Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Prasar Bharathi - A Debate in the Print Media - Article in Deccan Herald - 14 Dec 2010

Prasar Bharathi - A Debate in the Print Media - Article in Deccan Herald - 14 Dec 2010

Tremors in Prasar Bharati
Keep the public voice
B G Verghese

The public service broadcaster does not have to cater to trivialising news and indulge in programming geared to fetch commercials.

The report that the President, Pratibha Patil has given her consent for proceedings to remove the current CEO of Prasar Bharati on charges of irregularities is overdue. This institution, created after years of pleading to represent the public voice of India in an increasingly information age, was ill-designed, and then, in turn, frustrated by being denied personnel and financial autonomy or a proper board, then relegated and finally hijacked by its chief executive to be reduced to a pathetic caricature of what it was intended to be.

Sadly, and only partly because the experiment was aborted along the way, some of staff are now agitating that Prasar Bharati be scrapped and the body revert to being a government department representing the official voice against all the private radio and TV channels that now abound.

 Genuine autonomy is often feared as it entails responsibility and accountability and the loss of the cloak of anonymity that allows laggards to seek more for doing less and pass the buck for failure to perform to the ‘system.’ Not that Prasar Bharati lacks good people. But they are a demoralised lot. Autonomy is seldom given. It has to be grasped.

The rot started ab initio with an Act that placed excessive faith in recruiting the highest functionaries virtually exclusively from within the ranks of the bureaucracy. These functionaries were treated as deputationists and subject to whimsical recall as happened in the case of S Y Quraishi, DG Doordarshan, now Chief Election Commissioner.

Again, when AIR staff went on strike, the board members who sought a resolution were fobbed off by the I&B minister as busybodies with no jurisdiction over government servants.  

The independent selection panel also singularly failed when it made no appointment to critical positions such as that of Chairman, CEO and  Directors of Personnel and Finance for months on end. It kept waiting for a governmental nod on matters of procedure, salary fixation and so forth.

Recruitment, training, planning and programming faltered. A hardware-led policy dictated by considerations of ‘political reach’ through umpteen relay stations ignored matching programme and software development so that the vast infrastructure created has remained hugely underutilised.

 A proposal that the engineering and technical services of Prasar Bharati be hived off as a separate transmission corporation and profit centre was never seriously considered. Programmes were increasingly outsourced and talented Prasar Bharati staff, lacking in-house opportunities took to moonlighting to produce excellent programmes for private channels.

The final blow came more recently with the CEO usurping the board's powers and rendering it impotent. Finally, the supreme court had to intervene and now the CEO faces possible impeachment and removal. The newly appointed chairperson and board find themselves immobilised. Immediate action is called for if Prasar Bharati, long in coma, is not to die.

Rank ignorance

It would seem that few would mourn such an event -- the government, parliament, much of the staff, the private channels, the print media, advertisers, and most of the listening and viewing public. Rank ignorance of what public serviced broadcasting is about and its seminal importance at this time, combined with indifference born of dissatisfaction with its performance, possibly explains why this is so.

The idea that the government needs an exclusive broadcast voice is equally baseless. First, ‘government’ embraces a plurality of regimes, parties and ideologies -- the Central government, 29 state governments, some Union Territories, hundreds of multi-level panchayats and nagar palikas, and autonomous regional councils. Who is ‘the government,’ or should every ‘government’ set up its own broadcast facility and should its policies change with every change in ‘government.’  Such a policy would result in a cacophony of warring and variables sounds, images and messages at considerable cost to little purpose.

However, there is a more important reason to make Prasar Bharati a vibrant institution. Private broadcasters understandably solicit advertising to earn their keep and dumb down programmes to earn better ratings in a highly competitive market. The public service broadcaster is under no such compulsion.

It does not have to cater to the lowest common denominator, trivialise and sensationalise news, manufacture bogus ‘breaking news’ and indulge in programming geared to fetching advertisements. Government need not be its only support.

