THE chorus for repeal of Prasar Bharati, the autonomous body that supervises Doordarshan (DD) and All India Radio (AIR), suddenly seems to have reached a crescendo after the Narendra Modi government took over the reins in May this year. The over 30,000 employees of both Doordarshan and AIR, have started believing “ache din aane wale hain”.
On May 26, when the present CEO, Jawhar Sircar, made a courtesy call on the newly appointed Information & Broadcasting Minister, Prakash Javadekar, he did not mince his words as he suggested that the largest broadcasting corporation in the world by number of employees— Prasar Bharati—needed more autonomy. What he left unsaid was that he was actually ready to give a go-by to functional autonomy for financial and administrative autonomy! It is understood that the minister only assured Sircar that he would speak to all the stakeholders and examine in depth the whole matter of autonomy before he could comment on the demand.
Undeterred, Sircar lost no time in gathering his ammunition to fire the next salvo. On May 28, he called a meeting of the representatives of all the recognised associations of DD and AIR to hand them a draft letter, to be submitted to the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB), praising Sircar and his tenure so as to strengthen his hands for demanding more autonomy, albeit financial and administrative. How naive and gullible the employees are could be judged from the fact that two of the largest associations actually agreed to his proposal, but had to stop short in their tracks as the contents of the draft letter went viral over the social media. The employees rose up in unison to stall such trickery. The fallout was obvious. What is now being sent to the minister on behalf of the associations is a letter calling for roll-back of Prasar Bharati. It is understood that four letters on behalf of some of the bigger associations have already been handed over to the minister.
Television for national development
PUBLIC television in India, according to various Prasar Bharati and DD publications, has the following social objectives: To act as a catalyst for social change; to promote national integration; to stimulate a scientific temper in the minds of the people; to disseminate the message of family planning as a means of population control and family welfare; to provide essential information and knowledge to stimulate greater agricultural production; to promote and help preserve environmental and ecological balance; to highlight the need for social welfare measures, including welfare of women, children and the less privileged; to promote interest in games and sports; and to create values of appraisal of art and our cultural heritage.
The entire Prasar Bharati exercise was meant to liberate news operations from the influence of the government of the day, but the Act (including its recent amendment) has always dealt more with service matters of the personnel, while quietly retaining control over news operations. Before 1997, except for problems in news programming, both DD and AIR were quite strong in general programming. The creation of the Corporation only succeeded in destroying the programming capabilities of the organisations. The creation of the so-called autonomous corporation has been a still-born dream and has come full circle with the staff demanding the status of government employees. The staff were left with no option as they were neither free from State interference nor did they have the benefits and advantages of being a part of a State-run organisation.
Speaking on television to Headlines Today on June 8, on the question of autonomy for the national broadcasters, the minister said that “he was open to hiring professional editors for DD and AIR under Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s scheme of more governance and less government”. A word of caution: before the government ventures into any such initiative, it must study what happened to similar schemes in the past when the bureaucrats joined hands to crush any such initiative.
ADDRESSING his first press conference in the Capital on June 9, Javadekar was asked pointedly if the Modi government would honour the commitment of the previous NDA dispensation when successive Information & Broadcasting Ministers—Sushma Swaraj, Arun Jaitley and later Ravi Shankar Prasad—had openly committed that when BJP had a majority government, it would roll back Prasar Bharati. The minister parried the question and gave a restrained reply that “the new government would take all decisions in a democratic manner in due course”. He did not open his cards as to how he will be able to galvanise DD and AIR into an effective machine to carry forward the mandate of Public Service Broadcasting.
The debate over whether one needs an autonomous Broadcasting Corporation for India is not new. One wonders whether Prasar Bharati, which was conceived when only DD and AIR existed, has a place at all in a scenario dominated by private television and radio channels! With the decisive mandate that the new government has secured for itself, it will be keenly watched as to how the Public Service Broadcaster will be impacted. But, we will have to wait for discernible changes.
In a country as large in population as India and with a low literacy rate, surely no one can deny that the government needs to have a channel to disseminate information about its programmes and help people learn about their powers, as also to build informed public opinion. There is little gainsaying the fact that both DD and AIR are today airing programmes which private channels running after TRPs and advertisers cannot do.
Ownership, control and regulation of TV
LIKE AIR, DD was until November 1997 a ‘unit’ of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting. The Government, of course, always claimed that DD enjoyed ‘functional autonomy’ in its programming and administration. But, no matter what the claims, the Ministry has remained the real decision-making body. A fair amount of freedom was permitted in the selection and production of entertainment programmes. But news and current affairs programmes were closely monitored by the ministry. That remained the practice since Independence, no matter which political party was in power in Delhi.
The question of the ownership and control of Indian broadcasting was first raised during a discussion in the Constituent Assembly. Pandit Nehru, however, dismissed the issue with these words: “My own view of the set-up for broadcasting is that we should approximate as far as possible to the British model, the BBC; that is to say, it would be better if we had a semi-autonomous corporation under the government, of course with the policy controlled by the government, otherwise being conducted as a government department but as a semi-autonomous corporation. Now, I do not think that is immediately feasible.”
Though that was the first Prime Minister’s personal view, it remained the official position until 1964 when the Chanda Committee was established to look into the whole issue afresh.
This was followed by the BG Verghese Committee, which did not see the need for autonomous corporations, or even a federation of State government corporations. However, the Committee wanted “the autonomy of the corporation and its independence from government control to be entrenched in the Constitution”. The most important recommendation made was that programming should necessarily be decentralised and producers down to the local levels should enjoy “a significant measure of autonomy”. Referring to the role played by social media in stoking the riots in Muzaffarnagar and the exodus from Bengaluru of people from the North-East last year, Verghese said that the anarchy and the lack of accountability that defines social media makes it unsustainable as a credible news outlet. It was against this backdrop that he said that Prasar Bharati is one of the last media outlets that can perform the public interest function of journalism.
The expert committee under technocrat Sam Pitroda was set up exactly a year ago. The committee, tasked with reviewing the institutional framework of Prasar Bharati, including its relationship with the government, acknowledged that it needs State funding and will, therefore, have to broadcast the government’s ‘messages and accomplishments of public interest’.
“Autonomy is a big issue,” said Pitroda, adviser to the Prime Minister on public information infrastructure and innovation, at the event to release the committee’s report. “Government does need a vehicle to promote its views and we have to take care of that. We can’t take funding, have our autonomy and not have a separate independent mechanism for government to promote its own messages and welfare measures.” He emphasised that the public broadcaster “needs to look at public interest and not just government interest”.
ALSO, one can hardly deny that there are very few countries in the world which do not have television or radio channels of their own, and many even own news agencies and newspapers. Every major nation in the world has a public broadcaster and there must be some reason for it. Then, why have successive governments shied away from accepting the reality that there must be a State-run channel.
If “the air belongs to all of us”, then why is there a constant tussle for control of air waves, particularly in the case of the national broadcaster? In the early 1970s and 1980s, when DD held the monopoly over the visual media, its power was astonishing. However, “in the interest of ensuring plurality of opinions”, it was felt that the broadcasting media cannot be allowed to be under a monopoly as “control is not conducive to free expression of contending viewpoints”. To fulfil this laudable objective, the Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act was passed in June 1990, but was notified as a statutory corporation only from November 1997.
Similarly, KR Prabhakar and PRK Raju were being wasted in the ill-equipped centre at Gorakhpur. They too left and both are now top-notch camerapersons in the Tamil film industry. Bhaskar, the personal cameraman of Amitabh Bachchan during KBC, too was with DD earlier. Ramesh, another one, showed his skills with Tarak Mehta ka Oolta Chashma. The list goes on, showing the mandarins of Prasar Bharati who failed to nurture and contain talent in poor light.
Today, there is a sea-change in the technological and the electronic media scenario. The Indian viewer has a tremendous amount of choice. Therefore, the question of autonomy becomes less and less important. Then, what is the relevance of continuing with Prasar Bharati when the very definition of autonomy has changed?
The Prasar Bharati Broadcasting Bill was introduced in a hurry by the National Front government in 1990. But, has the promised optimal statutory autonomy of DD and AIR been achieved in the last nearly 25 years?
