Stories That Matter: How a South Indian Island's Community Radio Station Saved Lives During Cyclone Gaja

India's islands battle worsening cyclones and the effects of climate change every year. Sibi Arasu's story on Kadal Osai shows how local media can keep residents safe from natural disasters.

The residents of Rameswaram, a tiny fishing town on Pamban Island, are familiar with severe cyclonic storms and natural disasters. A remnant of the land bridge that once connected southern India and Sri Lanka, islands like Pamban have been plagued by tropical cyclones for decades. Scientists say climate change has only made this worse.

As the Indian Ocean heats up, cyclonic storms, which are known to increase in intensity over warmer waters, are steadily growing worse, and becoming more frequent. Dhanushkodi, a now-abandoned town on Pamban Island, was devastated by one of the most powerful storms to ever strike India — and that was nearly 60 years ago, in 1964.

But on December 4th, 2018, with Cyclone Gaja looming over the island, the fisher community leapt into action and used radio broadcasts to save hundreds of lives. Jockeys at Kadal Osai (meaning “sound or music of the sea”), a four-year-old local community radio station on Pamban Island, broadcast information about the storm throughout the night. “When I got information that if all boats on the northern side of the island were shifted away, they should be safe from the storm, I immediately got onto the radio and began broadcasting this message repeatedly,” P Lenin, one of the jockeys at Kadal Osai, told Sibi Arasu for a story in Climate Home News, an independent news site covering the climate crisis.

The Original Climate Home News Story

“Kadal Osai helped a lot of people during Cyclone Gaja,” says Arasu, a Bengaluru-based environment journalist whose story on Kadal Osai was part of a reporting initiative focused on communities, mainly in developing nations, that are suffering the worst effects of climate change despite contributing very little to it. “Tamil Nadu [a state in southern India] is at the forefront of climate change, and Rameswaram is surrounded by the sea. So it is frequently battered by strong winds and cyclones,” he added.

Arasu, who is intrigued by how local community radio programs have helped local communities, often marginalized or overlooked by mainstream media, spoke to The Postscript about his pursuit of this story. He discussed the resilience shown by the islanders, and the takeaways for other communities experiencing climate change. The interview has been edited for concision and clarity

The east coast of India has always been prone to cyclones, which are particularly devastating to island towns. But the media tends to cover cyclone-hit urban areas more extensively than it does smaller towns. How did you come by the story of Kadal Osai and Pamban Island?

Arasu: There’s a group called the CJRF [Climate Justice Resilience Fund], and they have partnered with a publication called Climate Home News. I came across a call for pitches through various newsletters and my freelance reporter network, about how Climate Home News had funds to commission stories on how climate change is affecting people living in the Bay of Bengal. That’s what got me thinking about this.

When I saw the pitch call, I thought — being from Chennai, and familiar with the Bay of Bengal — it made sense for me to pitch. I was working on another story about climate change adaptation in the Bay of Bengal region, so I wanted to come up with a few more ideas that would fit Climate Home News, and some of the ideas I came up with then were about how community radio in general, not just Kadal Osai, but other stations as well, have been extremely effective in warning people about the risks of climate change.

I think there’s another community radio program in Odisha, and there are a few other initiatives that have been extremely effective in helping people evacuate to safer ground when a cyclone or something has happened. So I thought that was a great use of this platform.

The thing with community radio is that the range, or the distance over which it can be listened to, is not much. The range is very minimal compared to other radio programs. I think they can go up to about 20-30 kilometers [roughly 12-19 miles], if I’m not mistaken. And community radio is also subject to India’s Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, which sometimes acts as a hurdle in the effective functioning of radio stations. For instance, one stipulation is that these stations can’t cover politics; another is that they have to make sure their program reaches a certain radius from where the station is located.

But because of — or maybe despite — all of these conditions, community radio has been a really effective and efficient platform to connect with people who live in regions that are otherwise a bit disconnected, because of reasons like a lack of infrastructure.

Even in Chhattisgarh, there’s a great community radio program called CGNet Swara that has provided communication to the Adivasi community [an umbrella term for tribal communities in India] in the region. So I’d also pitched a few other ideas about the effects of climate change in the Bay of Bengal region. But the editors really liked this idea.

