It's Sunday night and the winter sun has set over the desert plains of Kutch, a harsh and desolate region in the westernmost corner of India. Across the region, farmers and fishermen in their local tea stalls are crowded around transistor radios wired to car batteries to catch the opening strains of a weekly community radio show.
It is Radio Ujjas, and in the past three years it has transformed Kutchi village life. The region of Kutch is sparsely populated and largely isolated from the rest of India, not least because it shares a porous border with India's sworn enemy, Pakistan. Last spring, when sectarian violence raged across Gujarat, Kutch was the only part of the state that was spared the fighting. Kutchis speak their own dialect, which has no written script. The literacy rate among women is lower than 1 percent in some parts of the region.
In their efforts to communicate with the thousand-some villages of Kutch, a rural women's group called Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, or KMVS, hit upon the idea of radio. They got together with a collective of media professionals and taught themselves the ins and outs of radio production. Securing assistance from Gujarat's Indian Institute of Management, they got the show off the ground. Now the project is supported by the UN Development Program and the Indian government. They bought time from the state-owned All India Radio, which has an almost complete monopoly on India's airwaves but is willing to sell air and studio time as long as it can vet the content each week before a show airs. What emerged was a village radio show that uses local language, song and soap opera-style dramas to raise social awareness.
Almost two-thirds of the Kutchi population of 1.5 million now tunes in to the program. The show, which airs every Sunday, hits the hot-button issues of the region: alcoholism, marriage dowry, corruption. "We wanted to bring out the real issues that people don't talk about in the open," says Preeti Soni, the producer of the program, who hails from a Kutchi village. "So we created an imaginary village named Ujjas, and gradually it became the most popular program in Kutch."
The show initially addressed these issues through a serialized weekly radio soap opera that drew heavily on Kutchi folklore. Its main star was a Siberian crane, popular in Kutchi mythology, with a bird's-eye view over the villages of the region. Three years later the project has transformed into a vibrant weekly magazine that, in addition to the ever-popular serial, also airs investigative reports and a travelogue exploring Kutchi history and arts--all linked by indigenous folk songs. The compelling aim of Radio Ujjas is to teach media skills to villagers, particularly women. "We believe that we should impart the skills to the local people, so that they can in turn impart it to somebody else," explains Nimmi Chauhan of the Drishti Media Collective, who co-founded the project. "That's how truly you can be community radio."
The media collective trained a squad of fifteen village reporters, mostly school dropouts in their early 20s. Half of them are women--highly unusual in a traditional village society where women are usually married by age 16. The Radio Ujjas reporters share two minidisk recorders, which they take into the field to conduct interviews, and they have learned how to work with digital editing software. Now the project is run by the local media team, with guidance from a network of women village leaders. The reporters rove around the remote villages of Kutch, ferreting out stories for the most popular feature on Radio Ujjas, the muckraking investigative exposé. The segment name, "Parda Faash," literally means "lifting the veil"--a phrase that's become common around Kutch since the show went on the air.
Dozens of village problems have been solved after they were made public on Radio Ujjas. Batti Ahmat Bacchu, a 52-year-old illiterate fisherman who makes a living on Kutch's rocky shores, has experienced the impact of "Parda Faash" firsthand. Bacchu, along with hundreds of other fishermen, was being evicted from his district by a port expansion project. The company forbade the men to fish or live in the area. Bacchu, like many tribal villagers in India, occupies land that has been in his family for generations, but for which he holds no deed. He went on a fast and refused to vacate the land, but no one paid him any mind until a Radio Ujjas reporter got wind of the story and put Bacchu on the air. After the program aired, KVMS put Bacchu in touch with a legal collective, took his case to court and the company was forced to come up with alternative resettlement plans for the fishermen.
The program has gained such a reputation that sometimes when a reporter starts sniffing around a village, the problem will be cleared up before she can even come back to report on it. KMVS always follows up on its stories, and the staff answers every letter they receive.
Another unusal hallmark of Radio Ujjas comes each week when the program's reporters listen to the show on a village radio somewhere in Kutch and talk to locals about the program after it airs. The word "Ujjas" means "light" in Kutchi, and that is exactly what the producers hope it sheds.