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Irula-led Community Radio Station in Nilgiris, India Uplifts Indigenous Voices

By Manickam A.

Radio Kotagiri, a community radio station in Nilgiris, Tamil Nadu, India, led by a group of Irula journalists, is playing a vital role in empowering Indigenous voices and promoting sustainable development in the Nilgiri Biosphere Reserve. Founded in 2013 and broadcasting in a 15-km radius around the Kotagiri town of Panchayat in the Nilgiris district, Radio Kotagiri broadcasts a wide range of content in the Indigenous languages of Irula, Toda, and Kota, including songs, stories, and discussions on local experiences and sustainable development goals.

The work of the station is significant, particularly in the context of the UN Decade of Indigenous Languages (2022-2032), which aims to raise awareness of the importance of Indigenous languages and promote their preservation and revitalization.Nilgiris is a biodiverse region inhabited by Irula, Kurumba, Kota, and Toda Scheduled Tribes, who have traditionally depended on agriculture, wage labor, honey collection, and forest foraging for their livelihood. They each have their own unique culture, music, and rituals. However, they are all facing challenges in preserving their culture and livelihoods.

One of the biggest challenges is lack of access to basic facilities such as healthcare, education, and transportation. Many Tribal villages do not have proper roads, schools, or medical facilities. As a result, residents have to travel long distances to access these services. Another challenge is the exploitation of Tribal communities by intermediaries; tribal farmers and foragers often sell their products to distributors at low prices that make it difficult for them to make a decent living. 

The Tribes of this region are also facing environmental challenges. The health of the Nilgiris Biosphere Reserve is threatened by deforestation, climate change, and tourism development, further impacting the livelihoods of Tribal communities who depend on it for their survival. To help Tribal communities address some of these challenges, Radio Kotagiri is working to amplify their voices and improve the accessibility of information by providing a platform for communities to share their own stories and perspectives and also to help preserve and promote Tribal culture and knowledge. Radio Kotagiri is dedicated to promoting awareness about agriculture, mountains, forests, wildlife, culture, water, tea estates, the human-wildlife conflict, and the impacts of government projects.
With support from Cultural Survival, Radio Kotagiri engaged youth volunteers, mostly students, to combat misinformation about COVID-19 and disseminate accurate information on prevention and mitigation measures and access to healthcare facilities. Radio Kotagiri produced and distributed radio programs on best practices for health such as hand washing, social distancing, and masking, among others, in Irula, Toda, Kota, and Kurumba Indigenous languages.  

Radio Kotagiri also conducted four workshops to mentor Indigenous students on topics such as script writing, field recording, and community engagement, and built local and municipal level collaborations and organized events with educational institutions, government agencies, and NGOs.

Jayanthi, Coordinator and disc jockey at Radio Kotagiri, comes from the Irular community and says, “In my radio program, I bring the Irular community's voices to the public. Through my radio programs, they talk about their experiences with [climate change] and its impact, about their culture, the state of their language, etc. The programs help document their culture and traditions and also impart knowledge to the younger generations, which is always my focus.” Radio Kotagiri airs programs on various topics such as produce prices in the market, procurement prices of coffee and pepper, and food as medicine, among others in the Tamil language, along with Kota, Kurumba, Irula, and Toda. 

Programming also includes music, viewpoints of the community leaders, programs for children, information about traditional medicine, awareness about laws and legal rights, and entertainment such as folk songs, recipes, and short stories. As a result, Radio Kotagiri has become a platform for the dissemination of information in multiple languages that is making a significant contribution to the empowerment of Indigenous voices.  

--Manickam A. is a coordinator at Radio Kotagiri 90.4 Mhz in India.

-- In 2022, Radio Kotagiri received a grant from Cultural Survival’s Indigenous Community Media Fund, which provides opportunities for international Indigenous radio stations to strengthen their infrastructure and broadcast systems and creates training opportunities for journalism, broadcasting, audio editing, technical skills, and more for radio journalists from Indigenous communities around the world. In 2023, the Indigenous Community Media Fund distributed $420,000 in grants supporting 60 Indigenous communication projects that will benefit 87 Indigenous Peoples in 20 countries.