Saturday, 4 October 2014

What's with India's Public Broadcaster ?

India today is a nation resounding with unbridled aruments about everything. After years it is as if the dams are bursting and stormy, powerful ubiquitous torrents of words are flooding over everything. The private media is in its element –endless, indefatigable, fierce , frantic. And in the social media questions have been repeatedly flowing in about  the steady decline of India’s public broadcaster . What’s it exactly that over the years has reduced the Prasar Bharati, India’s prime public broadcaster, to a sad and confused  hybrid, deemed to have a permanent bi polar problem ? Is it really autonomous as various governments and I and B ministers have been claining each time a controversy hits it ?
First the bare facts. 
The Prasar Bharati Broadcastin Corporation was created in 1997, when the then Janata Dal Government chose to hive off both Akashvani and Doordarshan from the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and put them under an autonomous corporation that would help them,.. “function as a genuinely autonomous a democratic manner..”. Scores of governments have come and gone since then , and all have been proclaiming publically and in the Parliament, that the Prasar Bharati remains a totally autonomous organization with which their government  maintains an arm’s length. However, over the past 27 years, an almost Stalinist Brezhnevian system continues to run the Prasar Bharati from the back seat . And the result is that bodies that were once capable of producing quality programmes are being forced today to use a hugely atrophied staff and whatever raw material it has, for manufacturing and disseminating grey, monotonous and clichéd programming . 

Strangely, irrespective of their ideologies, all governments have maintained a Ministry for Information and Broadcasting and a common belief, that not the professionals within AIR and Doordarshan with long institutional memories , but its ever changing Secretaries and Ministers shall be the ultimate arbiters of the needs of public broadcasting in India . But why blame individuals or specific governments ? If, as Hamlet said human Fate lies in our stars, in case of Prasar Bharati its horoscope was spelt out way back in 1990 by a hastily crafted ( The Prasar Bharati Broadcasting Corporation) Act . Instead of creating an autonomous body for public broadcasting, the Act seven years later created a malnourished creature with a severe bipolar disorder .

The intentions, as always, were noble . The introduction to the Act talks of the entrusting the functioning of the AIR and DD to the Prasar Bharati Corporation and declares that “..the proposed Corporation would function as a genuinely autonomous body, innovative, dynamic and flexible with a degree of credibility.” The Act then handed the task of superintendence, direction and management of the affairs of the Corporation to the Prasar Bharati Board consisting of a (part time) Chairman, six other Part time members, one (Full time) Executive Member (CEO) and two other (full time) Members for Finance and Personnel , the Directors General of DD and AIR and one representative of the Ministry of I and B and two representatives of the employees of the Corporation . The CEO, according to section 5 of the Act,  is to be the executive arm of the Board, required to perform functions and exercise powers, for which the Board have vested the requisite authority in him. So far so good .

But the real contradictions lying at the very heart of the Act which while conferring autonomy upon the Prasar Bharati Corporation did not care to spell out a time frame for transferring the cadres and assets of Akashvani and Doordarshan to the parent body. Instead, a notification was slipped in a section (4 :32) to ensure that until such time as the assets belonging to the two organizations were formally handed over  and a Recruitment Board created, the sole authority for controlling their cadres and for issuing notifications and creating rules , would remain with the Central Government . Since then Prasar Bharati has been deprived of a legal access to its own varied assets ( transmission Kendras, studios and its priceless archives) . Its regular officials from the Information and Broadcast Services, still report not to the Board, but the Central Government . Section 4 guarantees that the authority for practically everything, from fixing the salaries and allowances and laying down conditions of service (including pension, PF) for the cadres and the three whole time members of the Board, (i.e. the CEO , and Members Personnel and Finance), six Part time Members( including the Chairman ) and all the employees of AIR and DD, remains with the Ministry.

Unfortunately, the first Chairman, the veteran journalist Nikhil Chakraborty, who would have doubtless, spotted the anomaly, passed away soon after assuming charge . Then the Janata Dal government too faded away . For years the Board remained headless and soon enough a plethora of notifications began emerging from the Shastri Bhawan that laid down the ground rules for everything. It climaxed in an order of 2002 that relied on the anomalies in the Act to conclude that a ‘nationally owned autonomous broadcasting organization’ must also be, ‘under the Centre legislatively’ and that this was ‘ logical and desirable’ given that the footprint of the new Corporation would also be touching sensitive areas like external broadcast and frequency allocations, the Post and Telegraph Act  and Space (spectrum) support. Unless the Parliament amends the Act of 1990s and lifts the 2000 notification , the Prasar Bharati will be guided perennially by the Central government and seek prior permission from the Ministry and/or various other nodal Ministries and the TRAI, before it can consider stepping into new areas.

