How a community radio is giving voice to the climate-vulnerable in Tamil Nadu
“What preparations should one make for children before a cyclone strikes?” asked Durga at a community radio station located in the middle of paddy fields in the coastal village of Vizhuthamavadi, roughly 320 kilometers (km) to the south of Chennai in Tamil Nadu.
Ranjitha, a resident of a nearby village and the radio jockey at this radio station called Kalanjiam Samuga Vanoli, crafted credible answers from the government’s disaster management booklet.
The broadcast covers a radius of approximately 20 km, reaching seven to eight villages of Nagapattinam district. Transmitted at 90.8 megahertz (MHz), the stories are by the community, for the community, building this disaster-prone coastal region’s resilience as India’s vulnerability to extreme weather events increases due to climate change.
Aparna Shukla, the station director, observed, "People don't necessarily understand climate change and the increase in the frequency of extreme events."
After Cyclone Gaja wreaked havoc in the state in November 2018, Shukla with the help of the radio station’s parent NGO, DHAN Foundation, formulated an idea to bring climate change into perspective for the rural communities. "Climate change is in our face, especially if you are in such an area. The impact on livelihood is direct, and the suffering is higher. Many are poor and so, highly vulnerable.” she said.
"Voice of the Vulnerable is a group of rural reporters covering issues of climate change and environment which are usually not reported or spoken about in the community. We are trying to package it and make the voice louder."
The radio station has organized three batches of Voice of the Vulnerable: Community Journalism Workshops since February 2019. Shukla and Ranjitha conducted sessions along with disaster management officials and other experts which attracted numerous participants, with a majority of young females, from Vizhunthamavadi and neighboring villages.
The station now has around 25 active community journalists, most of whom are between 15 to 25 years of age. "We ask volunteers to report what they care for," said Shukla.
Twenty four year old Kaviarasu, with an inclination towards agricultural and solution-based stories, interviewed an organic farmer about his practices. 20-year-old Kanaimuzhi reported about excessive groundwater extraction using borewells in her locality. Some focused on the issues of rising salinity in the soil and water damaging crops post-disasters while one spoke to a farmer who grew timber-intensive trees as an option for insurance in the time of need.
As Ranjitha pointed to each device in the 110 square foot room, she said, "We have a basic setup to do live or recorded shows: transmitter, audio mixer, some mics, and a filter. Usually, we go to the field and use our phones for interviews. We can't expect people to come here. Also, some natural coastal sounds are good too!"
The initiative also enables the voices of the vulnerable to be amplified in print. "We will distribute a newsletter called Coastal Watch with these stories amongst the community, village authorities, and district officials,” said Shukla.
The workshop's banner in the station's veranda sets the backdrop to the vulnerability of the communities:
We took our boats into the ceaseless waves.
Without any rest, to catch fish.
Our body was fatigued, but we were joyful.
We returned to the shore to meet our kin.
But there were neither people nor huts.
Where did you take them?
(Translated from a Tamil poem written by the volunteers)
Vinod Pavarala, community radio expert and UNESCO Chair on Community Media at the University of Hyderabad, said "Community radio has a basic philosophy of empowering marginalized people. So, it is attuned to disaster management for the vulnerable section of society.”
He added that “a formal information exchange protocol is essential between community radio stations and district government bodies” for stations to get credible information to disseminate, and for officials to get accurate information from the ground up in the time of crisis.
Kalanjiam Samuga Vanoli, located three kilometres from the shore, was the state's first community radio station established in 2008, as a means to rehabilitate communities after the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. It helped transmit weather alerts and other preparatory messages before Gaja, and also provided rehabilitation services after the disaster.
But funding and sustainability are still some of the issues for the radio station.
The next workshop is expected to attract new faces and a higher number of women. "If the community is not listening to all our shows, at least the volunteers take away something new and start a dialogue in their homes and neighborhood," said Shukla.