SOM NATH ARYAL

Nepal,

To sustain citizen participation and entrench good governance, Som Nath Aryal is building a system of independent community radio stations. People—organized around common interests and community needs—communicate, advocate, celebrate, and provide a vital flow of information to develop their towns and villages together. This process accumulates social capital, holds government officials’ accountable, and gives citizens a voice.

This profile below was prepared when Som Nath Aryal was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2008.

INTRODUCTION

To sustain citizen participation and entrench good governance, Som Nath Aryal is building a system of independent community radio stations. People—organized around common interests and community needs—communicate, advocate, celebrate, and provide a vital flow of information to develop their towns and villages together. This process accumulates social capital, holds government officials’ accountable, and gives citizens a voice.




THE NEW IDEA

Som Nath is demonstrating how independent community radio stations can work as dynamic tools for social change. He has given the true meaning to the concept of community radio, with an independent of commercial or political interests and is managed and funded by communities. He mobilizes all sectors of the society—youth, womens’ groups, community forest users, and other professionals, to inform, engage, and connect people as active, change making citizens through community radio. They are engaged in all aspects of program production and consumption. Significantly, Som Nath has encouraged isolated, uneducated, and unemployed rural youth (the same cohort that has often been enticed into violent agitation) to form Radio Sangi Samuha (meaning, Friends of the Radio). They are not mere listeners’ clubs, but are the producers and contributors of radio programs that mobilize communities to make the radio sustainable and to improve village life. Friends of the Radio also plays an important role as watchdog groups against corruption and injustice.

Community Radio Madan Pokhara, the community radio station Som Nath first established is developing a broad citizen base of support through villager participation in fundraising, manual labor, program production, decision-making, advertising, and knowledge dissemination, for the station. He has initiated unique fundraising activities to elicit support from the community forests-users groups, mother’s groups, and other community organizations, including the District Development Corporation and Village Development Corporation so the whole community feels a sense of ownership.

Som Nath’s goal is to break down barriers of caste and gender, and to build a just, democratic society in which all participate. Using the radio station as a vehicle, he captured an important moment following the passage of a new radio law in 1998—allowing any one to establish a station with a 10 Watt transmitter. His work spans from villages to the highest policy levels.




THE PROBLEM

Until 1995, the state owned radio, Radio Nepal, was the only transmitter of information in the country. The Nepal Broadcasting Act of 1998 gave greater opportunity and autonomy to private and community-owned media and appeared to open up tremendous opportunity but, ultimately, this act of government has been abused. The National Broadcasting Act does not provide for a clear distinction between private, commercial, and community stations. There are no distinctions based on the content or the information disseminated, nor are the stations demand driven. The content of the radio programs do not reflect the needs of the majority of the people, many of whom have not received formal education. Most programs treat the listeners as passive recipients and give them a huge dose of commercial advertisements, asking them to use certain products or patronize shops and brands rather than offering a real choice of programming more suited to their every day lives. Thus, information remains controlled.

Commercial stations are, of course, about profit and make money from advertisements, like commercial ventures the world over. Their motivation is not preparing for democracy and nonviolence, but consumerism. Such consumerism can be damaging to communities in a country where 600 youth from Nepal’s villages are lured abroad every day in search of jobs. These youth are not given opportunities to contribute and participate in the “new Nepal”. Frustration breeds disillusionment in young people. They develop low self-esteem and look for alternatives for their energy, often taking up violence and radical politics.

In the early 1990s Nepal’s social entrepreneurs were at the forefront of opening up media and journalism in the newly democratic country. The first generation idea was to train and prepare barefoot journalists to report local news and engage the citizenry. The second generation encouraged community newspapers and “wall” newspapers catering to a newly literate populace. Now, individuals excited and trained to create the news have broadened, and have laid the groundwork for the future. Som Nath sees this future in radio and the internet.

While newspaper and other print media have flourished; readership is still limited due to poverty and illiteracy, as well as treacherous terrain and poor infrastructure. Aside from print media, television is another form of information dissemination; however, a large segment of the population still lacks access to television due to poverty and the scarcity of electricity in Nepal. The lack of access to other types of media makes radio a more powerful tool for news dissemination. As the majority of homes in Nepal have access to a radio, radio is a most effective tool. As such, the Government of Nepal has issued 200 licenses for FM radio broadcasting to 100 stations that have committed to run as community radios. Unfortunately, the concept of community radio remains unclear. Few groups with honest intentions have the resources or strategy to make community radio work while other groups with ulterior motives are quickly grabbing space from the community groups. Som Nath is applying his energies both to newly approved stations in need of a guiding hand and to those commercial stations in need of a transformation to become community interest-based.




