Freedom of Marginal Voices: Analysing Future Challenges and Sustainability of Community Radio in India


Dhanraj A. Patil

Head, Department of Sociology, Walchand College of Arts and Science, Solapur, Maharashtra-413006

*Corresponding Author Email:



The logic for community radio (henceforth CR) in India is strong on constitutional, societal, cultural and developmental perspective. Freedom of expression and voice are considered as fundamental prerequisite for human development. India has a long tradition of exclusion of voicelessness. This article aims to address i) the inclusive communicative avenues created by CR’s for the historically excluded masses and their developmental issues precisely ii) what are the future challenges and intricate issues of sustainability of CR’s in Indian media landscape. Based on media ethnographic approach this study analyses the problem under investigation by locating voice poverty as a focal theoretical framework. The study concludes that CR’s are opening up new avenues for the large group of masses whose voices are historically muted to voice their own concerns inclusively. However, the article also explores certain crucial future challenges that are helpful in recognizing early caution for constructing inclusive strategies for the sustainability of CR in India and as well across the world.


KEYWORDS: Community Radio, Voice Poverty, Future Challenges, Sustainability, India.




A great gratitude to Amartya Sen’s 1 seminal work, “Development as Freedom,” 'voice' is increasingly acknowledged as a critical ingredient in poverty alleviation. In this perspective voicelessness and powerlessness have come to be seen as key dimensions of poverty while democracy, equity and civil rights are seen as not only intrinsically desirable but as directly contributing to the realization of human security, well-being and opportunity.


Amartya Sen has argued consistently and forcefully that no substantial famine has ever occurred in any independent country with a democratic form of government and a relatively free press. Sen has offered four reasons why media freedom is important.


1.    First he argues that freedom of speech and the ability to communicate is intrinsically desirable for well-being and the quality of human life. The suppression of people's ability to communicate directly reduces quality of life even if the authoritarian country that imposes such a constraint happens to provide other social and economic protections.

2.    Second, it can have an important protective function in giving voice to the neglected and the disadvantaged, the means to speak out can contribute greatly to human security. Political elites faced with public criticism in the media have a strong incentive to take timely action to avoid crises and to counter inequity in access to resources.

3.    Third, the media have an informational function in disseminating knowledge and allowing critical scrutiny. This function is crucial to empowerment and holding elites to account.

4.    Fourth the media have a crucial role to play in value formation enabling public adaptation to change and the local appropriation of knowledge and information.


From this perspective, communication policies that guarantee the rights to freedom of expression and access to information can contribute directly to the achievement of development goals. Policies that suppress these rights can have a detrimental effect. Without access to voice poor people are unable to participate in debate or to express their opinions on public policies that affect them directly. Without access to information poor people are unaware of their rights and entitlements, are unable to challenge decisions and lack the knowledge to take effective action to improve their conditions.


There is a reciprocated relationship between “poverty and voice” 2,3. 'Voice' can be described in association to development as inclusion and involvement in social, political and economic processes and considered as serious human development concern. The marginalised subaltern communities have excluded from the mainstream development discourse and development, so far. This process has further created voice poverty among the voiceless masses. Likewise, with the dawn of 20th century the media instead of being a means for advancing freedom and democracy started flattering more and more a way of making capital and propaganda for the new and powerful classes. The worst impacts of these changes are commercialization and urbanisation of mass media and the exclusion of the voices of subaltern groups4. Thus distinct, policies to decrease voice poverty necessitate an alternative counter hegemonic medium like community radio (CR) which is rooted in the philosophy of CR. The history of community radio movement (CRM) was intimately coupled with poverty and social injustice and offering an alternative post-bourgeois model of public sphere around the globe including, India. The rational for CR in India is strong on legal/constitutional, social, cultural and development grounds. India is multi-linguistic, multi-cultural, and multi-religious with more than 4000 castes, tribes and nomadic communities. If one considers village as a community then there are more than 0. 5 million villages and hence communities5. Against this background this paper primarily aims to analyse the contribution of CRM in terms of its subaltern counter-hegemonic and counter publics agendas and offer scenarios to cope up with future challenges in front of CRM in India. Connecting to the general aim, this paper addresses the following specific research question: To what extent is subaltern’s participation and voice (particularly rural women and Dalits, formerly known as untouchables) discernible in the CR’s? And what are the future scenarios that illustrate possible alternatives for the sustainability of CR movement in India? After this opening section the remaining part of the paper has five major sections which begin with origin and development dialectics of CRM in India briefly and setting of the study. The second part provides concise note on methodology it reflects method, tools and philosophy, followed by theoretical underpinnings lay down for the present study primarily the concept of voice poverty6. The theoretical framework derived from the aforesaid reflection is later employed to analyse the specific research questions set for the study to the purposively selected case studies of two grassroots level community radio stations under third section. Considering the sustainability of CRM the fourth section offers possible future scenarios and the final section of the paper ends with concluding remarks.