Irrespective of which party comes to power, the subject of freedom of speech and expression will remain central as far as the media debate is concerned, especially in a country where business houses are waiting to gobble up whatever freedom the media enjoys today.
Rise of a new power axis
The Prasar Bharati was set up by an Act passed by Parliament in 1990. The Prasar Bharati Broadcasting Bill was introduced in a hurry by the National Front government, which was on its last legs. Twenty-four years have passed since then. But, has the promised optimal statutory autonomy of DD and AIR been achieved in the last nearly quarter of a century?
PRASAR Bharati’s bloated personnel base of 32,500 needs to be pruned significantly while taking in talent that can bring in new technology, enhance creative content and take the broadcaster to world class standards.
DD has 33,800 employees, the highest in the world. BBC has 16,858, Japan and China 10,000 each for public broadcasters. The rest have even less. As many as 44.4 per cent of its employees are in engineering, 36.9 per cent in administrative support services and only 18.7 per cent in the core function of programming. This is a ratio not likely to be found in any broadcasting organisation in the world. Because there are not enough programming people, Prasar Bharati outsources content development to the extent of 80 per cent in the case of DD and 20 per cent in the case of AIR. And how much of its budget does it spend on content?—a princely 13.3 per cent. In comparison, this figure is 75 per cent for NHK, 71 per cent for the BBC and ABC of Australia and 66.7 per cent for the Canadian broadcaster.
The bulk of the staff is in engineering and it is increasingly getting redundant. Satellite transmission does not require hundreds of manned terrestrial transmitters. On the other hand, the creative staff has taken the back-seat. This bias was initially driven by political compulsions, but in today’s liberalised environment there was a realisation that hardware was where one could see money. Contracts, outsourcing, hiring, and so on can be imposed on the system at will. Former employees have become suppliers, dealers, and independent consultants who recommend all kinds of equipment.
This has had some debilitating fall-outs. It has privileged the engineering division to an unbelievable degree, whereas for a nationwide programming organisation there are hardly 1,900 programming staff, half of whom are slated to retire this year. with no recruitments in sight. On the other hand, the engineering staff numbers 15,000 and is still growing.
The shortage of programming staff has brought in new difficulties. The surplus engineering staff, without any training in creative application of technologies such as sound and video editing, has been made to take up these roles in programming activities. The engineering staff also plays a much more dominant role in programming affairs and decision-making, without being sensitive to the creative requirements, according to a retired DD producer.
Programming budgets in AIR (a women’s daily programme, for instance, may have a budget of Rs. 3 lakh a year) and DD are shockingly low compared to the current market practices. Considering the amounts involved in recent scams in Commonwealth Games coverage, these amounts do not even count for rounding-off errors.
Instead of creative programming people, it is the Indian Administrative Service personnel who have begun occupying positions of power. This has converted a creative organisation into a bureaucracy and put the government centre stage in an “autonomous” corporation, while marginalising the programming staff.
The controversy over the relevance of Prasar Bharati never seems to die as there is a basic flaw here. Public broadcasting and profit-making cannot be combined. When the mandate given to Prasar Bharati is that of public broadcasting, can the public broadcaster work towards making profit? If the purse strings are held by the government, can the functioning be autonomous?
The question that arises is: If Prasar Bharati wants to break free from the government, then why is the government continuing to provide public funds for supporting the autonomous corporation even after 24 years? Why is it that Prasar Bharati has not been able to generate sufficient revenue to sustain itself?
Such is the enormous power wielded by the State-run television that even in the changed scenario, when DD no longer holds the monopoly and the government no longer holds the reins, there is constant tug-of-war between the government and Prasar Bharati officials for one-upmanship. It is a known fact that the administrative arm of the government is not run by politicians but by bureaucrats. Autonomy and bureaucracy are natural adversaries and successive governments have to suffer while the two lock themselves in mortal combat. As the liberalisation of 1991 and the subsequent leap forward proved, India has space for only one of these mindsets. This has only resulted in creating another layer of control.
THE prime motivation for the political class is to win elections. The electoral compulsions have led to anarchy in the functioning of the national broadcaster. Even S Jaipal Reddy, who was instrumental in introducing the Bill, agrees in private that in the present-day multi-channel scenario, the concept of autonomy to DD is redundant. The question then is, who will bell the cat? Also, the focus is only on financial and administrative autonomy of Prasar Bharati. The real autonomy required is in its functioning. Professionalism has never been allowed to function in Prasar Bharati. The much-touted autonomy is required for news and current affairs and not for song and drama or art, culture, or even sports. However, if bureaucrats are going to manage news content, they will forever remain His Master’s Voice.
But, Prasar Bharati need not be His Master’s Voice as it is a national public trust whose purpose and functions are spelt out in Section 12 of the Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act, 1990 (PB Act, 1990). Prime among these is “safeguarding the citizen’s right to be informed freely, truthfully and objectively on all matters of public interest, national or international, and presenting a fair and balanced flow of information, including contrasting views, without advocating any opinion or ideology of its own”.
Points to ponder
• DD, and more so AIR have an extraordinary tradition of finding and fielding the very best of talent in Indian drama, poetry, literature and vocal and instrumental music. Those traditions are being methodically killed by the monumental inefficiency and deliberate sell-out to private interests in the broadcast industry. The argument that DD and AIR staff are incapable of producing good programmes is specious as it is an open secret that former DD and AIR personnel have helped build some of the biggest private networks in the country.
• The foreign language development has been neglected with the loss of the old monitoring service. Significant events are currently going on in South Asia, but Prasar Bharati has little capacity or capability to reach out and report, let alone interpret these events to its domestic audience. People tune in to the BBC and CNN to find out what is going on in Bangladesh and Myanmar, South-East and West Asia, Africa, China and Latin America. Prasar Bharati has few foreign correspondents or stringers. Equally, the voice of India is scarcely heard abroad.
• Why should Prasar Bharati not have regular daily and weekly bulletins, or round-ups, on its near and farther neighbourhood with good commentaries on economic, political and cultural developments? Where are the in-house commentators and in-house productions that once made AIR and early Prasar Bharati lively channels? Likewise, why should Prasar Bharati not have more community and local broadcasts to reach out and down to the grassroots as intended, because of a crippling paucity of programming staff?
• Autonomy within Prasar Bharati must travel down through the regional to the local and community kendras. So too must accountability, not to the I&B Ministry, but to an independent Broadcast Complaints Commission. Such a regulatory body was initially provided for but never constituted as a parallel complaints authority was proposed to be set up to regulate private broadcasting. In the event, neither body was constituted. A single complaints body is necessary, possibly with regional affiliates in view of the size of the country and multiplicity of languages.
Broadcast information is a service like the supply of electricity, water and telephony; but, unlike the others, it is somehow considered free goods. The PB Act permits the Corporation to levy fees for all external and monitoring services in the same manner as the BBC is funded by the Foreign Office for its external services. This is not being done.
Status of employees
There is hardly any living public organisation in India where no recruitment has taken place in 20 years and its ministry tightly controls promotions—this means that none, except a tiny handful of the nearly 33,000 employees, have been promoted in 20 or even 30 years. Morale and discipline have, thus, been the worst casualties.
NEARLY 15,000 posts have lapsed over two decades while the number of TV and radio stations has doubled to 480 and other installations to 2,000. The group of ministers under P Chidambaram recommended the creation of 3,452 critical posts in 2009, but the government has been dragging its feet while thousands have retired.
Section 11 of the Act had given employees the option to decide whether they wanted to join the Corporation or go back to the government, but no action was taken as the rules for various categories of employees have not been drawn up in the last 24 years.
Instead, the Prasar Bharati Amendment Bill 2010—giving effect to the recommendation of the Group of Ministers (GoM) for treating all government officers and employees recruited by AIR or DD, as on October 5, 2007, as on ‘deemed deputation’ with effect from April 2000 till the time of their retirement—was introduced in Parliament towards the end of 2010.
Soon afterwards, agitated employees of Prasar Bharati went on lightning mass casual leave to press for their demand “to scrap the farcical autonomy provided under the outdated Prasar Bharati Bill”. Prasar Bharati was jolted out of its complacency when this affected transmission for around 48 hours.