THE STRATEGY

Som Nath believes that Community Madan Pokhara and the strategies and safeguards that keep it community owned, operated, and financed, will pave the new way for a strong and democratic Nepal.

To create a well-informed, active, and aware populace, Som Nath and his team reach out to village youth to form Friends of the Radio groups. These groups (there are 152) act as liaisons with the villagers, the community, and the radio, and also liaise with the government for resources and commitments for deliverables. The youth organize themselves to harness funds, gather information to produce programming, and contribute to the substance of advertisements aired. Community Radio Madanpokhara puts emphasis on educational advertisements and advertisements for products that are useful for the mostly agrarian villages. While other radio stations encourage products that are purely commericial, such as jewelry, or products that may even be harmful to villagers’ health. In contrast, Community Radio Madan Pokhara airs news and information, for example, about the birth of a baby in the community or a young boy’s first day in school, a religious function in the vicinity, new techniques in agriculture, compost making, and other information relevant to the community. This inclusive approach to radio has ensured a community radio that is truly by and for the community. These radio groups are also effective tools to mobilize youth in various social, cultural, economic activities and to support local good governance. Through Community Radio Madanpokhara, Som Nath discovers and demonstrates new ways for youth to be productive and important citizens and remain in their villages—rather than flee to cities or foreign countries that promise (but rarely deliver) better economic prospects.

The radio offers new ideas for income generation, stimulating young minds, and nurturing creative abilities. Community Madanpokhara organizes public hearing programs for good governance and makes the public organizations accountable to the people. Through Community Madanpokhara program interventions, domestic violence has been reduced and polygamy has stopped in the villages that have active, participatory groups formed by Radio Madanpokhara.

Transparency in the station’s operations is ensured through its structure, as the station is strengthening and modeling good governance and accountability. Various groups are formed like the youth groups, mothers’ groups, community forest-users groups, farmers’ groups, and other professional groups or he taps into the existing village guilds and clubs. Two members from each group are selected and sent to Radio Madan Pokara as representatives to the Radio Assembly. This Radio Assembly makes all the important decisions on programming, management, fund raising, monitoring, and evaluation. This structure enhances community social responsibility and helps to prevent corruption or cooptation by any particular group or political party’s agenda. The basic tenants of professional journalism are imparted to the groups so that all of participants feel a part of the community radio, whether it is collating information, reporting, writing, or news reading. Som Nath’s fundraising strategies are interesting as he has reinstituted a once traditional but long-lost community practice of community funding. For example, the community forest-users have adapted their harvesting strategy to provide not only for their own families but for the radio station as well. Twice a year, community forest-users groups, an important segment of the radio audience, cut dried branches and clean the forests. They divide the cut wood and fodder among the members of the forest-users groups and have always done so. Interestingly, these forest-user groups have begun donating one portion of the cut wood and fodder to the radio, because they now consider the radio station to be one of their members. The forest-users air their views over the station and encourage others to donate to the radio. This strategy has spread to other districts and now other forest-user groups have begun to contribute to their community radio.

The cornerstone of the sustainability strategy for the community radio came from an old man from the community of Madan Pokhara, Sukh Lal, whose idea has secured the future of Som Nath’s community radio in several communities. Sukh Lal said, “Since the radio station has become our mind, heart, and mouth, we must help it with all means—mind, money, and labor—till it speaks our voice. I do not have money to give the station, but I have an idea which can be useful to generate income for the station. Let every household set aside a handful of rice from their daily consumption and give it to the station.” This act of giving a handful of grain existed as a philanthropic tradition in Nepal but had ceased over time. Som Nath has revived and applied it in the villages where he works through the network of local Radio youth groups. In the first two months, they collected rice and the equivalent money from households in villages across the station’s listening area. The youth groups keep 20 percent for their local activities, and send 80 percent to the station. Funds raised through villagers’ donations of rice represent a significant percentage of the radio’s budget.

The contribution of the people in cash and in-kind has benefited the station and the Friends of Radio groups in various ways. The contributions have ensured the sustainability of the station and have also increased the communities’ sense of ownership and responsibility for the radio station. As the communities contribute to funding the radio, they have a greater sense of ownership and authority in decision-making about programming and policies of the station. Concurrently, the local Friends of Radio youth groups (with the 20 percent they retain) have been able to expand and strengthen their social and cultural advocacy activities; enabling them to organize health camps, sports activities, intellectual debates, and to search for employment generation avenues. Som Nath has organized and inspired more than 6,000 youth, women, and elderly people in the communities his program has reached. His program covers seventeen districts.