Origin and development dialectics of CRM in India:

The genealogy of global movement for alternative media traces its roots during 1970’s when the principle of the right to communicate gained prominence as part of the international debate referred to as the New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO) that represents an early response to the media globalization. Later on to study the communication problems of third world countries a commission was constituted under the chairmanship of Sen MacBride7. In 1980 the commission released its report ‘Many Voices, One World’ (the Mac Bride Report). The report was the landmark for the dawn of alternative communication movement at global level. As far as Indian context is concerned since 1980’s movements lead by NGO’s and social activists around issues such as environment, gender equity, and human rights of subaltern groups like rural women, indigenous and peasants opened up severe critique on the dominant paradigm that eventually paved way for the emergence of participatory, democratic and alternative communication approach of development. These new approaches emphasised the need to establish decentralised media systems with a more ‘receiver-centric’ and participatory.


Community-based independent media, such as community radio, participatory video and popular theatre are currently professed by media activists and NGO’s as a means of enabling rural people to manage their own development needs 8-9. The liberated Government of India retained elitist rights on radio and afterwards television transmission from the British Indian Telegraph Act (ITA), 1885. More than a century, in 1995, The (ITA) 1885 was challenged by the Supreme Court of India and delivered a remarkable verdict in February 1995, stating that ‘airwaves constitute public property and must be utilised for advancing public good’. Later on there was a decade long massive mass movement by media activists, academicians and NGO’s to adopt Supreme Courts judgement and make free airways for the common welfare of Indian citizens in 2006 the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) finally approved community radio policy in India. After its approval as of now nearly 200 CR’s have been functioning, of which about a third are serving in the rural backward regions of India.


Setting of study:

The following two case studies of pioneering CR’s represents India’s most backward regions have purposively been selected.

a)     Sangham Community Radio, instigated by Deccan Development Society (henceforth DDS) in Medak district of Andhra Pradesh and;

b)     Radio Bundelkhand, instigated by Development Alternatives (henceforth DA) in Orchha district of Madhya Pradesh.


Prior to enter in the operational part of the paper it is important to understand the development philosophy and the communicative ecosystem of these two CR’s and correspondingly their instigators, particularly DDS and DA.


Sangham Radio (SR), Telangana region, Andhra Pradesh, India:

On the occasion of World Rural Women’s Day (15 October, 2008) the first all women community radio station in Asia was inaugurated at Machnoor Village in Medak District of Telengana state of India by P.B Sawant former justice of Supreme Court of India. As soon as Justice Sawant switched on the 90.4 F.M; 50 watt transmitter at 1100 hours, the voice of the DDS women went out on air when they sang:


Come sisters let us go to our Sangham to talk, reflecting the aspirations of thousands of the members of DDS women’s Sanghams.

