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Natural disasters: Radio is the best tool for communication

16 July 2013

Dr R Sreedher

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Radio can perhaps be the best tool for communications due to its all-pervading presence and its freedom from things like power failure, which normally affects all communication channels, writes R Sreedher.

Everywhere, even in the big cities, the breakdown of communication systems causes much more panic and disaster. In Mumbai for instance, the moment the rains come down and the city gets flooded, the power failure causes landlines, internet all to fail. Such things affect everyone; even big celebrities like Shekhar Kapoor, who in a recent email exchange, sent an email regretting his delay in response due to internet failure.

The idea about using radio for disaster management struck me years ago, on a visit to Washington DC in the year 1985. It was the year the cyclone 'Gloria' struck the East Coast. Two days before Gloria struck, my friend Jeff Rosenberg of National Public Radio and I were going to the mall, when he told me the radio was announcing the 'ten commandments'. The 'ten commandments' were tips and directions being given to the people to follow when the cyclone strikes.

The commandments gave directions about buying batteries, removing any flying objects from the sliding roof tops of the house, pasting newspapers on glass windows and doors to keep damage due to breaking minimal, taking pets and animals to a safe place, taking out the radio and keeping it ready with the disaster frequency tuned on etc. This pre-warning of sorts helped in many ways I saw. For instance, when we went to buy an umbrella which normally costed 5 dollars, the shop sold it to us at a discounted rate of 3 dollars due to the cyclone warning. The assistant explained to us how this was being done to encourage people to buy more umbrellas. The communications system was so good and efficient as I was watched the coverage of the cyclone on TV, and then when the live TV went off air; people were advised to tune in through the radio.

Seeing this, when I came back to India in November 1985, I decided to implement a similar disaster management programme on All India Radio, Chennai. It was during that time that a cyclone was getting formed in the Bay of Bengal. On hearing the news, I immediately asked the Duty officer to note down the ‘ten commandments’ and asked the announcer to announce it a number of times that day.

Though the ensuing episode was a different effect of the ‘ten commandments’ in India. At the usual morning meetings, one particular programme officer was furious about these announcements. He said after listening to it, he went to buy some batteries at Mylapore, Chennai. The batteries were being sold at an inflated price of Rs. 4 from a previous Rs. 2; the merchants answer to an increased demand due to the radio show. Ironically, the situation remains same after all these years.

This situation is still continuing in India even after 30 years of the said incident. What struck me is how disaster management communication is lacking in India. And to top it, the disaster management authorities do little in terms of using radio for their use.

Another way radio can be used effectively is to cover and report on natural disasters. A good example of this would be our coverage during the 2004 tsunami. On the day the tsunami struck, it was Sunday and the help told me about sea water entering their houses due to the increased water level.

I was then heading the media centre and Community Radio at Anna University Chennai. I immediately went to the university and asked several of my students to immediately go to the spot and get an interview. This was the first reporting on the tsunami, even before all mainstream channels. More than this, the radio was of help to the police for arranging relief measures during the tsunami. The then commissioner of police Natraj, came to know of the reportage at our Community Radio station and instructed the police to take note of the broadcasts from it for arranging relief measures. Of course the so called mainstream regional TV channels then took over, but they aired ‘live’ visuals a full eight hours after the tsunami.

Despite all these instances, radio including Community Radio has not been exploited enough for disaster management. The role of AIR Port Blair was praised by the media and the Government of India after studying Anna CR wanted the administration of Andaman and Nicobar islands to make use of the expertise of Anna University. Though nothing has happened till date and not a single CR station exists in the Andamans. The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, fulfilled its part by organising a three-day meet in January 2012, but yet not a single application has come from the state.

There is still a lot of work to be done to effectively leverage radio for disaster management and much convincing has to be done in government departments and the administration to exploit the full potential of the radio during natural disasters.

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