In 2002 the NDA government repeatedly said it wanted to make Prasar Bharati truly autonomous and commissioned the Shunu Sen Committee to study the Act and advise on how it may be done. While it was still being written the then Prasar Bharati Board received a notification that gave the Ministry total control over deciding and notifying almost all matters pertaining to Prasar Bharati staff and the Board . This was accepted . Later the brilliantly written and meticulously researched Shunu Sen Committee Report recommended that the Human Resources and assets ( vast tracts in all major cities with heavily under utilized state of the art studios and recording facilities) owned by Prasar Bharati must, without delay, be transferred formally to the Corporation by the Ministry . The report also suggested a proper delegation of power in all areas,  and until such time that the Recruitment Board was created, a compulsory involvement of the CEO and a selected member of Prasar Bharati Management council in selection and recruitment of all Prasar Bharati employees and their transfer thereafter . 

But for two years every one functioned along the notification from the Ministry, the Shunu Sen Committee Report was forgotten . When the NDA Government made way for the UPA in 2004 , and the Parliament was approached to set matters right . At the behest of the GoM, a few cosmetic amendments were made (in 2008) to the choking provisions of the (2002) notification. But these did not remove the original corset of tight governmental controls . In January 2013, an(other) Expert Committee headed by Sam Pitroda, was set up to review the functioning of the Prasar Bharati, under the aegis of the I and B Ministry. The Committee undertook extensive consultations and co opted a wide range of domain experts and submitted its fairly graphic report with 26 recommendations covering all critical areas early this year . In its letter to the Minister Manish Tiwari prefacing the Report, the Expert  Committee like the Shunu Sen Committee, also noted that drastic changes must be brought about in three areas : the environment the Prasar Bharati functions in,  its internal structuring and resources and last but not the least, a refocus on its primary task : providing valuable content to citizens.
Once again the government changed in 2014 and NDA is now firmly in saddle . But both Sen Committee and Pitroda Committee reports gather dust. The inception of a Recruitment Board is still being examined and processed by various agencies, and the superannuation of old staff is creating huge gaps everywhere, including the secretariat at Prasar Bharati which has no regular hands available to handle vital and complex issues such as legal cases, public relations, revenue monitoring, framing proper recruitment regulations or planning for a proper entry in the new media. The government, notwithstanding the wishes of the Parliament,  still remains the cadre controlling authority . 
 Is all lost then ?

The answer is, no. A long and close association such as this blogger has had with Akashvani and Doordarshan, may still reveal occasionally how old institutions have a rich institutional memory that feeds the parched sense of dignity and professional pride life within . It is this memory that guarantees that despite a stiff, rigorous corset of governmental rules and regulations, when need be ( such as globally transmitting the famous Zubin Mehta Philharmonic Concert held in Srinagar or the live transmission of the Modi led government taking charge ) all old and local stations will rise to the occasion . Stubborn followers of Akashvani and Doordarshan channels would also bear out how one may still routinely be pleasantly be surprised by some rare old visuals and voices from AIR and DD archives surfacing late in the night or early in the morning, ofcourse, without any prior announcement . It is like coming across a priceless faded old carpet that has retained a few rare colours and an eye catching array of original art forms and motifs .
When one puts these impressions against the terrible waste of talent and the frustrations suffered by these once magnificent institutions, an over riding sense of shame hits the soul . Both AIR and DD, when they worked on the principle of love and loyalty for the Institution, managed to attract pan –Indian talent . The coming together of some of the best minds and technical hands then produced programming that was enjoyed for generations. Sustained frustration is unproductive and despite causing immense suffering and losses, it evaporates like noxious fumes into thin air, leaving no trace . What if the collective energy generated by all past and present professionals of AIR and DD could once again be given a platform and transformed into the autonomous power of creation ? True, governments must publicise their achievements and issue vital information to the public from time to time . But if the mission is deemed to be only advocacy and messaging, can we expect  journalistic objectivity and artistic freedoms ?

Governments must accept the ground realities first. 

In the past, broadcasting used to be simple . Today’s consumers are young and mobile. They expect not just their radios and TV sets, but also their smart phones, computer tablets and laptops, to receive programmes, but also to be capable of serving them wherever they are located. The strength of the public broadcaster lies in its ability to deliver powerful content live all over the country. In the age of Jasmine revolutions and AAP, belief in the mystical nature of power and authority is fast eroding . So India’s public broadcasters must meet the challenge of attracting and retaining the attention of a young public that will reject both aristocracy or a rural culture frozen in time . 


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