March 22, 2018, 11:46 am IST
News Updates


T.K Thomas

True Autonomy !

By: T.K Thomas,   Mar 12, 2018

Thanks to an open spat between two members of the ‘Pariwar’ it  has proved beyond doubt that the checkered existence of the so called ‘autonomous’ Prasar Bharati Corporation is essentially due to  what a friend who believes in the occult calls, an inauspicious start. There were uncertainties, delays, postponements and procrastination from the time the idea was mooted.  It seems ,even many weeks after media reports of a confrontation between the irrepressible Information and Broadcasting minister Smriti Zubin Irani and ‘Autonomous’ Prasar Bharati  Board’s chairman a non pliable A. Surya Prakash is nowhere near resolution. All sorts of stories have been in newspapers, channels and news portals. No doubt it appears to be no win-win situation for anyone involved nor is it adding to the image of the NDA government.

Many of the media stories on the public service broadcaster and its creator, the Prasar Bharati Act of 1990 tend to establish that the whole question of autonomy was a creation of the new Janata Party government of 1977. The fact is that question of autonomy for All India Radio and Doordarshan was being considered by successive central governments. The Union Powers Committee had considered whether broadcasting should be a state subject or a Union one. It was also discussed at length by the Constituent Assembly. Replying to a debate on external publicity in the Constituent Assembly on 15 March 1948  Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru gave the following views on autonomy:- “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 not conducted as a government department but as a semi autonomous corporation. Now, I do not think that that is immediately feasible. I have merely mentioned this to the house. I think we should aim at that, even though we may have many difficulties. In fact, in most matters we should at the semi-autonomous corporation’ the policy and other things being distantly controlled by the government, but the government or government departments not interfere in their day to day activities. But that is not an immediate issue.”

Broadcasting remained a Union subject. All India Radio and Doordarshan  [after 1976]continued to function as government departments under the Information and Broadcasting ministry. It is interesting that when Indira Gandhi became Information and Broadcasting minister in 1964 in the ministry of  Lal Bahadur Shastri, she appointed a Committee headed by Ashok Chanda , a former Auditor General of India to study the functioning of Akashvani (Doordarshan was in its infancy with a miniscule presence) and submit a report. The Chanda Committee report released in 1966 with far reaching  recommendations and observations in fact was the first to suggest freeing of AIR from bureaucratic stranglehold. “It is not possible in the Indian context for a creative medium like broadcasting to flourish under a regiment (sic) of departmental rules and regulations. It is only by an institutional change that AIR can be liberated from the present rigid financial and administrative procedures of government.”It accordingly recommended the constitution of a separate corporation for Akashvani (and Doordarshan) according to its needs and devise a financial and accounting system appropriate to its creative activity.

The aforesaid Chanda Committee recommendation was considered by the Cabinet (by then headed by Indira Gandhi)  in December 1969 and the Lok Sabha was informed in April 1970 that it was agreed that the present is not an opportune time to consider the conversion of the All India Radio into an autonomous corporation. We the professionals in broadcasting  at that time saw autonomy eluding us. One major structural change recommended by the Chanda Committee was, however, accepted and implemented with effect from April 1, 1976. This was the separation of television from Akashvani and the constitution of Doordarshan under the aegis of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting.

The momentous events of the early 1970s following the split in the Congress party that witnessed the emergence of Indira Gandhi as the undisputed leader of the party, the liberation of Bangladesh,  the Allahabad High Court decision disqualifying Indira Gandhi as a Member of Parliament, the Jay Prakash Narayan movement and the declaration of National Emergency in 1975 threatened democracy and questioned the very existence of an independent media. The jailing of political leaders and dissenting journalists are too well known to be repeated here. The outcome of these was the coming together of political parties with varied and opposing political ideologies to form the Janata Party and the rout of the Congress Party. It was L K Advani who ensured that the issue of autonomy for the electronic media was included in the Janata Party’s election manifesto to prevent muzzling of the media by any future government.

The Janata Party emerged victorious and on 17 August, 1977 the party took the first step to redeem their electoral pledge to grant genuine autonomy by notifying the constitution of a working group on autonomy for Akashvani and Doordarshan under the chairmanship of veteran journalist B G Verghese. The Verghese Committee produced a voluminous report by February, 1978.  But it was too late for the new government to implement it as the Janata experiment was in trouble. And before any action could be taken the government fell. Had they been prompt in accepting the Verghese Committee’s recommendations, AIR and Doordarshan would have been autonomous corporations at that time.

After the fall of the Janata Party government and a brief spell of Charan Singh government  in 1979-’80, Congress bounced back to power and the autonomy issue was forgotten. Congress lost power again and the Prasar Bharati Bill was introduced by the National Front government on 29 December 1989. By then the original report of B G Verghese known as ’Akash Bharati ‘  was changed to ‘Prasar Bharati’. The original recommendation of a ‘TRUST’ was changed to a ‘Corporation’; ‘Trustees’ had become ‘Governors’; ‘Charter’ had become ‘Objectives’!

According to a senior broadcaster,” if you see the Prasar Bharati Act, you will not find the word ‘Autonomy’, anywhere in the main Act! The word is tucked in at one of the annexures. Two chapters of the Act deal with the service condition of officers who come on deputation! In other words the Prasar Bharati is ’of the I&B ministry, by the ministry and for the ministry’!  Another broadcaster predicted that in due course they will substitute broadcasting professionals with rank outsiders to the profession on deputation! If you really study the present situation in Prasar Bharati, that innocuous prediction is a reality. A large number of senior positions are filled by non broadcasting professionals from other government departments and services. There is hardly any senior broadcaster left in the service with some of the retired programmers have been continuing for many years since their superannuation. This speaks about indispensability and usefulness of the in house talent. What is however disquieting is that the programme professionals are no longer selected by the Union Public Service Commission ( UPSC ) but by the Staff Selection Commission for the Prasar Bharati Corporation!

Going back to the genesis of autonomy, when the 1987 Bill was being discussed, government had sought suggestions from the public and had funded many seminars and consultations. The professionals from broadcasting and eminent persons from concerned fields, actively participated in a seminar organized by the late D M Silveira’s ‘News Mag’ on January 13,1990.  The seminar of course was not funded by the government! The participants discussed the bill threadbare. Some of the inputs are worth quoting. Veteran broadcaster and the first Director General of Doordarshan P V Krishnamurthi (he will turn 97 on April 1, 2018) wanted the ‘Information and Broadcasting ministry should immediately call itself the Ministry of Information and forget broadcasting!”. Justice B. Lentin called it a ‘hodge-podge’ of a bill at a Bombay University discussion on the proposed autonomy.  He questioned section 22 of the Bill which gives the central government may issue from time to time directions to the corporation, ’in the interest of the security of the state or preservation of public order, require it not to make a broadcast Minoo Masani reminded everyone about ‘Trust’.

Though the Prasar Bharati Bill was passed in 1990, the Act took 7 years to be implemented. What was called a hodge-podge by Justice Lentin seemed to have come into existence. There were and continue to have a heavy presence of bureaucrats and political appointees; proof enough to show how the Prasar Bharati is run by the Information and Broadcasting ministry. The I&B minister orders who should be heading the news divisions of AIR and Doordarshan; fixes their remuneration. The chairman of the ’autonomous’ Prasar Bharati  Corporation rejects the Mantri ji’s order outright and the public spat is all over the media. The Mantri ji reportedly stops salaries of some section of the Prasar Bharati; the chairman talks about taking up the question of autonomy with the powers that be. Rule books are quoted by either as to who is more powerful. At long last we have a real taste of AUTONOMY!


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