Striving to impress!
Any officer on deputation takes a minimum six months to know what the media is all about. Then he strains to learn names of people whom he can talk about. Some even carry lists of such professionals. One even carried names and model numbers of cameras and other hardware to impress staff about his knowledge. He would drop ‘model no.’ to people in the meeting… “Don’t we have that model…it should be used !”
One officer, who opted for VRS recently, impressed two lady officers by reeling out scooter and car numbers as the new model numbers of hardware introduced in the media world. He would often create an aura of his enviable knowledge saying, “Well, this ASK 2359 is creating wonders….its applications are astounding…” The ladies would be stumped with his knowledge. They would name him for all advance tours abroad and elsewhere!
How to generate revenue
• One answer would be to farm out idle time to local community broadcasters and institutions on payment so that the transmitters are optimally utilised. Some franchising is being done, but not in a structured manner. The other option—and the two are not mutually exclusive—would be to hive off the entire transmission system into an independent Prasar Bharati Transmission Corporation that would be free to service private and commercial broadcasters and become an independent and highly remunerative profit centre. Such a proposition was indeed examined by a committee Prasar Bharati appointed quite some years back under the late PV Indiresan, in collaboration with the French broadcasting organisation, and was found feasible. Unfortunately, the idea was not pursued as Prasar Bharati was mired in its own problems.
• The research and development wing too should be hived off as yet another profit centre that could become a national asset. After all, it was Prasar Bharati that, in collaboration with ISRO, pioneered the set-top boxes and related systems for the SITE (Satellite TV Experiment) multi-lingual programme in 1976 in rural India. It became the first successful direct-to-home broadcast service in the world.
• The Prasar Bharati Act calls on the Corporation to take such steps as it thinks fit “to establish a system for the gathering of news for radio and television”. This is something it is well placed to do, nationally and globally. It needs to build its own oral and audio-visual news services that provide an additional, standard-setting, third major news service. Standard-setting is important in the light of the editorialised and sensationalised new reportage prevalent today and phenomenon like “paid news”.
The employees were protesting against the ‘mess created in Prasar Bharati’ and seeking repeal of the PB Act 1990 on the ground that it had no relevance in today’s context. While radio was badly affected and beamed repeat programmes, DD kendras managed by taking feed from Delhi.
The employees had threatened a second round of 72-hour mass casual leave from December 13 to 16, but this was prevented at the last minute after hectic negotiations and when the public broadcaster set up a committee headed by Member (Personnel) on the Prasar Bharati Board, with representatives of the Employee Federation, to examine various issues. The ministry assured that it was prepared to examine various clauses of the PB Act.
The timing of the strike was crucial as it coincided with the government’s decision to proceed against its then Chief Executive Officer, Baljit Singh Lalli, who was mired in financial irregularities, particularly with regard to the Commonwealth Games. Following a reference by the then Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, former President Pratibha Devisingh Patil finally gave her consent early in December to an inquiry by a Supreme Court judge into financial irregularities by Lalli.
THIS led to Lalli’s wings being clipped with the formation of a three-member committee—with Member (Personnel) and Member (Finance) along with the CEO—being asked to run the public broadcaster. It was ultimately decided to suspend Lalli and the Additional Secretary in the I&B Ministry, Rajiv Takru, was given additional charge as CEO, Prasar Bharati, in January 2011. This raised questions about whether it implied a roll-back of Prasar Bharati by indirect takeover of the autonomous pubcaster by the ministry.
Simultaneously, five committees, dealing with the subjects of finance, personnel, production and content, project monitoring and implementation and strategy and vision, were formed to streamline the functioning of the national broadcaster.
Instead of quelling the unrest amongst the employees, Takru only took discernible steps in tightening the noose around the so-called autonomous public broadcaster. Hierarchical structure and reporting relationships amongst the permanent board members were changed. In effect, he took over absolute control of the Prasar Bharati Board in an autocratic manner, doing precious little to bring about the much desired functional autonomy in the working of the organisation. He then disbanded all associations of the employees and so the movement for roll-back of Prasar Bharati was killed.
A number of decisions was taken in quick succession on various financial proposals without due diligence. During Takru’s tenure, Prasar Bharati turned down a Cabinet proposal to expand in-house DTH facility. The decision to pay exorbitant sums to private players was also taken under his leadership. In violation of CVC guidelines, the Board recommended hiring camcorders worth Rs. 58 crore without calling for tenders. So, another outsourcing scam was brewing during Takru’s tenure. Added to this, the whistleblowers were shunted out to outposts, including the writer of this article. Without ceremony, she was given the marching orders for Leh despite the fact that no room existed at Leh, nor did it have a post of correspondent. Her only crime was that she was spearheading the movement for roll-back of Prasar Bharati, she being the vice-chairperson of the National Federation of Akashvani and Doordarshan Employees (NFADE), an umbrella organisation of 23 associations of DD and AIR having the support of nearly 45, 000 employees.
Personnel policy has been a huge millstone around Prasar Bharati’s neck as even the CEO, directors of finance and personnel and other senior staff are primarily selected from among bureaucrats or superannuated government servants. There are certainly good people in the official ranks, but to exclude professionals in the first place is clearly anomalous. This makes no sense as it means autonomy with fetters.
The imported CEOs and DGs are perhaps more ignorant about the needs of media than the lowest functionaries in the organisation. One of the DGs was besotted with agriculture programmes, but did not understand which person or cameraman was suited for this specialised area. He forced camerapersons into such coverage who were trained and proficient in other genres. Soon, these camerapersons got disenchanted and bid goodbye. Rajendran, one of these camerapersons, later shot blockbusters like Singham, Gol Maal and Chennai Express!
Similarly, KR Prabhakar and PRK Raju were being wasted in the ill-equipped centre at Gorakhpur. They too left and both are now top-notch camerapersons in the Tamil film industry. Bhaskar, the personal cameraman of Amitabh Bachchan during KBC, too was with DD earlier. Ramesh, another one, showed his skills with Tarak Mehta ka Oolta Chashma. The list goes on, showing the mandarins of Prasar Bharati who failed to nurture and contain talent in poor light.
THE most glaring example of control by bureaucrats is in the newsroom of DD and news division of AIR which have a sanctioned strength of 314 top posts for officials of the Indian Information Service (IIS). Compared to any worldwide news network, this figure is astonishing; it is difficult to understand what function this large number of officials performs in news. Even all the seven foreign bureaux are manned by cadred officers who cannot distinguish information from news. Under RTI, it was admitted that only dry stories are filed by these officials. How ironical that dry stories, or phone-ins are given for the national television. What a gross waste of taxpayers’ money! On important occasions, either correspondents from the Press Trust of India (PTI) have to step in and give a live report, or stringers are asked to give on-camera reports. It is incomprehensible that a network as large as DD has no style of reporting and the cadred officers, before being posted, are not imparted any training in handling television news.
In fact, the clamour for the glamorous job is such that more than 50 per cent of the IIS officers are posted in DD and AIR as opposed to the Press Information Bureau. Experience of the past decades has shown that the role of the IIS officers has probably been totally misconstrued. Since the designation says ‘Information’, it is often mistaken that information and news are synonymous! Clearly, the officers take ‘Information’ to mean ‘Information and PR’. But, what is surprising is that they have been able to convince the political bosses!
From 1980 to 1987, there were no recruitments to the Information Service as a fall-out of the Geeta Krishna Committee Report, which had recommended that departments like Song and Drama and Field Publicity, among others, should be shut down in the new information age. To avoid being shunted to the “surplus cell”, the Shastri Bhawan mandarins worked overtime to get their posts sanctioned in DD and AIR, which saw a huge exodus of IIS officers to the newsrooms. At the ministry, there’s the information wing that is serviced by the PIB, the DAVP, Publications Division, Song and Drama Division, et al. In today’s age of communications, how efficacious these structures are is not only questionable but conclusively redundant.
Need for radical overhaul
Prasar Bharati plans to set up 839 new FM stations in the private sector in 290 cities of the country in the near future.