What made you decide to cover it?

Arasu: I had seen a few reports about community radio in the papers and I’ve also reported other Rameswaram pieces, so, in my work as a journalist, there have been multiple occasions where I have gotten in touch with sources in the area. I’m quite familiar with that region. Once I realized that it was very easy for me to get in touch with the people who run the radio channel, I knew it was a go.

The channel is run by Gayatri Usman, who is the manager of sorts, and the funding comes from a fisherperson who is now a successful businessperson.

I got in touch with Gayatri and she was really helpful; she was more than happy for a piece to be done on her radio channel and I spoke to her in great detail. Then she connected me to one of her jockeys, P Lenin. I spoke to him at length as well.

He’s actually from the fisher community, went on to graduate, and I think he was working in Chennai, but he had decided to come back to his hometown and had taken up this job, and he’s been at the radio station for the last two years. He’s a very enthusiastic journalist. I went through some of their episodes on Spotify (I speak Tamil, of course), so I went over their episodes, and spoke to a few of their listeners, both men and women. I had some really productive conversations with them, where they talked about how they relate to the radio station, and feel it truly is [a part of their] own community.

It was lovely to speak to all these stakeholders, and after these conversations — that happened over a week — I sent in my draft to the editor of Climate Home News. She got back with some suggestions and questions, and revised the piece to suit an international audience that may not be familiar with Pamban Island or Rameswaram, or India. It was carried on their site soon after.

What were your favorite parts of reporting this story? Can you tell us a bit about how your interactions with the islanders went? What did you learn about their lives?

Arasu: One happy fallout of this exercise is that, unlike many of the other stories I’ve done, I’ve managed to have lasting relationships with the people at Kadal Osai, as well as some of the fisherwomen I spoke to.

Some of them have had to find alternate sources of income, because climate change has caused fish stock to deplete. Some of them are making and selling jewelry and other crafts. The government is encouraging them. There’s an organization called CMFRI [Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute], where the Rameshwaram branch is encouraging residents to take up seaweed farming.

I spoke to the director of the CMFRI about his views on Kadal Osai, because [the station] often gets these experts onto their show for interviews. So I’ve been in touch with those people ever since, and we have a good relationship. We’ve been in touch with regards to other stories as well.

Left: Two boys walking the railway bridge in Pamban Island. (Claude Renault/Getty Images) | Right: View of the Pamban Bridge separating Rameswaram from mainland India. (Soltan Frédéric/Sygma/Getty Images)

You spoke of how community radio programs across the world and India have been successful in warning people of the dangers of climate change, and helping to keep communities safe when natural disasters occur. Could you tell us more about some of these programs?

Arasu: So there are a few community radio programs that I’ve heard of, and they do great work. CGNet Swara is one, like I mentioned. Then there’s GraamVaani in Jharkhand [a state in the north of India], and Radio Namaskar in Odisha [a state bordering India’s east coast], which has been awarded three community radio awards by the government of India.

The Radio Namaskar station is based out of Konark [home to India’s famous Sun Temple] in Odisha, and they really helped people during Cyclone Fani. The jockeys informed listeners about the direction from which the cyclone was approaching, which enabled many villagers to travel to safety. So the radio literally saved their lives.

Similarly, Kadal Osai also helped a lot of people during Cyclone Gaja. One of India’s worst cyclones destroyed the town of Dhanushkodi, which is at the edge of Rameswaram. The cyclone literally flattened the town. So that region has seen a lot of loss due to natural disasters, and the station, Kadal Osai, is playing a part in helping people become resilient to climate change as well as adapt to it and mitigate the effects.

Has the government of India stepped forward to help the people of Pamban Island, offering financial aid or any other form of support?

Arasu: I think it differs from case to case. Maybe in certain situations [people have] received aid, and in others they haven’t. I won’t be able to give you a general answer. It really depends.

How was your story received? What impact would you say it has had?

Arasu: I think this story was very well-received. I don’t think an international publication had reported on Kadal Osai before; I could be wrong. I think it got good feedback on social media. Climate Home News is a platform that is followed by a lot of people who are in the business of climate change, so I think it made a qualitative impact too, because the people who are dealing with, say, climate negotiations or are doing academic research into it … I have a feeling this reached a lot of them. While earlier stories might not have reached such a targeted audience, this one did.

