The Time Has Come to Abolish the I&B Ministry Once and For All

Can an independent omnibus media regulator replace it?

In the wake of the brouhaha over the now-recalled guidelines against fake news, the threat of withdrawal of accreditation of journalists and the continuing saga of the government now wanting to regulate digital news and current affairs portals, an oft-quoted idea has resurfaced – should the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting not be abolished?

As someone who has repeatedly and publicly articulated the view that the information and broadcasting ministry has possibly outlived its shelf life, the question is – how do you operationalise this idea and what should replace this ossified template?

First and foremost, it is important to understand the genesis of the I&B ministry and what all it does. Out of a bloodstained Partition there emerged two ideas of nationhood – a progressive, pluralistic and inclusive impulse that became the idea of the republic of India and a theocratic template that became the idea of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan.

However, there was an influential body of political opinion in India that believed that a religious partition should have reached its logical culmination – in other words, if Partition created a Muslim Pakistan it should logically have created a Hindu India also. That was the alternative idea of India that was alive and kicking in the frenzied years following the great devastation of 1947 called the Partition. It claimed among its victims Mahatma Gandhi too.

The founding fathers of the Indian republic, as they set out to build a modern nation-state, required a vehicle that could carry their conceptual and developmental ideas to large swathes of the Indian populace that was politically conscious even if educationally illiterate. It is no coincidence that the first information and broadcasting minister of India was Sardar Vallabhai Patel from September 1946 until December 1949, when the most critical phase of welding a decadent feudal order and the remnants of British India into a cohesive geographical entity was a work in progress.

In those initial years, the most important wing of the I&B ministry was the Directorate of Field Publicity that used to execute extensive educational and infotainment initiatives across the length and breadth of India, especially in the rural areas.

From the 1950s onwards as the initial challenge to the founding vision of India recessed itself (it has since re-emerged in 2014), the I&B ministry morphed itself into a publicity and propaganda outreach instrument of successive governments belonging to all shades and hue. It consciously or subconsciously modelled itself on the lines of similar structures in the erstwhile Soviet Union and East Europe. Though print media largely remained in private hands, the government had an all-pervasive monopoly over the electronic media, namely All India Radio and Doordarshan. Till 1976, Doordarshan was a part of All India Radio.

It was only after the collapse of the erstwhile Soviet Union and East Europe in 1990 that the winds of change started blowing through the moribund corridors of the ministry, as the then Narasimha Rao government set about implementing the Washington Consensus. After midwifing a conflicted child, into existence in 1997, the Prasar Bharati, ubiquitously referred to as a public broadcaster (and I can write a whole book explaining that thesis), the television and frequency modulation (FM) radio space was progressively opened up to private players from 1991 onwards. But even now, news, except that which is uplifted from AIR, is banned on private FM radio.

What then does the I&B ministry do these days? A hell of a lot actually. It administers four large remits: the print news industry, the private television and radio industry, Prasar Bharati and all of the film business. In addition to that, it runs a myriad number of institutions and autonomous organisations ranging from film institutes and the Press Council of India to the Directorate of Audio Visual Publicity. It took me more than a month in November 2012 of daily briefings to plough through the various facets and functions of the ministry and I had still only just scratched the surface.

If any government in future wants to junk the I&B ministry, as is often discussed, the question would be, what do we replace it with? Can an independent omnibus media regulator administering both techno-economic issues as well as content take care of the licensing and myriad other functions that the ministry currently performs? What about a giant Media Regulatory Authority of India?

You suggest it to industry stakeholders and they would react as if stung by a swarm of bees. Most of the broadcasters who have dealt with the business regulator of the broadcast industry, the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) will tell you that it is not the most pleasant of experiences. Many of them may still be facing criminal prosecutions initiated at the behest of the TRAI that had to be stayed by superior courts and tribunals.

Then what happens to the entire cinema sector currently administered by the ministry through the Central Board of Film Certification (CBFC), colloquially called the Censor Board, which is underpinned by a parliamentary enactment – the Cinematograph Act, 1952? What should be done about the Registrar of Newspapers of India that regulates the newspaper industry and administers the Press and Registration of Books Act, 1867?

The answer lies in making changes incrementally. Carving out pieces of the ministry, reforming them and liberating those areas one by one. By way of example, the film remit is the most low-hanging fruit. The Cinematograph Act can easily be repealed, CBFC – the dreaded Censor Board – abolished and replaced with a Programme and Advertising Code as it is for the television industry.

Similarly, the private television industry and radio would need two sets of Regulators a Broadcast Regulatory Authority of India to perform licensing and other techno-commercial functions but with very restricted penal powers and a self-regulatory framework embedded in statutory regulation to monitor content much like other professional bodies that have the powers of peer review. The current self-regulatory frameworks are a bit of a joke for the lack of a better word.

Similarly, if Prasar Bharati has to become a truly public broadcaster, it has to liberated from the apron strings of the I&B ministry. There can be no autonomy if the funding of Prasar Bharati continues to be routed through the ministry and the minister remains accountable to parliament for all it’s omissions and commissions. Similarly, the film institutes can be turned into institutes of excellence with their own autonomous governing structures.

The project to unravel the information and broadcasting ministry requires conviction, consistency, perseverance, tenacity and time. Why didn’t I do it? I hardly had one effective year as a minister at a point in time when daily firefighting was the overriding priority? However, this is an idea whose time has come.

Manish Tewari is a lawyer, former information and broadcasting minister, distinguished senior fellow with the Atlantic Council and national spokesperson of Indian National Congress. He tweets @ManishTewari. Views expressed are personal.