• The shake-up, essential for finding more audiences and revenues, will involve new ways of building and sourcing content. A government-appointed expert committee, headed by technocrat Sam Pitroda, has recommended partially doing away with the tendering and bidding systems to select outsourced programmes. Also, a flexible financial approach to content creation needs to be adopted.
• A clear demarcation between Prasar Bharati’s commercial and non-commercial properties needs to be made in terms of programming and time bands. A notional, monetised value must be assigned to the public service properties delivered by the broadcaster on each of its channels for overall revenue generation.
• Media has significantly highlighted the need to procure award-winning art films, NSD productions, TV adaptation of theatrical presentations to enrich DD Bharati, initiate collaborative arrangements and syndications to get content from other niche channels like Discovery and History Channel, and have more simulcast programmes like Satyamev Jayate and Saraswatichandra as they bring in good revenue. Content must emerge from a vision reflecting an ideal channel mix, defining the scope and reach of the broadcasts, DTH, satellite and terrestrial. The current mix needs to be analysed and adjusted to the ideal composition, with content designed as per the image and thrust of each channel. Giving importance to prime-time content treatment, similar to that of the private broadcasters, DD and AIR should develop a fervour that transcends to marketing, thus promoting viewership.
• Stress on the importance of introducing business news in Hindi apart from English, creating time bands or launching exclusive educational television services with greater contribution that could include partial funding by Central and State universities to fight the menace of increasing illiteracy in rural hinterlands.
• Relooking at DD Sports, the Pitroda panel points out the possibility of airing films when prime sports are not being telecast.
• With channels such as Zee earning around Rs. 60 crore from teleshopping, the committee also recommends the launch of a teleshopping channel in the non-prime time band. The move is necessary for the bouquet of channels on DD Direct Plus (Prasar Bharati’s DTH service) as most rural audiences have migrated to DTH. In the case of AIR, the number of stations could be reviewed, along with their content, reach and cost benefits.
• Following the completion of digitisation, Prasar Bharati should launch VOD/AOD content on the Internet and also exploit mobile technologies to provide additional services to connect with different target audiences and the new generation.
Early in 2010, Prasar Bharati was reprimanded by a Parliamentary Committee for lethargy in not finalising recruitment rules even after 24 years. The committee regretted that its recommendation in 2009 for finalisation of recruitment rules and to implement them within three months had not been complied with.
THOUGH Prasar Bharati boards were constituted by several governments from time to time, none took the initiative to operationalise the Act’s mandate for a “Parliament committee” of 22 MPs to oversee its functions, nor the “broadcasting council” to receive and consider complaints against the broadcaster.
The “non-lapsable fund” the Act provided was also not created, meaning that it would be ‘business as usual’ and the ministry would continue to control funds and functioning.
For the hapless employees, there has been a double whammy; they are as much a victim of their own insecurity as they are of Prasar Bharati ad hocism. What is shocking is that despite 24 years of formation of the autonomous corporation, the rules and regulations governing the employees are still to be framed. There is rampant ad hocism and whims and fancies of the superannuated bureaucrats who run the show are taken as the rules of governance.
It was a little before Prasar Bharati when RC Sinha, a 1961-batch officer in the ministry, called up to say that he was sending a tape for telecast on ‘Prime Time’. People were shocked that a VHS was sent for telecast. They asked the Joint Secretary if there was any other high band professional tape, since the VHS could not be played. Without understanding the technical requirement, he said, “It can’t be played even if I order it!”
All for jaunts
Foreign tours have over the years become the preserve of the CEO, DG and a few chosen ones. The question is: why should they go for foreign training or sessions immediately after joining. More so, when they have poor or no knowledge of job requirements. Can anyone say when a cameramen last went abroad for higher training, or an orientation course? Perhaps not since the coming of Prasar Bharati and its bureaucrats.
IRONICALLY, though serving government employees under the corporation have lost most of the benefits of a government employee, the Prasar Bharati Secretariat under a special permission has been granted the benefit of using the national emblem. So, these officials want all the perks and benefits from the government, including funds, but want to spend them in an “autonomous manner”. This is the root cause of the tussle and the recent spurt of media articles and open letters written by the CEO makes it look as if their freedom is being attacked.
Prasar Bharati quickly wants to phase out the permanent employees and replace them with casual, contractual workforce. This is the deeper tragedy which no one seems to be concerned about.
Autonomy: A misnomer
The issue had first come up when S Jaipal Reddy was the Information & Broadcasting Minister in the IK Gujral government in the late nineties. But, it was a tenure marked by controversial decisions, ranging from appointing a group of superannuated men and women to the Prasar Bharati Board. Much was expected from Reddy in his second term. With his experience, it was thought Reddy would bring clarity to the media scene. It was believed that Reddy would speed the detoxification process.
A late returnee to the Congress, Reddy was conspicuous by his inaction during his term in 2004. Nothing was being achieved by denying the reality. But, Reddy kept his safeguards to appease the political votebank. Reddy says he couldn’t have done anything. Perhaps he is right. His portfolios were the centrepiece of the Left’s new vision for governance which entailed a saffron purge. The pressure was enormous. Add to it a reportedly reluctant set of senior bureaucrats, and there was a minister who was unable to lead.
When Swaraj was in charge of the ministry about a decade earlier, a GoM had been set up under the chairmanship of then Finance Minister Yashwant Sinha on the possibility of setting a Convergence Commission and to pilot a Convergence Bill. This was being considered as it was felt that broadcasting and information technology were gradually merging. While then Communication and Information Technology Minister, Pramod Mahajan, and then Law Minister, Arun Jaitley, appeared to be in favour of the Commission, it is understood that it was vehemently opposed by Swaraj.
The issue could not be resolved even after several meetings of the GoM and it was later put in cold storage because of a change of the government in 2004.
The possible reason for this is not far to seek: if a Convergence Commission (which would have also made the Prasar Bharati Act redundant) had been indeed approved, then chances were that the broadcasting ministry would have gone to the IT Minister and Swaraj would have been left with only the Information portfolio in terms of power something no senior politician could afford.
Need for better research
• To bridge the gap between the people and DD, more research is needed. To inform all programme decisions and strategies, it is important to commission independent research, which is qualitative and quantitative in nature. Apart from that, public consultations, audience panels and annual tracking studies will complement the commissioned studies.
• With the television audience rating system under the scanner now, there is a great demand for making the results of all the research available on the DD and AIR websites to ensure openness and transparency in decision-making.
• Need to revamp the Audience Research Unit (ARU) and pay attention to audience priorities. Each station should undertake audience research with regard to audience needs, content analysis and impact, for which budgets should be earmarked for each station. A tie-up with a leading international research agency to improve DD/AIR research data so that it is more acceptable to advertisers could also help in the long run.
Although the Information & Broadcasting Minister in the UPA, Ambika Soni, consistently maintained that repealing the Act as demanded by the employees would be counter-productive and the UPA would be accused of trying to control the media, the GoM on Prasar Bharati, set up with P Chidambaram as chairman, was already dealing with the issue of rolling back Prasar Bharati. However, Soni said towards the end of the year that the government was considering a roadmap for taking new initiatives in the Prasar Bharati set-up. The initiatives would aim to firm up the mandate given to Prasar Bharati as a public broadcaster, Soni added.
Days before he demitted office this year, Information & Broadcasting Minister Manish Tewari, on the issue of Prasar Bharati’s autonomy, felt that “a fundamental decision has to be taken whether India requires a public broadcaster or not. Prasar Bharati had been conceived when only DD was there. Now there are 1,798 private channels, out of which 415 are news and current affairs channels. And if you need a public broadcaster, what exactly should its focus be, needs to be clearly defined”.
One, therefore, wonders whether the statement by the outgoing minister is an outcome of his own wisdom or because of his frustration in dealing with ex-bureaucrats manning the public service broadcaster. Clearly, ‘broadcasting’ does not mean just Prasar Bharati in a scenario where not only has the radio and television industry grown by leaps and bounds, but the social media has also carved a niche for itself. It is now open to the new government to decide whether the ministry, alongwith Prasar Bharati, needs to remain or go.