The great difference is that while the private broadcaster primarily caters to the (well heeled) consumer of advertised goods, the public service broadcaster caters to the citizen. While all Indians are citizens, only half or less are ‘consumers’ of other than basic goods and services. PSB therefore caters to disadvantaged, marginalised, minority (ethnic, linguistic, faith/caste, tribal, remote, isolated) communities that make up the vast plural, disempowered undermass of India.

It constitutes a powerful tool for empowerment, participation, creating awareness, information, education, dialogue and engendering inclusiveness and accountability. It embodies the right to information. Not that private channels are impervious to any of this, but they must first survive.

An upwardly mobile India is seeking rights and entitlements. There is a great churning in progress will mould unity out of diversity and quell a million ongoing mutinies by creating conditions for equal opportunity and equal citizenship. It is to make the Preamble of the Constitution come alive in action and to sustain that ideal that India needs a public service broadcaster. That public voice must never die.    

December 05, 2010

The Moving Finger Writes

Dismantle Prasar Bharati

By MV Kamath

The jobs should be strictly allocated to professionals who know how to communicate even while they are broadcasting serious stuff, but attractive enough to invite profits. Programmes should be marketable. But this is a task not for IAS officials but for professionals. When will our government ever learn this simple lesson? In the circumstances, Prasar Bharati employees are right. Dismantle the Prasar Bharati Act. It has become a national joke. Enough is enough. Scrap the Act or give the Board total powers.
HASN’T the time come to take a good look at the functioning of Prasar Bharati and ask whether the time has not come to wind it up and let its component units like Akashvani and Doordarshan revert to their original home, the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting? When the idea of Prasar Bharati was first mooted, it took some time for it to get support. It was, therefore inevitable that though the Parliament of India passed an Act to grant ‘autonomy’ to the just-formed Prasar Bharati in 1990, it was not formally empowered till September 15, 1997.

Twelve years have passed and the institution is still in the doldrums. It started on a low key with such stalwarts as Romila Thapar, Abid Hussain and UR Rao the space scientist as members and Nikhil Chakravartty as chairman. Soon the Board began to lose its part-time members, for one of them, BG Verghese, to say that it has been reduced to a "sign board" with no personal of financial powers and only notional autonomy.

Indeed, the then I&B Minister, Pramod Mahajan was frank enough to say that Prasar Bharati was, and must remain, a government organ! In his book The First Draft, Verghese concedes that autonomy was never given. The first chairman of the Board, Nikhil Chakravartty, passed away early. The second, UR Rao found it necessary to resign on personal grounds. The third, myself, was relieved of the post for being too assertive, through an ordinance which laid down that no candidate can be eligible to chairmanship if he was over 75 years of age. I was appointed chairman when I was 82! The fourth, Arun Bhatnagar, a retired IAS officer and reportedly a Sonia Gandhi candidate, early in his time resigned after an alleged clash with the CEO, an IAS officer much junior to him. Since 1997, no CEO has allowed the Board to decide policy, subtly during the earlier years and blatantly, in the last five years, obviously with the knowledge and consent of the Ministry.

The current CEO is reported to be notoriously offensive. The Board takes up some matters and its members do some plain-speaking but the Minutes are not recorded, and if they are, they don’t meet the Board’s approval. This has apparently been going on for a long time. Charges of financial irregularities have been levied against the CEO. In a lengthy article in The Hindu ( September 19), Sevanti Ninan, a well-known media commentator pointed out that the Central Vigilance Commission "has found colourful examples of autonomous functioning by the CEO and his colleagues, amounting to questionable financial dealings".

The Prasar Bharati Board had apparently approached the Delhi High Court which put the CVC on the job of investigating the charges. in an article in The Indian Express (November 12) BG Verghese noted that what "needs public airing and correction is the hijacking of Prasar Bharati by its CEO in defiance of the Board under whose authority he statutorily functions". The Centre, he said, has decided to impeach the CEO who has been charged with financial and procedural irregularities and acting beyond his authority, but is awaiting his response to a Show Cause before proceeding further. As matters stand, it is the CEO and not the Prasar Bharati Board runs the organisation, though the Prasar Bharati Act clearly states that "the Executive Member shall be the Chief Executive of the Corporation and shall, subject to the control and supervision of the Board exercise such powers and discharge such functions of the Board as it may delegate to him (emphasis added). The situation today is exactly the other way round. It is the CEO who is running the show-and very poorly at that - in total disregard to the prescribed rules. There are many who believe that the current CEO would not have dared to act so presumptuously without the silent support of the government.

