Simplify the licensing procedure says Archana Kapoor

Archana Kapoor describes the hurdles one has to cross in order to get a license and how the complex process to do so acts as a deterrent.

People like you who have set up a Community Radio Station have faced the complexities of an extensive licensing procedure. While new license-seekers will have much to learn from you, you also know best what can make the licensing procedure more friendly?  How do you think the licensing procedure impacts the growth prospect of Community Radios in the country?

The licensing procedure for Community Radio’s is indeed rather complex, slow and trying. For me, personally it was frustrating too. However, one thing that it teaches you is patience. In the given situation one important lesson, for all those who want to get into this sector, is patience and perseverance. It won’t work if you have either and certainly not if you have neither!

The entire process of grant of license, before 2Gand 3G scams, was anywhere close to 18-24 months. The best part is that soon after your frequency allocation clearance you are billed for the license fee- despite the fact that it is not a license to operate. Also the license fee is due even if it takes the Ministry of Communications and IT(MoCIT) another year to frant the Wireless Operating License (WOL).

In short the process is indeed very complicated and cumbersome. As per the policy guidelines laid out by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) applications are supposed to be invited once a year, through an advertisement. Once a reasonable number of applications are received the ministry send the details to MHA/ MHRD/MoD for applicants who are either from the not for profit organizations or are private educational institutions, and simultaneously also calls for a meeting of the screening committee to vet the applicants for issue of Letter of Intent. Actually the WPC wing of the MoCIT is supposed to earmark a frequency too, before the LOI. Subject to clearances from the ministries/deaprtments, the LoI is issued. Although the MIB is pretty prompt in responding to the applicants within the scheduled time of 30 days, the clearances from other ministries are never received within stipulated time of 90 days. I am not sure if any applications have been referred to the Committee under the Secretary MIB, because of delay from other ministries. After giving six months for Standing Advisory Committee on Frequency Application (SACFA) clearance, the GOPA is to be signed after which once again you go back to MoCIT and procure your Wireless Operating License (WOL).

Actually as per the guidelines the agencies are supposed to start operation within the next three months- or face the threat of cancellation of LOI/GOPA…but there is no penalty for the MoCIT when it does not issue the WOL in even the next 13 months. In brief it would be a 13-14 step procedure with 4 -5 Ministries and departments involved which in itself can be daunting for many.

Of course many applicants do not follow the guidelines of applying for frequency allocation and SACFA within the time period.. But many times the SACFA and frequency allocation does not happen for even two to three years and in the present situation, I don’t think a single WOL has been issued in the last 18 months. Also there are cases when organizations have taken their own sweet time to operate the station, despite having all the documents and clearances. But those cases are rare .

Surely all these procedural delays and cap on issuing of WOLs has impacted this sector adversely. In the National Sammelan of 2011, I remember. The MIB was looking at a figure of 4000 stations in one year, in 2012, it mellowed down to 1000, in 2013 we were still at around 145 and in 2014 we are 163 operating stations with an additional number of around 400 applications pending at different levels of clearances.

Any process that involves so many ministries and departments and movement of files from one end to the other is bound to act as a deterrent for new comers and organizations that do not have many resources. If the government is really serious about this sector and about its policies of social inclusion by reaching out to the hard to reach and marginalized sections of society- it will have to follow a single window approach. It will have to ease the licensing process, it will have to allow people to apply in their local languages, it will have to be flexible and not insist on only an online application process.  The entire system of LOI, frequency allocation, SACFA, GOPA, WOL will have to be handled by one ministry, in a transparent manner, like in many countries. An autonomous body could also be set up to facilitate and fast track the entire application and licensing process. The growth of this sector would be very slow if the policy does not change.

In the past couple of years the CR sector has seen a steep hike followed by a roll back in the royalty fee and the license fee, or, simply put, the spectrum charges. What are your views on the spectrum charges, knowing that for many Community Radio Stations, even the rolled back sum are indeed a significant amount of month?

I don’t believe in freebees. Whatever comes for free has little value. Undoubtedly the increase in the license fee was totally arbitrary and contrary to the interest of this sector and we are glad that we (Community Radio Association- CRA) could ensure its roll back.

A number of stations feared that they would have to close down as paying a fee of close to Rs 1 lakh would have been impossible- especially for those stations that were being run by groups of weavers, or women farmers, or self help group members etc.  Still there is ambiguity in the policy and we need to push for clarity and a clear cut policy on the fee issue as soon as the new government takes charge in May.

Some may feel that the license fee should be waived off, but I feel that community radios need to appreciate the fact that they are getting premium resource at a minimal price. Personally I feel the government should be paid a small fee for the license and I am fine with the current amount of Rs 19700, which works out to just about Rs 1650 a month.

CRA, which you represent, has held a number of consultations aimed at expanding the network of CR Stations in the country. What is the most important feedback with respect to the licensing procedure you would like to share?

We would like the sector to open up more to NGOs especially in conflict zones and disturbed areas. We also feel that Ministry of Home Affairs has to adopt a more transparent process while vetting the organizations that are granted radio licenses. We have received many complaints during our workshops about the procedures and attitude of the people who come to physically verify the status of the NGOs. The reasons for rejection of organizations need to be made public.  Responsibility has to be fixed for delay in giving clearances, penalties have to be levied for delay in issuing WOLs, and lastly it is imperative to have a single window clearance.

Archana Kapoor is the General Secretary of the Community Radio Association (CRA)