“As for autonomy, the first prerequisite for cutting the umbilical cord between Prasar Bharati and the ministry should be that Prasar Bharati should be directly accountable to Parliament through a parliamentary committee and not through the ministry to Parliament,” he said.
Revenue, budget and finances
The Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs approved Rs. 3,500 crore for the upgradation of Prasar Bharati infrastructure in early March this year. The 12th Plan proposes expansion of DD’s DTH platform and establishing infrastructure for AIR. The GoM to look into the affairs of Prasar Bharati, reconstituted early in 2010 with Home Minister Chidambaram at its head, recommended in mid-December that the level of government support—read financial support—should be maintained for the public service broadcaster for the next five years from 2010-11 to 2014-15. This support will be reviewed after 2015. However, the GoM also said that 50 per cent of the annual operating expenses of Prasar Bharati should be borne by the pubcaster from its internal extra budgetary resources, while the remaining 50 per cent will come from government grants.
THE GoM also clarified that Plan capital funding by the government may be in the form of grant-in-aid and not in the form of loan. The loan-in-perpetuity and capital loan should be converted into grants, and the interest on loan-in-perpetuity, capital loan and penal interest should be waived. Prasar Bharati had accumulated losses of Rs. 13,556 crore in 2011-12. If one wants no shortfall in a five-year period, Prasar Bharati would have to almost double its revenues.
In addition, a scheme of Rs. 620 crore was approved for DD and Rs. 908 crore for AIR for the purpose of digitisation under the 11th Plan and is already under implementation. Clearly, this was done because the pubcaster was under financial stress. Prasar Bharati has posted revenue of Rs. 466 crore for the six-month period ended September 2010, while expenditure stands at Rs. 1,205 crore. Prasar Bharati had posted revenue of Rs. 1,176 crore for the fiscal ended March 2010, while expenditure stood at Rs. 2,949 crore. Prasar Bharati boasts of a huge technical infrastructure and gets Rs. 340 crore per year for essential replacements and modernisation.
Broadcasting is a highly technical subject and the programme and engineering wings of AIR, and later of DD, picked up their skills in the last 78 and 55 years, respectively. This is difficult to convey to bureaucrats, who are hard-wired for self-promotion. Technologies are changing rapidly and digitisation and the social media have caused havoc in the print and broadcast media.
Clueless bureaucrats bring shame to the country. One such bureaucrat, Brijeshwar Singh, led a DD team for a pre-Olympics meet at Beijing. Nearly 300 delegates were there to discuss the technical facilities DD required during the Olympics. But, the CEO knew nothing about professional requirements. When the organisers called him and asked about what kind of sound DD required, he was perplexed.
“Would you like to take international sound?” he was asked.
Singh did not know what to say. He blurted, “No, please, we take only Indian sound. We are Indians!”
There was deafening silence. He realised his error when the Director, Sports, pulled his coat and whispered, “Say we need customised feed.”
The broadcaster has now proposed to the government to leverage the locked-up value of some of the most strategically located 100-odd properties, specifically properties in Delhi, valued at around Rs. 20,000 crore, to be handed over to bodies such as DDA, HUDCO or NBCC for converting them into housing colonies! Is Prasar Bharati a broadcasting organisation or a real estate agency?
THE argument put forth was that their annual yields could meet the broadcaster’s capital investments. A Rs. 2,000-crore expansion of FM services could then be executed so that nearly 700 million cellphone owners could receive all AIR services to make a self-reliant Prasar Bharati.
DD and AIR have not been profitable since the inception of Prasar Bharati. In today’s competitive scenario, they have got increasingly marginalised. Their programming has become less and less attractive to the audience, leading to a downward spiral in viewership, advertiser confidence and revenue share. The once healthy TRPs now struggle to be greater than 1.
THE Income Tax Department asked Prasar Bharati, which had made DD enter into a contract with a company for broadcast rights of the Commonwealth Games, to cut taxes from the company’s receipts under the Tax Deducted at Source (TDS) category. The I-T Department said that the broadcast firm had “come into existence solely with the purpose of carrying out and undertaking all activities and actions necessary or desirable to implement the CWG contract”.
“The provisions of the I-T Act and DTAA with UK, and this being a provisional certificate, a rate of 11.78 per cent is being applied on the gross receipts of Rs. 246 crore, for deducting the tax at source, as against the rate of 4 per cent directed earlier vide certificate under Section 197 dated June 1, 2010. This amounts to a total tax deduction of Rs. 29 crore by Doordarshan (constituent of Prasar Bharati). Accordingly, SIS Live is directed to receive the total payment from Doordarshan, after withholding of tax at the rate of 11.78 per cent (including surcharge and education cess) on the gross receipts i.e. Rs. 246 crore, during the financial year 2010-11,” the I-T assessment order of October 7 said.
Sources said that the terms of payment by Prasar Bharati were also being looked into by the investigators. The I-T Department had earlier issued attachment orders of the unreleased contract amount of Rs. 246 crore to the firm by Prasar Bharati on October 6. But a day later, it issued orders to cut taxes under TDS by invoking provisions of Section 197 (certificate for deduction at lower rate) and the DTAA. “Whatever has been done, has been done in a totally proper, correct and valid manner,” Chief Executive Officer of Prasar Bharati BS Lalli said while reacting to the allegations.
In another case, Prasar Bharati’s recently appointed CEO, Jawhar Sircar, found, during his visit to Jammu and Kashmir, that electronic media had become a hub of corruption in the militancy-infested State. By the time Sircar understood the reality, the list of tainted officers had already swelled. Sources say the situation has now taken such an alarming turn that most of the Doordarshan and All India Radio Stations in Jammu and Kashmir are at present without directors and are headed by engineers who, besides lacking programming sense, fall terribly short of administrative and public relations skills too. Ironically, on the other hand, a number of director-level officials stand attached or suspended for their involvement in siphoning government money.
While giving a long list of tainted officials, sources recalled that DD Kendra Srinagar’s former Director, Dr Rafiq Masoodi, was suspended two months earlier for his involvement in a mega scandal for which the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) has taken up investigation only recently.
Sources said the present Director of DD Srinagar, Qayoom Wadera, who was transferred to Leh last year following his alleged involvement in corrupt practices, has again been posted as head of the prestigious station where he had tainted himself along with about six producers and assistants.
Sources also said that DD Srinagar’s Senior Administrative Officer, AS Beg, was suspended some days before his retirement last year, following his involvement in a multi-crore scandal involving tapes and programme content. Similarly, Radio Kashmir Srinagar’s former Administrative Officer, Hajra Khan, figures in the list of tainted officers along with 23 other AIR officials, whose involvement in withdrawing travel claims illegally was established by the CBI some months ago.
Prasar Bharati does not earn any licence fee, which is the source of funding for almost all international public service broadcasters. BBC earns 70 per cent of its revenue from a licence fee. Prasar Bharati does not earn any subscription revenue, which accounts for 36 per cent of revenue for all commercial TV channels in India today. DD currently has 8 per cent of ad revenue share among TV channels.
Terrestrial viewership countrywide is down to 8 per cent. Almost 92 per cent of the country is now into satellite viewing mode and, in that universe, DD struggles to get a TRP of 1. Digitisation has done DD a favour over the last year; it has driven people back to it because poorer households cannot afford the extra cost of a set top box for every TV in the house.
Early in 2010, the Union Cabinet gave the green signal to the proposal for digitisation of transmitters and studios in the DD network during the 11th Plan. Prasar Bharati got a plan allocation of Rs. 620 crore to begin work on 40 digital terrestrial transmitters and other equipment. The government is confident of meeting its deadline of complete digitisation of the electronic media by 2017.
While the Planning Commission had said that a sum of Rs. 5,900 crore would be required over the next 10 years for digitisation of AIR, the Information & Broadcasting Ministry prepared a proposal for Rs. 800 crore. The Commission said the revenue generation capacity is expected to increase and it is expected that just over Rs. 169 billion (Rs. 16,900 crore) would be earned by Prasar Bharati during this period.