As Verghese put it: "The Centre and Parliament have over the years jointly strangled Prasar Bharati which was established to serve to citizen, rather than merely the consumer and cater to the public of India who demand a voice in governance and are not content to be fed with paid news and sensation". The Prasar Bharati Act and its personnel policy need complete overhaul. Are there any options? The National Federation of Akashvani & Doordarshan Employees (NFADE) has suggested some draft amendments to the Act, but as has been said of other instances, if the government wants Doordarshan and Prasar Bharati to be free, no amendments are necessary. If the Government wants it not, no amendments are possible. That leaves only one option: scrap the Board.

As it is, Prasar Bharati is a loss-making body. The loss in 2008-2009 was to the tune of Rs. 1,422.10 crore and the provisional loss for 2009-2010 is Rs 1,979 crore. According to NFADE, staff salaries are not paid on time, maintenance of buildings is held up for lack of funds, many stations have no Directors and in general there is confusion prevalent at Headquarters. The NFADE now seems to be of the view that repealing the Prasar Bharati Act is advisable, thereby making the Board irrelevant. It is not that the Act is at fault; it is simply that the government is lackadaisical. It is only the government which can redeem the situation, either by dismissing the CEO or by seeing to it that the incumbent to the post does not take the law into his hands. One understands that a Parliamentary Committee appointed to supervise the work of the Board is cognisant of what is going on, but here again, we see little action. How long can Prasar Bharati continue losing money? It is obvious that antonomy and budgetary support cannot go together. Why should the government provide financial support to Prasar Bharati when year after year it suffers loss? The point has been made the loss occurs because IAS officers who are appointed to chairmanship or to Director Generalship of Doordarshan and Akashvani have no concept of how to run the service. Pranay Roy is not an IAS officer; nor is Rajdeep Sardesai. The jobs should be strictly allocated to professionals who know how to communicate even while they are broadcasting serious stuff, but attractive enough to invite profits. Programmes should be marketable. But this is a task not for IAS officials but for professionals. When will our government ever learn this simple lesson? In the circumstances, Prasar Bharati employees are right. Dismantle the Prasar Bharati Act. It has become a national joke. Enough is enough. Scrap the Act or give the Board total powers. One can’t maintain the Act and refuse the Board autonomy. Doing so is tantamount to cheating. 

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An experiment that failed
Public service broadcasting is a story of lost opportunities which has brought neither quality nor autonomous programming. And unlike the 2G scam, no one talks about it…

Terrestrial broadcasting spectrum alas, is creating no revolution of any kind.
Photo: R. Ravindran

Wasted potential:At a students' community radio studio.

Everybody is agitated over spectrum for telecom because it is all about money, rather big money, and has a cast of powerful players. Nobody is even faintly agitated about how the spectrum reserved for broadcasting is being used because the people affected are ordinary, even poor. Even as 2G and 3G spectrum continue to dominate public consciousness, the spectrum reserved for public service broadcasting and community broadcasting is a story of massively wasted potential, stifled by the government. But that arouses no indignation at all.
Terrestrial broadcasting spectrum in 60-plus years of independence has been monopolised by the government and what it calls a public service broadcaster. There is additional terrestrial broadcasting spectrum available but no government has had the vision or gumption to let others — private or public — deploy it. Last fortnight, when the President's decision put the head of Prasar Bharati on the road to removal by permitting a Supreme Court inquiry against him, it marked a very sorry culmination of an experiment begun 13 years ago. One of giving people the kind of broadcasting they were thought to deserve. Something better and freer than State-owned broadcasting.
Too many compromises