The distinctive feature of SR is it is completely owned, managed and operated by a group of subaltern grassroots rural women. The radio broadcast to a radius of 25 kms covering about 100 villages and a population close to 50,000. The Sangham Radio goes on air every day from 7 pm - 9 pm. In 1995 the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action affirmed the importance of media for women's empowerment. In 1997, women from 75 villages in and around Pastapur decided they needed their own media to express themselves, facilitate dialogue across rural communities, document and analyse local events and issues and convey information and ideas to the outside world. Based on these felt needs and UNESCO’s interest in women’s development and democratization of communication media, DDS was identified as a suitable partner for UNESCO’s “Women Speak to Women” project. As part of this, DDS has initiated necessary steps for establishing a radio station in 1998. But initially they have not received license from Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India, hence they used to rely on narrowcasting. This three-decade old grassroots organization (DDS) working in about 75 villages with women's Sanghams in telengana region one of the most backward deprived regions of Indian states. The term Sangham derives from the ‘Buddhist’ conception of an egalitarian and cooperative political community that was formed by the Buddhist movement in the fifth century BCE. The 5000 women members of the society represent the poorest of the poor in their village communities. Most of them are dalits, the lowest group in the Indian social hierarchy.


Radio Bundelkhand, Bundelkhand region, Orchha district of Madhya Pradesh:

Bundelkhand is one of the most backward regions of India. A region of high density of population 21 million people, it records some of the lowest levels of per capita income and human development in the country. Factors such as deforestation, fragmentation of land holdings, infant mortality, limited rainfall and fresh water reserves have resulted in low agricultural productivity that barely meets the subsistence needs of the people (Patil, 2012). In such a dismal environment DA one of the oldest community based organizations decided to bring the poor and downtrodden, the women and the marginalised, into the mainstream. DA recognised the role and significance of alternative communication in the process of development. Since the community radio policy allows only registered bodies with a minimum of three years’ registration to obtain a license, Development Alternative (DA), determined to set up the station but manage it jointly with the communities that fall within the prescribed 10 kilometre radius. The Wireless Operating License was issued on July 31st, 2008 and the first transmission took place on August 15, 2008 with the broadcast of the national anthem. Meanwhile the selected community reporters were trained over three months. Finally, Radio Bundelkhand (FM 90.4), Apna Radio Apni Batein(Our Radio our Voice) was inaugurated on the eve of Diwali(the national festival of light) on October 23, 2008 at the Appropriate Technology Centre of Development Alternatives at TARAgram, Orchha by Shrimati Prabha Devi, an agricultural labourer and member of Women Self Help Group from Sitapur village. This is the first community radio licensed in Madhya Pradesh state in Central India.



Researching on issues related to alternative media like community radio is not merely a head count; it goes beyond and explores micro realities at the grass roots level10. Within the qualitative framework the research is based on the study of community radio stations as “case study organizations” by applying media ethnography (ME) as focal method of investigation11. The ME approach unites interviews, participant observation, listening and content analysis of radio programs and document analysis. However, for scenario building a Delphi exercise also carried out. The Delphi is a methodical forecasting tool which involves structured interactive dealings among a group of panel of experts with diverse background. The Delphi believes in minimum two or more rounds of questions-answers for redefining and justifying the facts and providing opportunity for revisions and necessary changes. The Delphi exercise was conducted in an ideal environment with a small team (10-15) representing a wide range of expertise, drawn from different backgrounds exclusively connected with the problem under study that is community radio setting time frame @ 2030 during May-June 2016. Selection of participants in a typical qualitative study always differs from that of quantitative research. The strategy of theoretical sampling is used in this study12. Being a qualitative case study there is an inadequacy of border generalization. The data collected by ME finally analysed by using grounded theory for that thematic key words were developed in the light of research questions.


Theoretical manifestation:

The concept of “Voice poverty” put forth by (Tachhi) also argues that “voice is concerning the agency to represent oneself moreover the right to freedom of expression and is regarded as a fundamental aspect of citizenship. With reference to ‘poverty’ the concept of ‘voice poverty’ can be better conceptualized as the incapability of people mainly the subordinates to influence the choices and decisions that shape their lives, and the fundamental right to participate in that process”. Thus, voicing and inclusion of the needs of the voiceless is now deeming as fundamental to most processes of human development 13-14.




Inclusion of Subaltern Voices:

Participatory as a behaviour cannot be imposed from above. It has to take root slowly in individuals, in a cultural group, and gradually become part of the community 15.