DD and AIR, which beam terrestrially to reach all over the country, have stepped up the process of digitisation, which will free up spectrum currently used for analogue transmission, thereby allowing more channels to come in. Keeping in view the worldwide trends of transition to digital mode, AIR plans to introduce digital quality direct sound broadcast to listeners. It is proposed to expand the existing DTH services during the 11th Plan and to use the Internet platform to serve listeners. This will support non-linear listening.
THE Planning Commission, in its report on “Going Digital” presented in October 2006, decided to go in for 100 per cent digitisation of FM radio and five short-wave radio stations. Thus, Prasar Bharati would require Rs. 9,431 crore over a period of 10 years. Meanwhile, AIR is all set for an exponential growth. A sum of Rs. 144 crore has been allocated in the 11th Plan for expansion and revamping of the FM transmitter network, while a sum of Rs. 385 crore has been approved for expansion and revamping of the medium-wave channels of AIR.
The new DG was a mild-mannered person. He seemed to be learning throughout his tenure and would reassuringly comment,
“Well, it’s matter of time, I am in the process of learning….”
Once, he was in a meeting with the engineers. As lunchtime approached, one senior engineer got up, saying, “Excuse me, sir, I have to coordinate the feed…”.
The DG got confused. He quietly looked at his watch. He saw the engineer rushing out. He looked at others for some inputs. But got none. He dispersed the meeting.
But he could not hide his curiosity. He asked another engineer: “How come you people also come under the mid-day meal scheme!”
Feed, for him, was food … he could not relate it with footage to be downloaded !
Though the coverage of the Commonwealth Games in October 2010 went off without any hitch despite fears, Prasar Bharati’s total revenue from the Games stood at Rs. 58.1 crore, falling far short of the expected target of Rs. 100 crore.
With expenditure consistently overshooting earnings by a wide margin, the public broadcaster is in danger of a complete erosion of its reserves, making it a financial liability for the government. In the past four years, against average annual earnings of Rs. 1,100 crore, Prasar Bharati has posted an average deficit of Rs. 1,500 crore, prompting a parliamentary panel to demand steps to raise revenues to meet operational costs and set its house in order. In 2010-11, actual revenue earned by the public broadcaster was 20 per cent below its own projections. The situation was no better in the two previous fiscals either.
A Parliamentary Standing Committee, headed by Congress MP Rao Inderjit Singh, had raised alarm bells after scrutinising the annual revenue and expenditure receipts. It said that while it is appreciated that Prasar Bharati is a public service broadcaster, the mandate does not restrict it from generating adequate revenue to meet its operational cost. The parliamentary panel took a serious view of the financial viability of Prasar Bharati and its inability to raise revenues.
The Prasar Bharati Board appears to be a one-man show as the post of the chairperson has been lying vacant since March this year. Either way, the chairman has always been a weakling, whether the previous incumbent Arun Bhatnagar or the previous incumbent Mrinal Pandey.
Chief Executive Officer Jawhar Sircar seems to be in total control of the organisation and is now flexing muscles to demand complete autonomy in financial and administrative matters. He is ably supported by superannuated bureaucrats, who seem to have struck a gold mine. The government really needs to addresss this issue. How can superannuated persons be given the mandate to be a disciplinary authority over serving government servants? It is the government which is the appointing authority for government servants.
BOTH the posts of Member (Finance) and Member (Personnel) are lying vacant. Additional Secretary of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting JS Mathur is the Nominated Member on the Prasar Bharati Board.
Of the five part-time members posts, three are lying vacant. Of these, neither Prema Cariappa nor Muzaffar Ali have any background of news. F Sheheryar, DG, AIR, is an Ex-officio Member. Since he himself is holding a temporary position, his say in the functioning is limited. Tripurari Sharan, DG, DD, is the other Ex-officio Member on transfer back to his cadre.
Focus on technology
PRASAR Bharati is set to get a Rs. 3,500-crore makeover, including infrastructure upgradation and infusion of new content to counter anti-India propaganda along the border areas. The proposal, cleared by the expenditure finance committee, also includes schemes like fresh programming content for DD and AIR, digitisation of its terrestrial network and archives and expansion of DD’s DTH network.
The proposal, likely to be brought before the Union Cabinet, has devoted Rs. 173 crore to the upgradation of infrastructure in border areas. Of the 70-odd new transmitters proposed to be set up, eight will be along the India-Nepal and India-China border.
Sources said as the conventional TV towers were under threat from terrorist attacks, the public broadcaster plans to invest in digital satellite news gathering (DSNG) sets. DD is likely to get 32 such sets which will allow for on-the-spot broadcasts.
The I&B Ministry’s proposal for creation of specific content for border towns to counter propaganda from neighbours has also received the go-ahead. An inter-ministerial
committee under the cabinet secretary, including representatives from the ministries of home, external affairs and defence, will advise Prasar Bharati in creating content specific for the region, keeping in view the sensitivities and strategic importance.
Both DD and AIR will be required to upgrade studios, use new media technologies and digitise their terrestrial network. Of the 1,415 analog transmitters, 630 will be digitised. There are also plans to digitise rare archival material that is in considerable disrepair.
DD and AIR are already on YouTube and Twitter with a growing following. While DD News has 32,000 followers on Twitter, it receives an encouraging 700 views a day on YouTube. There are about 1,700 videos uploaded currently. AIR too has 24,000 followers on Twitter. The next step, according to a senior official, is to create and develop mobile apps. “The apps for news service will be a priority. Prasar Bharati has an unenviable credible network through the length and breadth of the country that will be put to use. It has the potential of creating its own niche amid the private news broadcasters,” a source said.
Prasar Bharati also plans to introduce mobile applications for DD and AIR that will provide news and entertainment, including access to rare archival material for viewers on mobiles, laptops and tablets. The archival material that is being digitised and uploaded could be subscription-based. It hopes to earn advertising revenue to the tune of Rs. 200 crore with digital media, eventually earning 25-30 per cent of the revenue. The apps are likely to be in operation within the next six months.
Sircar, a former Secretary to the Government of India, in the wake of the controversial editing of Narendra Modi’s interview to DD, has been openly criticising the ministry for what he calls “shadowing” the public broadcaster. DD had on April 26 interviewed Modi at Gandhinagar and telecast it the next day. However, remarks made by him on Priyanka Gandhi and Ahmed Patel were edited out, triggering a row.
The editing of the Modi interview raised a political storm and brought back attention to the fight for autonomy to Prasar Bharati. With Prasar Bharati coming under fire from the BJP for editing portions of the interview, the controversy has now got further stoked by a letter written by Sircar and addressed to the Board members.
Most bureaucrats like to throw tantrums. Fed up with such repeated behaviour, one sound engineer thought of teaching one a lesson.
The Secretary, like all other Secretaries even now, was waiting for the Doordarshan team to record him. His PS called the engineer a number of times: “Please be on time… he is a stickler … he may even get you suspended.”
Fed up, the crew reached his office. Soon the sound engineer found something wrong with the cable. He was also concerned about the Secretary’s temper and arrogant behaviour. So he thought of an idea.
He barged into the Secretary’s room with an expression of shock and dismay on his face…. looked around…. The Secretary got confused.
“What’s the matter … anything wrong?” the officer queried.
“Well, sir, I was perhaps briefed that Secretary was a female….”
“So…what does that mean ….?” the Secretary asked.
“I have brought a female mike … this will have to be changed…,” the sound engineer said.
A furious Secretary gave a dirty look to his PS, who was shivering at the turn of events. He tried to say something… but the stern officer told him, “Now get some nice tea fast … you should have given the correct picture!”
Then the all-knowing bureaucrat mumbled, “I admire science… what wonders they have done … separate mikes for males and females ….. I never knew about it … I admire Doordarshan and its technical competence!”
The letter highlighted lack of autonomy to Prasar Bharati and strongly hinted at interference by the MIB in operational matters and the news division. The letter instigated a charge and counter-charge battle between the BJP and the Congress.
The editing of the Modi interview is being seen as ‘political censorship’ rather than ‘technical editing’. As an immediate reaction to the controversy, Prasar Bharati had maintained that the editing was done for ‘technical’ reasons. However, this letter now has raised serious questions regarding MIB’s involvement and interference in operational matters of Prasar Bharati.
