Why Prasar Bharati Continues to Remain Bereft of Real Power

While years of government meddling has left the public broadcaster struggling for autonomy, its marginalisation has gained momentum under the Modi regime.

By meddling time and again in the functioning of Prasar Bharati, India’s largest  public broadcasting agency, the government seems determined to deny the institution its autonomy. As a result, the Prasar Bharati board repeatedly finds itself dragged into one controversy after another.

It’s not that governmental interference in the board’s internal functioning has been kept a closely guarded secret. But the information and broadcasting ministry’s (I&B) recent direction to  the board to appoint a serving IAS officer as member (personnel) – even by measures of such open meddling – seems to be the first of its kind. Reportedly, the ministry has also sought to terminate the services of all contractual employees with immediate effect. Interestingly, however, this time the board has mounted a strong opposition to this ministerial interference,  citing section 6(7) of the Prasar Bharati Act which makes the member (personnel) a whole-time board employee, who is to be appointed by a committee on the recommendation of the vice-president of India.

The I&B ministry has its own version for justifying its interference. The ministry  says that the intervention was necessary to ensure the implementation of manpower audit as recommended by the Sam Pitroda committee. Though the committee in 2014 recommended a comprehensive manpower audit for mapping prospective workforce requirements, it also held the view that the Prasar Bharati board itself should be empowered to frame rules and regulations for its employees, without having to seek prior government approval.

Therefore, when the I&B ministry selectively decides to implement just one part of the committee’s recommendation, in violation of  Prasar Bharati’s fundamental spirit, it does indeed become difficult to buy into the government’s justification. That the government is unwilling to implement the Pitroda committee’s full recommendations is by now well known.

As is well known, ministerial intervention in the functional autonomy of the Prasar Bharati board has always been grounded in reasons such as reviving its financial and administrative structure. The reasons for the board’s financial sluggishness are straightforward. Prasar Bharati, since its establishment in 1997, lacked and still continues to lack a competitive structure. The institution can’t hold a candle to  commercial broadcasters in terms of TRP ratings. Doordarshan’s revenues have been steadily declining, as has been admitted in Parliament by none other than the I&B ministry. This is despite the fact that the total expenditure for All India Radio and Doordarshan has been more than sufficient in recent years.

Clearly, the board’s competitive deficit, even after more than two decades of its constitution, remains a harsh reality. There is no doubt that the board needs to have a complete overhaul of its functioning. But the argument that its financial plight can be remedied by government intervention in administrative matters, does not hold water.

In fact, there is something fundamentally wrong in the government’s perspective. The ministry presumes that the Prasar Bharati board is not going to flourish on its own. And that the government needs to dictate the terms and conditions of Prasar Bharati’s administrative and financial structures, limits its functioning.  Thus, the board has little say on appointments and funding. The budgetary allocations are finalised by the ministry and any proposal regarding its infrastructural expansion has to go through a complex review mechanism. These proposals are seldom approved at the end.

In reality, it is government intervention which has rendered the Prasar Bharati board unfit to enter the competitive arena. Its reliance on government funding now seems to be an inevitable condition for its survival. There are many provisions in the Prasar Bharati Act which are either not implemented or are diluted, if only to keep the board under the government’s thumb.

For example, chapter 3 (18) of the Act mandates the board to have its own fund for its functions. It further states that part of this fund will come from the property  and assets that the central government will transfer to the board. But as evident, successive governments have made no serious attempt to transfer these properties to the board which, therefore, lacks its own funds for even performing elementary functions, as laid down in the Act.

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Further, recruitment boards are yet to be constituted, which is primarily responsible, according to Act, for appointing officers and other board employees.  Similarly, ambiguity in some other clauses of the Act also leaves room for ministerial intervention. The clause discussed above [chapter 3(18)] leaves it to the central government to transfer all assets and properties on its own terms and conditions, to the board. What is surprising is that nowhere does it mention a time frame for transferring these assets.  

With this, it is equally important to remember that a certain degree of regulation is always required to make the board accountable. This view was also expressed by India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru during the constituent assembly debate. Nehru was in favour of a semi-autonomous board. This approach, to some extent, was later reflected in the Prasar Bharati Act as well. So, although the Act vested ultimate authority in the board, it also made provisions for the board to be accountable.

In the pre-economic liberalisation period, governments maintained monopoly on public broadcasting to further their respective political agendas. Throughout this period, therefore, Doordarshan and AIR were largely seen as propagandist arms of the central government. But post-economic liberalisation, the very idea of public service broadcasting became a talking point for two inter-related reasons.

First, rapid proliferation of the private television industry, after the landmark Supreme Court judgment in 1995, created a media environment in which Doordarshan and AIR were thought to be incompetent in representing the shifting political and social priorities. The idea of public service broadcasting was replaced with the idea of market-led TV media. It was unfortunate because the Supreme Court decision was fundamentally intended to constitute an autonomous broadcasting authority to license and regulate the use of airwaves.

Second, as a result of a paradigm shift in developmental approach, government hardly made any serious attempt to revive public broadcasting. It allowed market-led TV media to flourish at an amazing speed. Consequently, the role of public sector broadcasting in developmental planning was marginalised.  The idea was to create an environment in which private media would become the sole agencies of communicating the emerging social, political and cultural trends and needs. It was passivity on the part of government that near paralysed the administrative and financial structure of public broadcasting, making it reliant on government.                

The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) unprecedented victory in the 16th general election coincided with the spectacular growth of market-led television media. As expected, the perception that public service broadcasting should be marginalised has gained momentum under the current regime. This despite the fact that Prime Minister Narendra Modi himself addresses the nation once every month on AIR.

In a recent development, the I&B ministry has decided to reshuffle at least 30 employees of Doordarshan and AIR as publicity officers for various government ministries. The reason seems to be to strengthen the short-staffed Press Information Bureau (PIB), the government’s publicity wing.

Clearly, there are strategic reasons for which public service broadcasting still continues to remain crucial for governments. For example, Mann ki Baat, Modi’s monthly broadcast on AIR, helps him in getting a sense of proximity to people. Which has been a crucial part of his pro-people image-making agenda.

The BJP government’s strategy is straightforward: exploit public service broadcasting as much as possible. At the same time, also make the agency incompetent to such an extent that government intervention becomes an essential condition for its survival. Under these trying circumstances, it seems impossible that the Prasar Bharati board would function in the way it was intended to.   

Abhinava Srivastava is a researcher.