This implies providing representation to those groups not usually represented in the mainstream media as well as providing the audience with access to marginalised information. However issues surrounding who provides community representation are complex. Outside the realm of theory, we find that community radio stations face difficulties in providing total representation to all members (gender, ethnicity, age, and religion) of every aspect of society. However, both the selected CR’s providing access for the participation of specific subaltern groups mainly (rural women and Dalits) who hold inherent characteristics of sualternity relevant to the social phenomenon.


Table 1: Taxonomy of representation of subaltern community in SR-RB

Sr. No


Sangam Radio

Bundelkhand Radio



Middle and Senior age

Young, Middle age



Female concentration;

Female headed station

Combination of Both male and female (Female headed station)



Downtrodden Backward caste (Dalit), Buddhist. Tribal representation

Lower Middle Caste, Hindu, lacks Tribal representation



Lower Bellow Poverty Line (LBPL); agricultural laborers; marginal farmers

Lower Bellow Poverty Line (LBPL); Landless laborers



Illiterate, neo-literate

Semi literate and higher secondary educated


Professional journalism education, training or experience




In this context the station manager of RB, Anuja Shukla explained the stations philosophy regarding the representativeness of local community:

The station deems that the community radio must be staffed by the community. Natural talent, aptitude, mastery of local languages, knowledge of community and the willingness to work for its development are criteria for selecting volunteers and reporters. Radio Bundelkhand is aware of its community function as a CRS. She further emphasizes that the stations programming aims at reflecting the interests, believes and traditions of its listeners. The station makes an effort to be representative of its community.

Table 1 offers the fact that how an alternative media can provide a platform for participation for the communities from bellow who have historically been excluded from both media and other social institutions in Indian society.  It is interesting to note that none of them have any kind of journalistic education or experience. This shows the strength of alternative journalism where “ordinary people” can also participate in production and distribution process of media content. These “Native Reporters” have an ability to present their counter hegemonic issues through their own media.



Representation of Women and Dalit’s:

The rural women and Dalits are customarily most deprived groups from various social institutions including media. However, these groups have become an important aspect of community radio and community video instigated by community-based organizations (CBO’s) they are trying to apply these community modes for societal change and upliftment of these two groups. There participation has clearly been visible in both operation and management of CR’s.  Marginalized group’s especially rural women have taking charge as a media producer and manager. “General” Narsamma and Algole Narsamma of Pastapur village in Medak District of Andhra Pradesh and Prachi, Nitu, Anuradha of Bundelkhand in Tikmgarh District of Madhya Pradesh are young, rural women, matriculate, and belong to poor daily wage earner dalit families. Over the years they have joined Sangham Radio and Radio Bundelkhand and have been trained in radio production as part of the community radio initiatives by these groups. Introvert and shy previously, nowadays they adeptly manage audio studios in their villages along with a few other women and volunteers and produce programmes in the local dialect that they feel would “benefit their community.” In the light of above discourse General Narsima, Station Manager of SR an idyllic role model for millions of rural deprived women puts on:


I come from a poor dalit family. It almost one decade has been completed in working with my own “people” and “radio.” This is a kind of self learning experience with full of problems, complexities and joyfulness. I get the most satisfaction when people recognize me that I am the radio person, they give me that respect and I am known. Without being in the radio I would have never got that respect.


From Voce Poverty to Neutrality through Participatory Content Creation:

In the context of development ‘Voice’ can be conceptualized as inclusion and participation in social, economic and political process without any hurdles. To create such an ideal environment to alleviate voice poverty it requires strategies using bottom-up approach which can provide voiceless groups a choice to influence and expand their own capabilities. However, to achieve this stage their stake and participation in the process of content creation becomes very much crucial. In this context it is important to know that how content creation activities can enable marginalised communities to have a voice. Participatory content creation can be shown to provide a mechanism to express oneself and participate in social and public spheres.


“Content created after extensive discussions, conversations and decision-making with the target community; and where community group members take on content creation responsibilities according to their capacities and interests” 16.