THE letter also mentions lack of autonomy in personnel selection, postings, financial matters and overall operations. This is in stark contrast to the government position that Prasar Bharati was an autonomous body and free to operate independent of government control.
Sources in the ministry said that Prasar Bharati’s Principal Advisor, VAM Hussain, has written a letter to I&B Secretary Bimal Julka in which he has cited many instances where Prasar Bharati’s requests were turned down, or kept pending, by the Centre because of which an assurance is needed “so that well-meaning action would not result in public humiliation” if an inquiry is held into the controversial editing of Modi’s interview.
Sircar, who has also chosen the current time to express his view by writing in various popular magazines, may have his own reason. But, he has deliberately chosen to air his views about ‘covert control raj’ to coincide with the entry of a new government as well as the editing of the Modi interview. Interestingly, even DD News Director-General SM Khan has gone on record to say that the decision to make cuts in the interview had nothing to do with the ministry and were done internally by DD news staff—a staff which comprises casual, contractual and sponsored candidates appointed mainly to please the ruling government. Merit and professional credentials are not even required if you have the right recommendation to gain entry.
All attempts to convince successive governments that an overdose of bureaucrats and superannuated bureaucrats was counter to autonomy, have failed.
Some of the superannuated bureaucrats whose terms have been extended following a Prasar Bharati Secretariat order on June 6, 2014, are Ashok Arora, Adviser (HR) and former Secretary to GoI, term extended till December 31, 2014; Brig (Retd) VAM Hussain, Principal Adviser (Personnel and Administration) and a direct appointee of the Vice-President, term extended till February 16, 2015; RK Jain, Adviser (Tech), term extended till December 31, 2014; Sharadindoo Sadhu, Adviser (IR & Tech), term extended till March 31, 2015; Om Prakash, Officer on Special Duty (AR) and a retired Joint Secretary to GoI, term extended till December 31, 2014; and Dhiranjan Malvey, Officer on Special Duty (PBB), term extended till December 31, 2014.
Yet another office order dated May 19, 2014, stated that “based upon bio-data, work experience and on the recommendation of the Selection-cum-Screening Committee for Engagement/Selection of Consultants/Retired Persons, it has been decided to engage SS Bindra, retired ADG(E), STI(T), AIR and DD, as Consultant (Training), on contract basis for an initial period of one year from the date of his joining in Prasar Bharati Secretariat.
The list goes on…
Autonomy for news
The National Broadcaster, with the mandate for public broadcasting, cannot be an extension of the Press Information Bureau. Apart from Prasar Bharati, other units under the I&B Ministry which are manned by the Indian Information Service are responsible for publicity and providing information about the working of the government. Information and news should not be confused. Mere information is not news; when we sift information, we get news.
Had the news content been managed by professionals, it would have been possible to balance the issues. But, since news is headed by officers of the IIS, they are ever willing to bend backwards. On the one hand there is the demand for autonomy and on the other, it is officers of the IIS who double up as news editors and correspondents!
An IIS officer shifts among 18 departments, like DAVP, Field Publicity, Song and Drama Division, Publication Division, Research and Reference Division, Registrar of Newspapers, and so on. They are, in no way, competent to handle a specialised medium like electronic broadcasting, particularly TV news which requires specialised handling. Anyone familiar with the news set-up would know that journalists are the backbone of any news organisation.
A handful of TV journalists, who have been holding the flag high, have been demanding the recall of all IIS officers from the foreign bureaux and want senior TV news correspondents to be posted there. They also want IIS to be phased out from DD News so as to professionalise the premier national channel and to help it restore its past glory.
To professionalise DD News, the Rajiv Gandhi government had initiated the process for recruitment of TV journalists in 1987, after accepting the recommendations of the PC Joshi Committee in 1985 to create a separate cadre of TV journalists. The recommendations of the working group on software for Doordarshan were submitted to the government in March 1985, titled “An Indian Personality for TV”. The recruitments were made directly in Group A in 1988, after an All-India written test and two rounds of interviews, with the intent that the journalists will professionalise the National Broadcaster. As per the broad parameters of the Department of Personnel and Training (DoPT), all direct recruits were to be promoted to the senior time scale from junior time scale around the fifth or sixth year.
This would have ensured that professional journalists thus recruited would have been at the helm of affairs in DD News. However, bureaucrats conspired to sabotage the laudable government scheme. The notification of the appointment of TV journalists, a pre-requisite in government functioning, was kept pending for 25 years, in gross violation of established rules and norms.
It has been found that officers belonging to IAS, Indian Audit and Accounts Service and Indian Railways Service reach the rank of Joint Secretary in 16 years, IPS officers in 17 years and IRS and other allied services, including IIS, in 20 years. However, the Directly Recruited Group ‘A’ officers of the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting have not been granted a single promotion and are stagnant at the point of their initial entry.
As per constitutional provisions, the Union Public Service Commission (UPSC) has been entrusted with the recruitment to services and posts under the Union by selection through recruitment test, followed by interview. The 1988 batch of TV journalists was selected through an All-India written test followed by two rounds of interviews. The board comprised professional experts from the media and government officials. Therefore, the 1988 batch fulfilled the requirements of the Civil Service recruitments through UPSC.
Head room leaves head confused
She had just taken charge of DD News. Coming from IIS, she had no idea about production techniques or the terminology that was used during recordings and playbacks. It was a cursory visit to the Control Panel some 10 minutes before the news. The melee confused her and in the hustle-bustle, some jostled her. She kept quiet, learning from a distance. The producer on the panel was asking Camera 2 to give “headroom” to the newsreader …. Somehow the voice was not getting through to the cameraman below the studios at CPC. The request was repeated…. Yet no response. The clock was ticking… there was panic in the Control Room. The producer yelled that if he did not get the directions through to Camera 2, the news would not go on air.
This came as a bombshell to the new in-charge. It was her responsibility. She rushed out and called her administrative head.
“Do you have headroom in stock?” she asked.
A confused officer said he was not in the know and rushed out to enquire.
He asked someone in the corridor in Punjabi,
“Patta nahin … ae head room kee honda hain… We have never purchased any ever.”
The other person smiled, “you can never buy that in the market…don’t worry.” The issue got resolved and the news went on air on time.
To clarify, ‘head room’ is a technical term for proper framing of the head in a screen shot.
In 1997, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting took up the question of the career progression of the TV correspondents. The Recruitment Rules (RRs) for these posts were framed and sent for approval to DoPT and UPSC. Though RRs are sine quo non for recruitment as per the GoI rules, no RRs were available for the 1988 batch of TV journalists even after 25 years.
Moreover, the undertaking given by the GoI before CAT Principal Bench for creation of a separate cadre of TV journalists has not been complied with.
In the absence of cadre-specific RRs, the General Central Civil Services (CCS) Rules could have been applied to the 1988 batch of officers. It is not clear which Rule in the Civil Services states that an officer belonging to an “unorganised Group A service” shall be denied all benefits of the Civil Service, including promotion and deputation.
FORMER I&B Minister Soni committed on the floor of the Rajya Sabha on December 14, 2009, that a separate cadre of television journalists for DD would be declared. “The draft RRs have been sent to the DoPT on December 9, 2009,” she had said. Despite the minister committing to notify the recruitment of TV journalists by March 31, 2010, the RRs were only notified on March 25, 2014, in response to a court order.
The Minister had also stated that the PC Joshi Committee recommendations had been accepted by the government. The Committee in its 1985 report had recommended the creation of a separate cadre of TV journalists for Doordarshan.
Meanwhile, three higher non-plan posts in the cadre of TV news correspondents in DD were created in August 2010 one principal correspondent and two special correspondents. These too were not notified till March 2014. Although TV journalists were qualified and senior enough to be promoted to the posts, no effort was made to initiate the promotion process despite a lapse of over three years. Clearly, these are deliberate attempts to deny professionals work so as to benefit the IIS officers.
The IIS officials in DD challenged the appointment of TV journalists on the ground that it would block their promotional prospects. The court dismissed their petition, upholding the appointment. Since the judgment of CAT, Principal Bench, was not challenged in the higher court, its decision is final and binding till date.
