Home >Opinion >What’s ailing India’s public broadcaster?

India is a nation abuzz today with unbridled discussions about everything. After years it is as if the dams are bursting and stormy, powerful torrents of words are flooding everything. The private media is in its element—endless, indefatigable, fierce, frantic. And questions are being repeatedly asked, among other things, about the steady decline of India’s public broadcaster.

What’s it exactly that, over the years, has reduced Prasar Bharati Corporation, India’s public broadcaster, to a sad and confused hybrid with a permanent bipolar problem?

The Prasar Bharati 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.

Several governments have come and gone since, and all have asserted that Prasar Bharati remains a totally autonomous organization with which they maintain an arm’s-length relationship.

Yet, over the past 17 years, an almost Stalinist system has continued to run it from the back seat.

The result is that bodies that were once capable of producing quality programmes are being forced today to use atrophied staff and whatever raw material it has to churn out and disseminate grey, monotonous and clichéd programming. Strangely, irrespective of their ideologies, all governments have maintained a ministry of information and broadcasting which has always believed that, not the professionals within All India Radio (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 the case of Prasar Bharati, its horoscope was written way back in 1990 by a hastily crafted law, The Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act. Instead of creating an autonomous body for public broadcasting, the Act bore a malnourished creature with a severe bipolar disorder.

The intentions were noble. The introduction to the Act talks of entrusting the functioning of the AIR and Doordarshan to Prasar Bharati and declares that “..the proposed corporation would function as a genuinely autonomous body, innovative, dynamic and flexible with a degree of credibility".

The Act handed the task of managing the corporation to the Prasar Bharati board consisting of a (part-time) chairman; six other part-time members; one (full-time) executive member (chief executive officer or CEO) and two other (full-time) members for finance and personnel; the director generals of Doordarshan and AIR; and one representative of the ministry; 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 has vested the requisite authority in him. So far, so good.

Still, while conferring autonomy upon Prasar Bharati, the Act did not care to spell out a time frame within which the cadres and assets of Akashvani and Doordarshan would be transferred to the autonomous organization. It introduced in a section—chapter 4, section 32 and the dozen sub-sections appended to it. The head “Power to make rules" goes into Talmudic details about how, ... Central government may, by notification, make rules for carrying out the provisions of the Act—which ensured 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. The board would only have regulatory authority for which it must seek prior approval from the government.

Since the two vital requirements—transfer of assets and creation of the recruitment board—are yet to be met, the corporation to date has no legal muscle to mobilize its own assets (including its archives). And its cadres report not to the board, but the central government.

The Act may say that it is the “government’s declared policy" to make Prasar Bharati an autonomous corporation. But chapter 4 (miscellaneous) guarantees that the authority for practically everything, from fixing the salaries and allowances and laying down conditions of service (including retirement benefits) for three whole-time members of the board, (i.e., the CEO, and members of 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 of the corporation, 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. A long period followed when the board remained headless and the ministry of information and broadcasting was in charge.

Sure enough, soon notifications began emerging from Shastri Bhawan, where the ministry is located, laying down the ground rules for everything. It culminated in an order of 2002 that relied on the anomalies in the legislation and concluded 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 commanded and controlled by the department of post and telegraph and the ministry of space and Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, which together handle the allocation of spectrum bandwidths.

Prasar Bharati must, therefore, be guided by the central government, and, of course, seek prior permission from the ministry and/or all the nodal ministries that govern areas it is in or plans to enter.

In 2002, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government was in the saddle and for whatever reasons, the then board accepted the notification and thus the ministry came to abrogate to itself the task of deciding and notifying almost all matters pertaining to Prasar Bharati staff and the board. It is interesting that the same year, a brilliant report by the Shunu Sen committee (commissioned by the NDA government) recommended that the human resources and assets (vast tracts in all major cities with heavily underutilized 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 same report also suggested a proper delegation of powers in all areas, and until such time that the recruitment board was created, a compulsory involvement of the CEO and a selected member of the Prasar Bharati management council in selection and recruitment of all Prasar Bharati employees and their transfer thereafter.

The report, though, was soon forgotten and for two years every one functioned as notified by the ministry.

When the NDA government made way for the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) in 2004, nothing much changed.

In 2008, a few cosmetic amendments were made to the choking provisions of the 2002 notification but these did not remove the original corset of tight governmental controls. In January 2013, an expert committee headed by Sam Pitroda was set up to review the functioning of Prasar Bharati, under the aegis of the ministry. The committee undertook extensive consultations and co-opted a wide range of domain experts and submitted a fairly graphic report with 26 recommendations covering all critical areas early this year. In its letter to former minister of information and broadcasting, Manish Tewari, the Pitroda committee, like the Shunu Sen committee, also noted that drastic changes must be brought about in three areas: the environment Prasar Bharati functions in; its internal structuring and resources; and last but not the least, a refocus on its primary task of providing valuable content to citizens.

As the UPA moves to the margins and the NDA government rides in, the inception of a recruitment board is still being examined and processed by various agencies, while 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 recruitment norms, or planning for a proper entry in the new media.

The government, notwithstanding the wishes of the Parliament, still remains the cadre-controlling authority. As things stand today, the board must also seek the ministry’s prior approval for any joint ventures or creation of posts applicable to autonomous organizations, for writing off loans or proposals pertaining to routine repairs, renovations and replacements of its buildings, or even before condemning useless old vehicles or purchasing new ones to replace those.

It also can’t sell, mortgage or lease its vast assets (including prime land, state-of-the-art studios that mostly operate for limited hours, unmatched archives and several transmission towers) to meet the shortfall in budgetary allocations without the central government’s nod. A recent proposal put up by the board to the ministry for installing bank (state-owned only) ATMs on Prasar Bharati’s large premises at a few choice locations was turned down on grounds that as of now Prasar Bharati does not own any of its assets legally.

Is all lost then ?

The answer is no.

My long and close association with Akashvani and Doordarshan reveals how old institutions have a rich institutional memory that feeds the parched sense of dignity and professional pride 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 Modi’s historic speech in central hall), all old and local stations will rise to the occasion. And stubborn followers of Akashvani and Doordarshan channels will vouch for the fact that they are still routinely and pleasantly surprised by some rare old visuals and voices from AIR and Doordarshan archives surfacing late in the night or early in the morning—without any prior announcement.

Yet, sadly, these nuggets only serve to highlight a glory terribly faded. At one time, AIR and Doordarshan attracted the best talent from across India. The coming together of some of the best minds and technical hands produced programmes that have stood the test of time.

What if Doordarshan and AIR were to try to recreate that environment? True, governments must publicize 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 freedom?

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 smartphones, computer tablets and laptops, to receive programmes, wherever they are. 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 the Aam Aadmi Party, 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. Can our public broadcasters rise to the occasion?

Large bodies such as Prasar Bharati have internal strength and can raise themselves up from the most grievous setbacks and fight their way out of a crisis, so the answer to that question is “yes", but this must be preceded by a dispassionate reappraisal and redrafting of the Act of 1990. It must be done not in haste, but after serious discussions, by a group of men and women who love the medium and understand new and developing trends in media which is moving inexorably towards mobility, portability and personalization.

Mrinal Pande, a veteran journalist and former editor of Hindustan, was chairman of Prasar Bharati. Her term ended on 30 April.

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