Throughout the field work at both radio stations (SR and RB) we observed a process of participatory content creation directly and indirectly involving their stakeholders particularly the participation of rural women and Dalits. It might be because of the welfarestic philosophical foundation of both of the stations and the CBO’s who instigated these CR’s. For the purpose of participatory content creation they have evolved their own indigenous methods for instance SR uses exclusive grassroots level Sangham meetings of the members where they conduct ‘social audit’ on CR program and get synthesis of community voices. Likewise, RB also use to organize special ‘narrowcasting’ programs to get involve voices of the excluded remote regions. A truly democratic environment is being created for the participatory content creation. The process is called as ‘creative engagement’ of subaltern voices16. Gender aspect is very much prevalent in participatory content creation.


Generally, media content production is still dominated by men in the mainstream media. Mostly it was unclear to what extent rural women had control over access to information and whether they had equal opportunities to voice their views through existing communication channels. As alternative, women have been using informal channels to seek information through face-to-face communications and discussions with peers, teachers, female community health workers and other women in the rural markets. However, our field observations provides a somewhat different environment where gender is considered as a significant dimension of CR mainly launched by the community-based organizations who are imparting communication technologies for social change in general and empowerment of women in particular. Apart from radio reporters the changing communicative ecology also catalyses rural women whose voices are not well recognised earlier. The following quote by Shushila Devi a member of self- help group is indicative evidence in this regard:


“Women of our village were earlier exceptionally reserved. During the discussions of our male villagers we used to sit inside the house. Nowadays, our daughters are coming ahead as community radio reporters, changing their traditional roles, this has created a different environment, where a kind of confidence is increasing to come out of the closed traditions and express our voices”.


During our FGD’s many women expressed that the participation can be further increased in CR’s especially in women concentrated programs and opportunity should also be given to the women other than the radio reporters as volumeters.



Future Challenges:

Alternative media like community radio are true “mass” media that challenges the dominant capitalist forms of media production, media structures, content, distribution, and reception. It has been found in the both CR’s the inherent counter publics philosophy is deeply rooted through their reporters and practices(actor-oriented), media product structures, media organizational structures, and media distribution structures (structure-oriented). The following table no 2 explores the counter hegemonic taxonomy of both CR’s and its comparison with dominant media.


Table 2: Taxonomy of counter hegemonic ethos and dynamics between CM and NCM 17




Community Media (Radio)

Non-Community Media


Media Production

Community-Citizen journalism

Elite-Dominant journalism


Organizational Media Structures




Distribution Structures


Professional-Vertical marketing


Reception Practices

Critical-Counter -hegemonic reception

Manipulative-hegemonic reception



Change, empowerment, Voice to the Voiceless

Based on Organizational motive (Profit)


Ownership of content

Community ownership

Private ownership


Nature of story/news/information

Community need-demand based; use of local language and ethos and based on marginal issues-voices

Organizational need-supply based; lacks use of local language and ethos and based on dominant issues-voices


Influencing factors

Non-material (Community belongingness and representativeness, accountability, responsibility;

social respect and satisfaction)

Lacks Non-material factors. Mostly based on material aspects


Relationship with story/news

Intimate and organic relationship

Distinct and mechanical relationship



Full freedom (content creation and distribution)

Controlled freedom (content creation and distribution)



Internal-fully community centric and based on ordinary sources; CMR itself a key source (Native Reporter-NR)

External-less community centric and based on secondary-elite source



Common –ordinary-excluded masses

Specific-dominant class


Control and ownership

Exclusively by community

By economic and political elites


Table no 3: Future possible scenarios CR @ 2030


Future scenarios CR @ 2030




i      Stable and inclusive CR policies

ii     Special unit for CR in Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB)

iii    No possibility of direct political interference in CR

iv    Scope for horizontal expansion at (Rural/Tribal) regions

i      Threat to become mouthpiece of state not the ‘community’