The government also submitted that the appointment was not a one-time exercise but a full-fledged cadre of TV journalists would be developed. The CAT, intra-alia, also directed that the IIS Rules be suitably amended. But neither was another batch appointed nor IIS Rules amended for creation of the unified cadre.
In 1997, Prasar Bharati declared the professionals a “dying cadre” even though recruitments of TV journalists are being constantly made and posts are still being sanctioned on an ad hoc basis.
THE editorial department at present is totally manned by IIS whereas casual and contractual employees, without any journalism training or background, are being given the critical job of reporting. Pre-requisites of a good journalist are sacrificed to accommodate candidates with the right references.
During the Anna Hazare campaign, when every other channel was working overtime to generate debate on the issue, the DD Director-General was summoned by the Minister and given orders to play it down. So much for autonomy under the bureaucrats!
An achievable goal
An amendment was introduced in January 2012 to make changes in the Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act, 1990, following the recommendations of a GoM headed by then Home Minister Chidambaram.
The ordinance aimed at doing away with the complicated procedure to remove the top officials of the Prasar Bharati Corporation. This had followed the problems faced while removing Lalli from the Prasar Bharati CEO’s post.
The green signal by the government’s legal arm came on a reference from the Information & Broadcasting Ministry, which sought an amendment to the existing law to simplify the process and add fresh grounds for the removal of the Prasar Bharati Chairman, CEO and its members. At present, according to the Prasar Bharati Act, 1990, these officials can only be removed after the President makes a reference to the Supreme Court for an inquiry on alleged acts of misbehaviour. The final decision depends on the outcome of the probe.
After a comprehensive review of the provisions of the Act, the I&B Ministry had recommended certain amendments to the Act. The GoM had formed a committee for studying the amendments to the Act in June 2011. The GoM examined various issues relating to the pubcaster and also considered the recommendations of the High Level Committee on the Commonwealth Games, headed by VK Shunglu, with regard to the pubcaster.
Inefficiency, indiscipline and misbehaviour are sought to be added as grounds for removal of the CEO, or the Director-General of DD and AIR, apart from the two permanent members of the Prasar Bharati Board—Member (Finance) and Member (Personnel).
The GoM in particular made recommendations regarding the relationship between the government and Prasar Bharati and the CEO and the Prasar Bharati Board in the backdrop of the battle between former CEO Lalli and the Chairman Bhatnagar, and even the latter’s successor Mrinal Pande—both appointees of the Congress regime.
However, will these changes help contain the rot which has set in Prasar Bharati? In a scenario where multi-channel is a norm, is Prasar Bharati still relevant? The nearly 34,000 employees have been pleading with successive governments to rollback Prasar Bharati so that their future can be safeguarded.
The way forward
Prasar Bharati, by the very nature of its mandate, operates as the public service broadcaster and is largely dependent on government funding. It has a combined workforce of around 34,000 employees divided between its two arms, DD and AIR. This is the main cause of the growing deficit between earnings and expenditure. Prasar Bharati says its operational cost has been on the increase in the wake of implementation of the recommendations of the Sixth Central Pay Commission (CPC), which now amounts to a lion’s share of its expenditure, while its earnings have grown moderately. The public broadcaster has also conceded that it cannot meet the salary implications from its own resources. Also, it has struggled to monetise revenue earning opportunities in the wake of growing costs.
Prasar Bharati is attempting to combine the AIR and DD archives into a special purpose vehicle and aggressively market the same through CDs, DVDs, and other recording formats
The Parliamentary panel has asked Prasar Bharati to generate revenues by sharing infrastructure of AIR and DD (including towers, land and buildings) with private operators, including telecom players, on a licence basis. It has been told to generate more revenue from value-added services like interactive voice response system and SMSes to consumers, among others. On its own, Prasar Bharati is also attempting to unlock value from its rich archives.
AIR’s archives alone generate revenues of around Rs. 200 crore annually. Prasar Bharati is now attempting to combine the AIR and Doordarshan archives into a special purpose vehicle and aggressively market the same through CDs, DVDs, and other recording formats. Prasar Bharati has also adopted a transparent system of conducting e-auctions of slots and airtime wherever it can to accommodate private channels and content creators. The objective is to improve the quality of programming while maximising revenue in a transparent manner. Therefore, on its free-to-air DTH platform—DD Direct Plus—it has already generated around Rs. 70 crore by auctioning the slots to private channels. With enhanced transponder capacity, it will line up another 150-200 channels later in the year for auctions. At an average price of Rs. 3-4 crore per slot, it can mop up Rs. 450-800 crore annually.
IT is also looking to kickstart the e-auctioning of television channel slots to the highest bidders, who wish to enjoy the vast reach of DD National. The move is aimed at attracting top-rung content creators who will make high-quality shows for DD.
The GoM on Prasar Bharati has considered various issues relating to the capital and financial restructuring and funding pattern. It has inter alia recommended restoration of Section 22 of the Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act, 1990, conversion of all outstanding government loans to grants and waiver of interest and penal interest thereon, all Plan funding to be only in the form of grants, the government to support the operating expenses to the extent of 50 per cent and bear 100 per cent of salaries and related burden. The GoM has also given a waiver of accumulated arrears of space and segment charges up to March 31, 2010, amounting to over Rs. 1,500 crore. The government has also asked DD and AIR to adopt aggressive marketing strategies to generate revenues and cut costs wherever required.
Prasar Bharati is one of the largest broadcasting organisations in the world in terms of infrastructure of studios and transmitters. The DD network provides coverage to about 92 per cent of the population of the country, spread over about 81 per cent of the country’s area. All the areas uncovered by terrestrial transmitters along with the rest of the country have been provided with multi-channel television coverage through DD free-to-air DTH service, signals of which can be received anywhere in the country with the help of small-sized dish receiver units.
Now, more than 90 per cent of India’s population can receive DD National programmes through a network of 1,415 terrestrial transmitters. There are 66 DD studios producing TV programmes. At present, DD operates 21 channels, including two pan-India channels, DD National and DD News, 11 regional language satellite channels, four state networks, an international channel, a sports channel and two channels for covering the proceedings of Parliament—Rajya Sabha and Lok Sabha TV. It also operates DD Direct Plus, a DTH service.
AIR was established in 1936 and is one of the largest radio networks in the world. AIR offers different services, each catering to different regions/languages across India. Vividh Bharati is one of the most famous services of AIR and it is also known as the Commercial Broadcasting Service. The External Services Division of AIR broadcasts in 27 languages to countries outside India, primarily by high-powered short wave broadcasts, although medium wave is also used to reach neighbouring countries.
In conclusion, during the last decade or two of expansion that the broadcast industry has seen, a myth has been created that the private broadcast companies are more efficient and dynamic. The evidence is all around us about their “efficiency”: the mergers and acquisitions that are occurring, the abysmal state of their programming, and the greed of monetising every second of time and every millimetre of screen space to the utter neglect of listener/viewer interest tells its own story.
Despite this, the channels require knights in shining armour to rescue them from collapse. There appears to be no viable business model behind the image and the hype. However, there seems to be a consensus among “the economic reform-peddlers” and their buddies in the government that the State has no business to be in public broadcasting. The State has spread a policy red carpet for the expansion and consolidation of private channels while deliberately omitting to take steps to strengthen the public broadcaster. In fact, today, there is a programming vacuum both in radio and TV that only a vibrant public broadcaster can fill.
The State has ensured that Prasar Bharati is incapacitated enough to pose no threat to the commercial interests. Meanwhile, the entire broadcast enterprise in the country is being allowed to gradually consolidate and move into the hands of oligopolistic ownership.
The government hands over the use of spectrum to the private broadcasters (especially TV) for a paltry fee of Rs. 5 lakh each for 10 years for teleport and uplinking, and Rs. 5 lakh for five years for downlinking per channel. The channels are given this without a public service mandate for renewal of their licences, as is the practice in many democratic nations. A public resource is handed over to private players at a pittance, while systematically starving the public broadcaster of funding. This fee can be increased to finance the public broadcaster.
Anecdotes written by K Subramanium