LONDON // The British government is desperately trying to save the BBC World Service's Hindi programmes in the face of mounting protest both in India and the United Kingdom.
It was announced last month that the Hindi short-wave service, which is estimated to have 20 million regular listeners, mainly in the Indian hinterland, would end on April 1 as part of massive cuts imposed on the BBC by the government.
But the decision has been controversial and, on Wednesday, prominent figures from the worlds of arts, media, law, social activism and academia launched a "Don't Silence BBC Hindi" campaign.
In an open letter to British and Indian newspapers, the signatories stressed the importance of the service as "a credible source of unbiased and accurate information" for millions of people and urged the government and the BBC to rethink its decision.
However, the BBC says the decision is tied to reductions it is facing in government funding, even though the service is estimated to cost the broadcaster less than £1 million (Dh5.9m) a year.
Senior BBC executives are now understood to be pressing ministers to see if they can save the service through the allocation of emergency funds.
The service broadcasts only two bulletins a day, but they are picked up by millions in India, primarily poor people listening on battery-powered radios in rural areas.
Official audience figures show that about 11.5 million people listen to the service but, because of the difficulty in accurately obtaining data, the true figure is thought to be at least 20 million.
The Foreign Office in London confirmed yesterday that it was "discussing the options with the World Service" over the service.
One proposal was that money be used from the £300 million in aid that Britain has pledged to give India each year until 2015.
However, The Times reported yesterday that the department for international development was resisting the move. "The activities of the World Service itself are not classified as aid spending under internationally agreed rules," a spokeswoman told the newspaper.
A Foreign Office source told The National yesterday: "The problem is a tricky one. The World Service has to make reductions and, if the government makes an exception for the Hindi service, it will inevitably lead to others pleading for their service to be similarly made a special case.
"On the other hand, good relations with India are one of the priorities of this government. At a time when India is emerging as an international economic powerhouse, it seems crazy to many to silence an effective, trusted voice from Britain that is trusted by millions."
Additionally, if BBC Hindi services do end, the international broadcasting field will be left clear for Radio China, which transmits extensive Hindi-language broadcasts to northern India's populous states.
Signatories to theletter included Sir Mark Tully, the veteran broadcaster who served as the BBC's correspondent in Delhi for decades; Arundhati Roy, the Booker Prize-winning author; Ram Guha, the historian; Prashant Bhushan, a Supreme Court lawyer; and the author, Vikram Seth.
The letter said: "Today India is facing other serious problems: the ongoing conflicts in Kashmir: in the north-east and in vast areas in central and eastern India, where Maoist militants are fighting the state.
"Ten million listeners in India - most of them in rural and often very poor areas - need BBC Hindi radio and the accurate, impartial and independent news it provides.
"BBC Hindi transmissions are accessible in rural and remote areas and, as short-wave receivers can be battery-operated, they are available in places without electricity or during power cuts; they are an essential source of learning for schoolchildren and college students in rural India preparing for competitive exams; and they cannot be silenced in times when democracy is under threat.
"We strongly urge the UK government to rethink its decision to severely cut the funding for the BBC World Service to enable the continued transmissions of BBC Hindi on short-wave radio."
Tarchand Khatri, an Indian who is leading a grassroots campaign to save the service, told The Times: "My village family folks call me BBC-wallah and vouch for my knowledge on current events and general knowledge. It is all because of BBC Hindi."
But Mr Khatri, who lives in Rajasthan, close to India's border with Pakistan, added that BBC Hindi's audience had declined in recent years because of technical problems.
"Over the past two to three years, there has been a problem in transmission. People in the village are now tuned into Radio China more than BBC Hindi," he said.