Making youth socially responsible and allowing them to creatively serve the community has also empowered them within their villages. The youth act as watchdogs, for example, as roving reporters of local happenings; they have been responsible for criminals being brought to justice. In one village, after hearing the breaking news on Community Radio Madanpokhara regarding the looting of a truck in a neighboring area, villagers rallied and helped capture the criminals. The station has, in the past, documented and aired when teachers did not show up for classes, and has raised the alarm about a corrupt official. Following newsbreaks of bus accidents in districts where Community Radio Madapokhara provides coverage, villagers often unite to carry the wounded to the nearest hospitals, donate blood, and counsel the passengers. The radio often announces the blood groups of the patients needing transfusions, the births and deaths of community members, and other important milestones, which helps to bind the communities together. The station raises social capital by building mutual trust and positive co-dependence.

Community radio stations can be very cost effective. In rural Nepal, internet access is still limited and TV/print media are expensive. Radio has the ability to reach and engage hundreds of youth and adults who would otherwise feel isolated within their villages. Som Nath creates educational programs that are relevant to solve the problems plaguing these communities. He stresses the importance of positive radio advertisements and avidly works to decrease commercialization of radio programs so that the integrity of the community is retained. He has also begun airing tuition classes everyday on the radio, that have helped to increase the literacy rate and the percentage of students passing exams.

Som Nath is spreading his network and experience gained from Radio Madan Pokhara to other districts, hoping to encourage the existing licensed community stations to become truly community-owned and operated. He reaches out to all districts in Nepal and would like to replicate his model all over South Asia. Som Nath works closely with Ashoka Fellows’ Bharat Dutta Koirala and Vinaya Kasajoo, pioneers in the field of journalism, and initiated the first and second generation ideas of barefoot journalists and community newspapers. Always future oriented, he has also partnered with Ashoka Fellow Mahabir Pun who has installed wireless in the schools of Madan Pokhara. This partnership has great potential.

The new radio law in Nepal gave the opportunity for radio stations to be opened with a 10 Watt transmitter. Many have been opened as community owned radios but the profit is actually distributed amongst a few shareholders who control it or it is controlled by politicians. In addition to his other work, Som Nath works with journalists to pressure the government to distinguish between commercial and community radios and to revise the law. He would like to share his model of Community Radio Madanpokhara as a truly owned, managed, and sustainable community radio with other radio stations that define themselves as community radios.




THE PERSON

Som Nath was born into the privileged Brahmin class, but his Father died when he was five years old, and he began to experience the inequalities in Nepalese society. His father, the Mukhiya (chief) of the village, was wealthy and had authority and power in his village. In four days, four of Som Nath’s family members, like his father, died of food poisoning. Now a widow, his mother was stripped of privilege and status. During the family’s obligatory thirteen days of mourning, they were robbed of all their property and goods. Fellow villagers stole everything; forcing them to sell their house, cattle, and move into a hut to pay off their debt to village lenders. Being the eldest child, Som Nath witnessed his mother’s pain and suffering. She was compelled to do manual labor in others’ homes and received only rice in return to feed her family; she could barely pay Som Nath’s school fees. Due to their destitute situation, his sisters received no formal education and after grade 6 his mother could not afford to educate him. Som Nath worked in others’ fields, did the domestic work in his friends’ houses, and, in return, studied from his friends’ school books at night while they slept. After grade 8, again he could not continue his schooling, but a teacher who became his mentor sent him to a teachers’ training offered to students who had passed Grade 8. Som Nath began teaching grades 1 to 4. The day he entered the classroom as a teacher her realized he could shape lives. Though only a graduate of class 8, over many years he began a pattern of learning through teaching to improve his education and ensured his younger sisters went to school. Earning more, he arranged for his sisters to be married and continued his studies by distance learning up to the graduate level.

In those days, teaching was not a respected profession. Even with all the effort that went into teaching, teachers received no pension or health benefits. Frustrated, Som Nath became one of the first advocates to pressure the government for teachers’ rights and was arrested during protests. Ultimately, his fight led to increased security for the country’s teachers.

Discrimination always gnawed at him and motivated him to act. Through nonviolent means he slowly brought change, tolerance, and increased awareness of discriminatory practices. Som Nath models change for his children as well, with all four of his children marrying across-caste.

Though he has faced serious injustices, Som Nath always stresses the good in the people he has met and is grateful for the help he has received.




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