector is moving towards project mode rather than building public interest institutions. This is because the financial support is dwindling for sectors other than education and health. Regulations around receiving support from outside the country are also becoming difficult. Of course there is a need for accountability within the NGO sector, but the need for accountability should not become the rope with which the government makes a noose for all NGOs.

Media and communication are not seen as priorities. Many people think Roti, Kapdaa and Makaan are the priorities, and media is an elitist concern. It’s hard to convince people about why the right to speech is equally if not more important than other rights and demands.

We are not connected to old money; corpus funds and we don’t have godfathers in the field. We literally started from scratch without any safety net. It continues to dog some aspects of our work. There have been months on end, where we were not sure where our next month’s salary would come from.

By Aditi Mishra

Aditi Mishra is a freelance writer with Campus Diaries