A couple of years after the Supreme Court decreed that the airwaves belonged to the people, a process of creating an autonomous broadcaster to serve the public interest culminated in an act of parliament creating Prasar Bharati. Under it come the terrestrial frequencies permitted for broadcasting. Some compromises went into passing the Act, many compromises have followed in bringing the idea of autonomy to life.
Every Chief Executive Officer appointed by a high level selection committee in those 13 years has been a former bureaucrat. Under the UPA's dispensation, even the Chairperson of the Board selected was a former bureaucrat. Tell the ministry officials that and they will tell you that administrative ability is also required to head a broadcasting organisation, something a media professional may not have.
Every minister has failed to rise above partisan considerations in selecting the Prasar Bharati Board. Beginning with Jaipal Reddy in 1997. And the UPA government has cheerfully changed the rules of the Act to allow it to oust a chairperson appointed by a BJP government. Autonomy all the way!
That apart, the experiment delivered neither autonomous functioning, nor quality. The Act had sought to insulate the Chief Executive from whimsical removal by the government of the day. In the case of Mr. B. S. Lalli, the current CEO, it worked to insulate him from accountability to the Board he was supposed to be governed by.
Before Prasar Bharati came into existence, the people selected to head Doordarshan and All India Radio used to be serving government officers, often from the IAS. Post autonomy this continued. The institutions did not, alas, magically transform into quality-conscious professional outfits. They did not develop an alternate agenda to commercial television. They did not cease to project the ruling party. And now their disillusioned employees are clamouring to go back to being proper government servants.
In the case of telecom, the airwaves belong to those with money or influence or both. In the case of broadcasting, they belong, at least de facto, to government and nobody has cared to challenge that. When the government decides to make some money off spectrum it sells FM radio licences. The short answer to how broadcasting spectrum reserved for public service fared is, poorly. It was not put in the right hands to create useful, and imaginative broadcasting.
The government also set up a regulator for telecom spectrum and gave him oversight of broadcasting. What became the norm for selection of the regulator? Former bureaucrats, of course!
Neglected segment

And then there is the sorry story of community radio and lost opportunities in it.
In 2002, the BJP government conceded that a big, vibrant, democracy like India with a large rural population should have community radio, utilising spectrum available for local frequencies. But since the government is always fearful of the intentions of common folk, it decided to begin by permitting community radio on educational campuses. And decreeing that these should serve development purposes. A few years later the government of the day came up with an official community radio policy. And five radio frequencies were earmarked by the Wireless Planning and Coordination wing of the Ministry of Communications for community radio.
Next step: deciding who can be trusted to broadcast at the village or mohalla level. Oh dear, what if they fall into the wrong hands? So today, with about 120 licences given, two thirds are on educational campuses! And they are not allowed to cater to their communities who are students. The CR policy says they must do Development. With a capital D. The potential is for 4,000 licenses, at least.
Last week community radio people from all over the country converged in New Delhi to discuss with each other and the government how the sector was developing. The short answer was that it isn't. Licenses are not given unless the government is convinced about sustainability. Or bona fide intentions.
Having earmarked spectrum for rural communities the government has five ministries vetting applications so that they do not fall into the wrong hands. And guess what, all applications from Jharkhand are not being processed because of objections from the Home Ministry! No prizes for guessing what will happen to applications that might come from Chattisgarh or Kashmir.
The government has also decreed that community broadcasters cannot broadcast news at the level of their community. Not political news, an official clarified. “You can discuss community needs.” So someone rose to point out that all debates on development are political in nature. And others pointed out that the ban on news and current affairs (which applies currently to both FM and community radio) is unconstitutional.
Said one of the stalwarts of the Community Radio Forum, the purpose of CR is to give people a voice. “One way extremism can be contained is by allowing people to talk about issues.” And another pointed out pithily that the “wrong hands” are not waiting for a licence from GOI to function.
Telecom spectrum, despite scams may have created a communications revolution. Terrestrial broadcasting spectrum alas, is creating no revolution of any kind.

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