The great betrayal

BY Padmaja Shaw| IN Law and Policy | 06/01/2012
In Prasar Bharati, while the engineering division has overwhelming numbers and power, the creative staff have taken the back seat.
PADMAJA SHAW says the government is converting a talented professional organisation into a bureaucratic set-up.
The phrase “presumptive loss” is much in vogue in these days of mega scams. No one is doing this exercise, but if the presumptive loss to the exchequer and to the public weal by the brazen neglect of the Prasar Bharati over the years is calculated, it would be staggering. Government after government at the Centre has chosen to sit back and watch the mud slung at the Prasar Bharati Corporation for its supposed inefficiency, lack of creativity, and outdated attitude, while doing everything in its power to destroy the organisation that did India proud in the past.
 
If we look back, some glaring, ill-conceived administrative strategies strike us.
 
Prasar Bharati was never really understood as a creative, programming institution. It was always seen as a centralised, engineering monolith that was a carrier of his/her master’s voice to the public. This hardware bias was initially driven by political compulsions, but in recent liberalised environment there is a realisation that hardware was where one could see money. Contracts, out-sourcing, hiring, and so on can be imposed on the system at will. Former employees have become suppliers, dealers, and independent consultants who recommend all kinds of equipment.
 
This has had some debilitating fall-outs. Firstly, it has privileged the engineering division to an unbelievable degree, where today for a nationwide programming organisation, there are hardly 1900 programming staff, half of whom are slated to retire this year with no recruitments in sight, while there are around 15,000 engineering staff (still growing). One can guess where much of the salary expenditure is going. A recent media report, describes the hopeless understaffing of the organisation and the paralysis of the government in taking swift and corrective measures.
 
Secondly, the shortage of programming  staff, digitisation and its requirements have brought in new difficulties. The surplus engineering staff without any training in creative application of technologies such as sound and video editing have been redefined to take up these roles in programming activities. The engineering  staff also play a much more dominant role in programming affairs and decision-making, without being sensitive to the creative requirements, according to a retired DD producer.
 
Thirdly, programming budgets in AIR (a women’s daily programme, for instance, may have Rs. 3 lakh a year) and DD are shockingly low when compared to the current market practices. Considering the amounts involved in recent scams in Commonwealth Games coverage, these amounts do not even count for rounding-off errors.
 
Fourthly, instead of the creative programming people with fine arts background, it is the Indian Administrative Service personnel who have begun occupying positions of power. This has converted a creative organisation into a bureaucracy, and put the government centre-stage in an “autonomous” corporation while marginalising the programming staff. This has piled up an administrative mess over the years, which undermines programming priorities.
 
Fifthly, the entire Prasar Bharati exercise was meant to liberate news operations from the influence of the government of the day, but the Act (including its recent amendment) has always dealt more with service matters of the personnel, while quietly retaining control over news operations. Before 1997, except for problems in news programming, both DD and AIR were quite strong in general programming. The creation of the Corporation only succeeded in destroying the programming capabilities of the organisations. The creation of the so-called autonomous corporation has been a still-born dream and has come a full circle with the staff demanding the status of government employees. The staff were left with no option as they were neither free from state interference nor did they have the advantage of being a part of a state-run organisation.
 
During the last decade or two of expansion that the broadcast industry has seen, a myth has been created that the private broadcast companies are more efficient and dynamic. The evidence is all around us about their “efficiency”: the mergers and acquisitions that are occurring, the abysmal state of their programming, and the greed of monetising every second of time and every millimetre of screen space to the utter neglect of the listener/viewer interest speaks its own story. Despite this, the channels require knights in shining armour to rescue them from collapse. There appears to be no viable business model behind the image and the hype. However, there seems to be a consensus among “the economic reform-peddlers” and their buddies in the government that the state has no business to be in public broadcasting. The state has spread a policy red carpet for the expansion and consolidation of private channels while deliberately omitting to take steps to strengthen the public broadcaster. In fact, today, there is a programming vacuum both in radio and TV that only a vibrant public broadcaster can fill. The Indian state has ensured that Prasar Bharati is incapacitated enough to pose no threat to the commercial interests. Meanwhile, the entire broadcast enterprise in the country is being allowed to gradually consolidate and move into the hands of oligopolistic ownership.
 
What is to be done?
 
Many years ago, the Narayan Murthy committee on Prasar Bharati’s functioning pointed out the distortion in the recruitment policies of the Corporation where there are several hundred times more engineering and administrative personnel (45,000+ at that time) than programming personnel. It cannot be denied that broadcasting is an engineering enterprise to an extent. But many international and national broadcast organisations outsource the engineering services. Prasar Bharati too should explore this option. There are several advantages to this. The existing engineering staff should be merged with Broadcast Engineering Consultants of India Ltd. (BECIL), which is a profit-making body of the Government of India, protecting their existing avenues for promotion and service conditions. Prasar Bharati’s engineering/maintenance operations should be outsourced to BECIL. This will drastically bring down the size of the staff and centre-stage programming work in AIR and DD. The outsourced engineering staff will be performance driven and will have no conflict of interest in day-to-day operations that undermine good programming.
 
This is essential, as at present the Corporation earns revenues but much of it disappears into running costs that have nothing to do with programming. Recently, the government reported losses for Prasar Bharati and has put in 50% cost-cutting measures to deal with them. This could mean no recruitment in an organisation that has less than skeletal staff in most major stations and, sometimes, a one-man show in smaller places. Experienced and talented programming personnel are left to despair and give up when mediocre programming, lacking in any pedigree, is ruling the roost on private channels.
 
Both Doordarshan, and more so, All Indian Radio have an extraordinary tradition of finding and fielding the very best of talent in Indian drama, poetry, literature, and vocal and instrumental music. Those traditions are being methodically killed by the monumental inefficiency and deliberate sell-out to private interests in broadcast industry. The argument that DD and AIR staff are incapable of producing good programmes is specious as it is an open secret that it is the former DD and AIR staff who have helped build some of the biggest private networks in the country.
 
Coming back to the presumptive loss issue, the government of India hands over the use of spectrum to the private broadcasters (especially TV) for a paltry fee of Rs. 5 lakh each for ten years for teleport and uplinking and Rs. 5 lakh for five years for downlinking per channel. The channels are given this without a public service mandate for renewal of their licences, as is the practice in many democratic nations. A public resource is handed over to the private players at a pittance, while systematically starving the public broadcaster for funding. This fee can be increased to finance the public broadcaster.
 
The votaries of privatisation would berate all public broadcasting much like the Murdochs did with BBC, because broadcasting is not just a cash cow for them but an instrument for a wide variety of purposes – regime change, political-economic control, promotion of right wing politics, and conservative cultural agenda being some of them. Some of the players also straddle all sectors of the economy and they see their investment in broadcast space as a cost for generating huge surpluses in other sectors with this support. The irony is that in sector after sector, such as  petroleum, airlines, broadcasting etc., public sector units are being undermined by the state through disabling policy moves. This is successfully crippling the public sector organisations, but the private sector, which is receiving all this support through public money, is unable to keep its head above the water because of its penchant for living beyond its means.
 

It is time that the Prasar Bharati woke up and resisted the apparent attempts by the state to outsource programming activities and to handover over the assets of the organisation, built over many decades on tax payers’ money, to private players. This appears to be the latest threat looming over the organisation.

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