The Sad Story of Prasar Bharati

IN Media Practice | 02/07/2010
PB needs restructuring. But it must first be rescued from the limbo in which finds itself or from euthanasia.
The GOM has a bigger task ahead of it than most of its members probably realize, says B.G. VERGHESE

Reprinted from The New Indian Express, June 21, 2010

A Group of Ministers, that ubiquitous mechanism the Government resorts to when baffled, has been constituted to look into the future of Prasar Bharati (PB), which has been disowned and ailing since birth. Most know that it runs AIR and Doordarshan; few that it is the country’s public service broadcaster or what that implies. It is indeed a sad story.

PB was enacted in 1990, notified (with amendments) in 1997 and, like the unfortunate widows of Varanasi, has thereafter lived in the world of the living dead for most of its sorry existence. It has never enjoyed autonomy with accountability to the people of India through Parliament, as statutorily provided. The Government has kept it on a tight leash, controlling personnel and finance. For much of its formative years there were crippling vacancies at the level of the Directors-General of AIR and DD and the Directors of Finance and Personnel. The PB Board, the custodian of its autonomy, was reduced to little more than a signboard, without a Chairman or a full complement of Members.

The very first senior appointment independently made by the Board, the DG DD, was unceremoniously and illegally bundled out by the Government without reference to anybody in PB on the ground that he was an IAS officer on deputation. No notice was given, no explanation offered. Protest was brushed aside. Nobody was bothered. Most recently, the Board and CEO were at such loggerheads that the Supreme Court had to order that Board meetings could only be held in the presence of its nominee.  The new Board since appointed will face the same structural problems that have dogged the organisation.

A section of the staff has now represented that PB be disbanded and AIR and DD be restored to the Government. Elements in the Government too have from time to time opined that since it funds PB it should remain under its control. This is fallacious. PB is funded by Parliament, not by the Government. The exchequer also funds the Supreme Court, Election Commission, UPSC and CAG, all of which are enjoined to and do function independently.

PB’s charter enjoins it to safeguard "the citizen’s right to be informed freely, truthfully and objectively on all matters of public interest, national or international, and present a fair and balanced flow of information, including contrasting views, without advocating any opinion or ideology of its own". Clearly, PB is the custodian of the people’s right to freedom of speech and expression (Art 19 (1) (a) which is not a gift of government and is only subject to the restraints listed in Art 19(2).  

The "public" it serves embraces the entire diversity and plurality of India, men and women, aged and children, rural and urban, tribal and dalit, illiterate and elites, the differently-abled and disadvantaged, belonging to all regions and professing all the multifarious languages and cultures of India.  Its role is to inform, educate, empower and entertain these many publics, not privileging any above all others.

Commercial broadcasters are perforce dependant on ratings and necessarily compete for audiences that relate to the advertising that sustains them. They therefore primarily woo the "customer" and not the "citizen" who, for the most part, still lives below or perilously above the poverty line. The public service broadcaster’s duty on the other hand is first and foremost towards the citizens of India, many of whom live in remote or backward areas, experience myriad difficulties and exploitation, speak "minority" languages and dialects and seek knowledge and empowerment to fulfill their varied needs and aspirations. There is no other agency to fulfill this supreme obligation. A nationalized broadcaster, serving the Union government of the day (for even the State governments and panchayat institutions have been deliberately excluded) simply does not fit the bill.

There is another important point to note. There are many insurgencies and radical movements afoot in "emerging India". Their "root cause" is a coming together of the "million mutinies" that Naipaul wrote about. These have different points and times of departure, follow divergent trajectories, aspire to different goals, and come together to separate again in different formations as immediate satisfaction spawns new demands. This huge upwelling from below constitutes a social dynamic that needs to be mediated through a million dialogues, each a "peace process", to attain another level of consensus and co-existence. Political parties attempt to do so crudely at election time. For a true public service broadcaster this would be its daily mission at multiple levels, national, regional, local and grassroot to give tongue to the argumentative Indian. So autonomy for broadcasting has to travel all the way down to community broadcasting, something that has been foolishly resisted for all the wrong reasons. Satyameve Jayate is the national motto; but the governing principle of information policy has largely determined by officially-dictated need-based criteria wrapped in official secrecy, rather than being rights-based. Information is power; and power is not easily shared. 

The GOM is also considering a proposal that Government fund one half of PBs revenue budget and leave it to earn the balance. This may be a reasonable option, given freedom to operate without constant string-pulling from above and freedom to manage its own financial and personnel affairs. However, the levy of one-time receiver license fees at the purchase point has been refused. The idea that the vast under-utilised infrastructure of PB be employed to franchise others, especially educational and cultural organizations and approved developmental NGOs, has seen very limited implementation. An innovative proposal that the highly over-staffed engineering wing of PB be hived of as an independent Transmission Service or profit centre was shelved. The provision in the PB Act (Section 12.4) that external broadcasting and monitoring costs be reimbursed by the Government has been ignored. Instead, external broadcasting and monitoring have been all but abolished. India, a would-be emerging (super) power has little or no external voice.

Further, while PB has to pay various government departments for telecom, water, electricity and other services, it is not similarly paid for its extension services whether it be for farm, educational, gender or tribal programmes. How then can it break even and do justice to its wide-ranging charter?

The philosophy that Government knows best is reflected in the regulation that the CEO, the two DGs and the Directors of Personnel and Finance shall preferably be drawn from within the ranks of the Government (the cadre control authority being the Department of Personnel, not PB). Why? Why not the best person from anywhere?

PB needs restructuring. But it must first be rescued from the limbo in which  finds itself or from euthanasia. Truly autonomous and decentralized public service broadcasting has a vital role to play in promoting dialogue and empowerment, culture and creativity in a modernizing and inclusive India seeking to forge unity out of diversity. The GOM has a bigger task ahead of it than most of its members probably realise. There is much wisdom to be tapped outside Government. So let not the exercise be conducted within a closed shop but with imagination and faith in the people of India.

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