ii     Rising state dependency syndrome

iii    Descrimination between private FM radio and CR’s

iv   State control on content creation

v    Top-down, no scope for true community representation


i      Substantial increase in CR support fund by state

ii     Free advertising time and ads from state and private agencies

iii    New avenues for fund from CSR, International bodies and philanthropies

i.     Substantial decrease in funding by community members

ii.    Threat of economic imperialism

iii.   Refudalisation of CR space capital

iv   Decline in financially poor CR’s and reduction in CR employees


i      Expansion of CR at far flung and deprived societies

ii     Diffusion and innovation on social and developmental issues

iii    Interactive tool between state-public

iv    New jobs in CR stations

v     Capacity building of rural youths

vi    Emergence of new class of CR audience

i.     Deconstructing community radio model

ii     Emergence of horizontal dominant public sphere

iii    Fear of great NGO-isation

iv   Scope for proxy counter-hegemonic agendas

v    Shift in audience ideology

vi   Corporatization of CR’s


i      Greater scope for online content creation and e-feedback (Facebook, whatsapp, tweeter)

ii     Multimedia community centers, engaging online global audiences

iii    Mobile studios and content sharing through community wireless internet

iv    Emergence tech based neo geo-political community of audience

i      Only few corporate funded CR’s able to adopt costly advanced digital technology

ii     Lack of tech-savvy manpower

iii    Policy constrains to adopt modern technology

iv   Competition from satellite CR’s

v    Threat from digital technologies (Digital Audio Broadcast (DAB) Digital Radio Mondial (DRM)



Sustaining CRM in India: Some possible scenarios:

A decade after the CRM, there are many deviations that have been emerged on the Indian terrain, marked with complex intricacies. Therefore, the paper moreover tries to explore future scenarios of CRM. The scenarios offered here can be used to encourage the progress of innovative communication policies and are also helpful in recognizing early caution for constructing inclusive strategies for sustainable CRM in India and as well across the world. The analysis is based on Delphi data considering the time frame CRM at 2030. The collected data captured through utilising PEST method (Political, Economic, Social, and Technological) presented in the following table no. 3. The Delphi based PEST analysis offers scenarios at macro level considering national context.



It is important to note that both the CR’s have been managed efficiently by women managers from poor and socially marginal groups since their inception.  On the other hand Indian mainstream media generally lacks this dynamics18-19. Likewise, communication studies have confirmed that (subaltern groups like women, Dalits, illiterates, people lacking formal media education or training) in mainstream media these subaltern groups are still unnoticed as ‘communicative subjects and producers of content’ who are also popularly conceptualized as ‘indigenous reporters’20. One of the most vital features of these experiments are participatory content creation that provides an opportunity to the subaltern masses to enhance their skills, capabilities which allow them to voice their plights and distribute locally relevant ideas for creating a democratic community platform for transforming counter hegemonic and public agendas in to action. Still, several horizontal sections of the subaltern publics remained out of this sphere, these voices needs to be accommodated through strategic interventions. This study explore that both the CR’s are at the primary stage of creating necessary conditions for the counter hegemonic broadcasting ecology that is what Nancy Fraser conceptualized as subaltern counter publics. Similarly, such kind of necessary conditions are very much crucial for future for creating sufficient conditions to mature subaltern counter ethos in a sustainable manner. It is safe to conclude on the final research question that the future scenario of CRM in India shows a clear sign about the horizontal expansion rather than stagnation. However, considering the central significance of communication to society, in future who ‘owns’ the CR in real terms, whose ‘voice’ on behalf of whom speaks, and who controls to what end critical counter publics issues becomes an important area of concern. Theoretically, in future the dialectics between internal and external forces will create more complexities where negotiations with anti-counter hegemonic forces will turn out to be very much crucial for survival of the existence. Nonetheless, technological advancement and the rise of social media will change the entire traditional taxonomy of CR and it will be replaced with generation next CR witnessing a sparking revolution in CR ecology. It should also be noted that, the future of cyberspaces for CR due to its inherent nature of openness may offer discursive arenas for the subaltern communities. 



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Received on 30.11.2018       Modified on 10.12.2018

Accepted on 28.12.2018      ©AandV Publications All right reserved

Res.  J. Humanities and Social Sciences. 2019; 10(1): 177-183.

DOI: 10.5958/2321-5828.2019.00030.5