South Asia

BBC Hindi listeners say an hour a day is not enough

BBC Hindi service listeners in the Indian state of Bihar, March 2011
Image caption BBC Hindi service has 10 million dedicated listeners

The BBC's Hindi radio service has won a temporary reprieve after a high-profile campaign opposing plans to end transmissions at the end of this month. The BBC's Geeta Pandey travels to the northern Indian state of Bihar to speak to the listeners of the now declining but still hugely popular language service.

Naval Kishore Thakur, 63, bought a Philips radio in 1980 for 700 rupees. For a farmer with a small landholding, it was rather indulgent.

"I bought it to listen to the BBC Hindi service," he tells me, sitting on a wood and rope cot in Birra village in Vaishali district.

For almost 30 years, the radio has faithfully served this loyal listener of the BBC.

Even before he acquired the radio, he would listen to the programme whenever he could find anyone with a set.

"I heard about the 1965 India-Pakistan war, the war with China, the creation of Bangladesh in 1971, and even the demolition of the Babri Mosque [in the northern Indian town of Ayodhya] on the BBC," he says.

'Unthinkable'

Today, many of his neighbours who don't have their own radio sets join him every evening to listen to the Hindi broadcast.

Mr Thakur says it's OK if they miss the [government-controlled] All India Radio news, but missing the BBC broadcast is "unthinkable".

His 28-year-old daughter-in-law Shweta Kumari Thakur is a school teacher who comes from "a family of BBC listeners". Her father and grandfather were "BBC addicts", she says.

She tell me she times her cooking with the Hindi broadcast at 7:30pm (1400GMT) so that she can be "within earshot" when her father-in-law and his friends listen to the programme.

"I like the science programme and the discussions on social and sociological issues. Sometimes I tell my students about the new things I learn from the BBC."

The Thakurs, who are among about 10 million dedicated listeners of BBC Hindi, were shocked by the news that the radio service was to go off air at the end of March because of cuts at the World Service. The year-long reprieve has done little to lift their spirits.

"BBC must stay, not just for a year, but permanently," she says, rather forcefully.

In Birra, I meet several fans of the BBC. They know the names of all my colleagues at the Hindi service and talk about them with great affection, praising them for their "diction, flawless pronunciation and accuracy of information".

Not so long ago BBC Hindi used to have three times as many listeners. But in villages across northern India, where Hindi is the main language, people gathered around a small radio set listening to the BBC is still a common sight.

As the broadcast is on short-wave, it has often meant struggling with static and poor reception, but that has not been a deterrent for the listeners.

Started more than 70 years ago, the Hindi service has come to enjoy tremendous credibility in India.

Generations have learnt about the happenings in the country - and the wider world - through these broadcasts. And youngsters have brushed up on their general knowledge and students have prepared for competitive exams by tuning in.

'Part of history'

"It's like your daily cup of tea. If you don't get it, you miss it sorely," says Braj Kishore Singh, 34, in the town of Jarua who has been listening to the BBC since 1986.

As a child, he sat with his father, a college principal, while he heard the BBC Hindi broadcasts.

"We were in Jagannathpur village. Every evening, the entire village would gather around him. We heard about [the former prime minister] Indira Gandhi's assassination, we heard about the demolition of the Babri Mosque."

Well-known poet and professor of English in the state capital, Patna, Arun Kamal, says the BBC has been a part of history for generations of Indians and an effective tool of Britain's foreign policy.

"We had a choice between Radio Moscow, Radio Peking (Beijing), Voice of America and BBC. We chose the BBC because it was believed to be the most neutral."

He says the Hindi service played a crucial role in shaping public opinion in India during World War II and also during the emergency imposed on India by late prime minister Indira Gandhi.

The proposed closure of the Hindi service, he says, is a part of the pattern which shows the "decline of the British power" in general in the world.

Fewer listeners

Meanwhile, the announcement that the BBC will explore commercial funding options has been welcomed by the advertisers in Bihar.

"The advertisers look for returns and the BBC's consumer base is very large so we are bound to be interested," Rajeev Jha, owner of ViaMedia advertising agency in Patna, said.

"The BBC Hindi radio would be ideal for the biggest advertisers here - for the education sector and the government awareness programmes. Millions of villagers are its dedicated listeners so anyone who advertises here is assured of reaching the mass market," he says.

Image caption Naval Kishore Thakur listens to the BBC Hindi broadcast every day

The BBC says it has been approached by a number of commercial parties with alternative funding proposals, but is making no promises about the future.

"The BBC is hopeful of finding a solution and continuing this service to the millions of Hindi listeners both in India and around the world," a spokesman said.

But he added: "If sustainable commercial funding for this service cannot be found during the 2011/12 financial year, we regret that it will then have to close by March 2012."

According to its charter, the BBC World Service is supposed to broadcast to regions which do not have a free media.

But India is a successful democracy with a thriving independent media scene which, some say, makes the World Service redundant here.

And over the years, its listener base has been shrinking steadily.

"The new generation is more into TV. In cities and towns, radio also has competition from the internet and mobile telephones. Now there is news on Twitter and Facebook. So the short-wave listeners are going down in numbers," Prof Kamal says.

The fact that only Indian state media can broadcast news on FM is another factor in the BBC's decline.

Mr Singh says among his age group, fewer people listen to the Hindi service now.

"Only the elderly listen to the BBC. People my age, or younger, prefer to watch the TV or listen to FM channels."

But he is angry that the BBC thought about closing down the service and has now decided to restore only an hour's programming a day.

"I think this is a conspiracy of the Western powers. They are worried by the growing popularity of the Hindi language," he says.

The reaction may seem a bit far-fetched to an outsider, but Prof Kamal says for people who have grown up on the Hindi service, their anger is understandable.

"The British government - and the BBC - must do a rethink and let the broadcasts continue because we have old connections with Britain. We have appropriated their language. Their icons are ours too," he says.

More on this story