A  Requiem For Prasar Bharati?
Opinion

A Requiem For Prasar Bharati?

Prof.T K Thomas

First they came for the Planning Commission. It became Niti Ayog! [ in position since January 1, 2015. ] In the process planning was substituted by policy! The University Grants Commission [UGC] another statutory body is going in for another Avatar much to the chagrin of the academic world! Voices against the move point out that the it would damage the original mandate for which UGC was founded in 1956 as a statutory body of the Government of India , through an Act of Parliament for, “ the coordination’ determination and maintenance of standards of university education in India” . The Medical Council of India, first established in 1934 under the Indian Medical Council Act 1933 and later under the Indian Medical Council Act 1956. The Council too is undergoing a metamorphosis as a National Medical Council with nominated members instead of elected members from state units. The next in line, one understands is Prasar Bharati, the National Broadcasting Corporation of India. If media reports have credence Prasar Bharati is about to be disbanded! Before one ventures to give any opinion on the possibility of the disbanding of Prasar Bharati, it is considered pertinent to go into the historical perspective of the rise and fall of public service broadcasting in India.

One of the most prestigious national institutions which did yeoman service in nation building and national integration All India Radio [AIR] was fashioned in the style of the British Broadcasting Corporation [BBC] by the colonial government since the establishment organized broadcasting as Indian Broadcasting Company in 1927; later named Indian State Broadcasting Service. In fact its 91st anniversary was observed last Monday, 23rd July. One is not sure whether the event was noticed by any media, may be because the edifice formally rechristened on June 8, 1936 as All India Radio and built by a maverick broadcaster Lionel Fielden lies in a shambles today.

For the British, All India Radio was an elitist medium to entertain them and a useful propaganda machine during the Second World War. As freedom dawned, slowly and steadily AIR became a powerful instrument in development and positive social change. The role AIR played in the country’s Green Revolution is too well known to be repeated here. Television made its experimental presence in 1959 and in 1975 Doordarshan was separated from AIR to be an independent entity. Both AIR and Doordarshan continued to be the only source of news and entertainment for millions of Indians till the 1990s.

Interestingly there was a proposal to make AIR to be autonomous. A statement in the Constituent Assembly on 15 March 1946 by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru is worth quoting, “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.” Various committees that examined the shape of broadcasting had actually identified the deficiencies and defects in our broadcasting system. In fact the Chanda Committee[1964] in their report submitted in 1966 to the Prime Minister [by then Indira Gandhi] among others made the following two recommendations which one considers to be pragmatic and prophetic:-

# “The denial of freedom and discouragement of initiative in the staff to plan and present imaginative and original programmes;

# the tendency on the part of AIR to anticipate the official view on matters to be broadcast and to give undue prominence to ministerial pronouncements whether they have any news value or not.”

The above two observations had far reaching effects on the shape of things to come and is one of the major reasons for the erosion of autonomy of those responsible for the message and the credibility of the medium. Yet with a dedicated band of broadcasters AIR excelled as a medium.
The infamous National Emergency had however destroyed the credibility of AIR and Doordarshan. Of course we experienced the mirage of autonomy after the Janata Party government appointed the Varughese Committee to go into the question of autonomy for the electronic media in 1977. The committee did submit a voluminous report but a Bill that was introduced in June 1989 and passed by the Parliament in July 1990 had to wait for years and successive governments for it to become an Act and implemented in 1997.The truncated Bill, according to a veteran broadcaster, hardly mentioned ‘Autonomy’ but had many pages about deputation of various central civil services to the Prasar Bharati Corporation!

AIR and Doordarshan have been considered white elephants incapable of flourishing. What else could be expected with rampant interference from the politicians and bureaucrats in its day to day functioning? Staffing patterns especially in the programme wing with no regular recruitment through the Union Public Service Commission stopped for almost two decades since the 1990s resulted in a situation that led to severe shortage of programme personnel. Prasar Bharati resorted to re-employing superannuated officials and most AIR stations have been headless with no regular staff. Most of the senior positions in Akashvani Bhavan and Mandi House are occupied by officers on deputation from all kinds of services from railway catering service to defense services.

” They have power and position, boss over the existing staff but absolutely no understanding of either radio or television” says an officer who left broadcasting after a few extensions. It goes to the credit of the existing staff of AIR who managed to run the show. The situation in Doordarshan is no different. A large number of casual hands are hired to present programmes and it is gathered that they are clamoring for regularization. In such a situation it is unfair to blame AIR and Doordarshan for poor performance which one is told is one of the reasons for disbanding Prasar Bharati.

Revolutionary developments in satellite and broadcast technology witnessed from late 1990s and the emergence of satellite and direct to home television reduced the importance of AIR and Doordarshan to almost irrelevance. Successive governments have used the two government media as their public address system. After using and misusing them the present government seems to have realized that they have almost all channels run by big business and government friendly news and current affairs to show the government in a positive light. Most of them are blatantly one sided and ensure that nothing negative or unpleasant about the government is broadcast. At the same time they project all opposition parties in a very poor light. There is also a very vast segment of the social media sponsored or supported by the government and the ruling party in attacking all opposition points of view and blacking out anything inimical to the ruling party and government.

What will happen if Prasar Bharati is disbanded? It is reported that the plan is to turn AIR and Doordarshan into public sector firms. The political parties who have been misusing the government media seem to have reached a saturation point and have realized that it is better to befriend and patronize the owners of numerous private channels [many of them are owned by corporate houses]. Yesterday the Prime Minister

himself said in Lucknow that “Industrialists no chor- lutere, vital for nation building” [Indian Express July 30 front page headline]

But what will be the impact if AIR and Doordarshan are turned into public sector firms? The musical, artistic and literary heritage of the country is sure to suffer a body blow. Bureaucrats and politicians cannot understand what treasures AIR and Doordarshan have. They have over the years built up archives of very rare recordings of great maestros and thought leaders. They have promoted and preserved our rich musical traditions; encouraged writers and playwrights, musicians and performing artistes. One may say that what could happen is the banishment of one of the major custodians of India’s cultural heritage. A corporate body running public service broadcasting would ensure that they cater to the lowest common denominator in taste. Don’t we have a taste of that when we tune into private channels? What will happen to our classical literature and programmes based on them?

How can we listen to great Hindustani or Karnatik music artistes who sing and play our musical instruments? What will happen to our folk and devotional music repertoire?

TAILPIECE

One had a very interesting experience last week. A dear friend forwarded an article supposed to have been written by veteran broadcaster and journalist Mark Tully, formerly of the BBC. The title of the article was “Post No Confidence Motion, The Road Ahead”. The byline read – Mark Tully, Formerly BBC Journalist in India- One felt suspicious from the byline. As one went through the content it was obvious that the language, style and tenor of the article could not have been by the celebrated BBC man. So one checked with AltNews, a fact checking site and it turned out to be not written by the veteran BBC man. The site also carried a denial statement by the ace broadcaster.

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