Are there takeaways or lessons other fishing communities can take from the people of Pamban Island and their widely successful community radio channel?

Arasu: The people of Pamban Island and Rameshwaram are extremely entrepreneurial, despite all of the difficulties they face, like the harsh weather and living in a high-security area because of India’s maritime boundary line with Sri Lanka. They are very enthusiastic and optimistic people. And they’re very aware and vocal about their rights.

One lesson other fishing communities across India or elsewhere in the developing world can take away from them is about how these kinds of small initiatives can have a really big footprint. There’s also a positive feedback loop where the communities are becoming more empowered, while the station also becomes a more confident media entity, because of the appreciation they are getting.

The station itself was started by a fisherperson from the community. The initiative itself was not something that a funding agency or a Western or international organization like the United Nations set up. A local person started and set up the entire initiative. And it’s benefiting his own community; you can do things to make your own life better is the lesson here.

When reporting the story, what steps, if any, did you take to center diverse voices, and to produce a balanced story? Did you make a conscious effort to reach out to a diverse group of sources?

Arasu: I’ve tried to include as many voices as possible — from Indigenous communities and from women — in my stories, and to have a gender and caste balance wherever possible.

For this story, I spoke to fishermen as well as fisherwomen, quite deliberately. In terms of experts, like the CMFRI people, most were men, so I didn’t have a choice. At the radio station, I just let them decide who I spoke to. It was their prerogative. But the station is woman-led and is run by Usman, who I spoke to in great detail.

How heavily do the people of Pamban Island rely on fishing to earn a livelihood? What’s a typical day in their lives like?

Arasu: Fishing is their primary source of livelihood. During the fishing season, I think fishers, if I’m not mistaken, go into the sea before dawn breaks, and spend a whole day and sometimes a night at sea, and then come back. There are a lot of trawlers in the region. A lot of people work in these large, mechanized trawlers that go deep into the sea. And there are a lot of small-scale fishermen as well; they use catamarans or smaller boats for their fishing activities.

There’s also a lot of tourism; there’s this big Rama temple on the island, so religious tourists come from all over the country and the world to visit. Rameswaram is a part of the Char Dham [four pilgrimage sites in India that are believed to help pilgrims attain “moksha,” or salvation]. So there’s a lot of footfall, especially from Hindu religious tourists.

The island is very long, and not very broad. I think the broadest it is is about 10 kilometers [roughly six miles]. It is heavily affected by climate change because of its location. It borders the Gulf of Mannar, and has great biodiversity in its waters.

You mentioned not being to travel for this story, owing to COVID-19 restrictions. Do you think that affected the story?

Arasu: I didn’t undertake any travel for this story because of COVID restrictions, but I’ve traveled to the region multiple times before. So I know how the place looks and what the people are like, which helped me set the scene, even though I couldn’t travel for this particular story.

It would have been amazing if I could have traveled. There’s nothing like actually being on the ground while reporting. But given the circumstances, this was OK; I was already familiar with the area and its people.

Stories That Matter is a series of interviews with the people behind some of the best and most influential journalism being done today, focused on reporting, writing, and lessons we can learn from the process of creating great work.

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The Postscript

Additional content and context, added to everything we do.

Predict: What Happens Next?

“They really want to report more about climate change and the environment. And they’re trying to work toward growing their audience,” says Sibi Arasu of Kadal Osai. “One of the most effective things about the radio station is that they inform the community about schemes that are meant for them — government schemes that they might not have heard of otherwise. And listeners can call up [with] any questions that they have. It was a highly successful effort, and it continues to be a highly successful effort. And, if I’m not mistaken, they are trying to expand their range, for how far the channel can be broadcast.”

Read: More on Life on Pamban Island

Meet: About the Author

Aishwarya Jagani is a copywriter-turned-journalist who writes about technology and its impact. Based out of India, she has reported on authoritarian tech, climate change, racism, and diversity, and her work has appeared in publications including Bustle, The Quint, Digital Privacy News, The Spill, and Kaspersky’s Secure Futures.