What next for Prasar Bharati?

BY sevanti ninan| IN Law and Policy | 20/09/2010
So what will the UPA government do next in this sticky case of an overly autonomous CEO? Will his writ continue to run? Will some in the highest echelons of this government continue to protect him?
How did this country’s experiment with an autonomous public broadcaster come to such a sorry pass, asks SEVANTI NINAN
 
This is a partially altered and expanded version of an article published in the Hindu, on September 19, 2010
 
 
 
Prasar Bharati is not an institution which agitates those who constitute the vocal segment of our civil society. To them a government-funded channel can never be as much of a villain as those out and out commercial channels and their noisy, opinionated anchors. But when the government funded broadcaster has a monopoly on terrestrial transmission, runs on tax payers’ money, takes highly questionable financial decisions, and abdicates on its public service mission because of mediocrity and lack of leadership, it is criminal to ignore it. If you heart bleeds for the real India, start asking why it does not deserve better.
 
The political class displays insufficient indignation at  the corruption it shelters in its fold. Even though three of the top leaders of the chief opposition party are all former ministers of information and broadcasting. Thanks to the monopoly the Commonwealth Games has acquired over public attention, no one screamed much in Parliament about a Central Vigilance Commission report indicting the top brass of Prasar Bharati in questionable financial decisions, or about the report last month that the Ministry of Information and Boradcasting was seeking to remove the CEO.
 
Nobody asked why the Prasar Bharati Act was going to be amended after a Group of Ministers had applied its mind to the issue of Prasar Bharati employees. The proposed amendment introduced at the end of August through an amendment bill in the Rajya Sabha allows them to become employees on deemed deputation so that they can enjoy central government benefits and sets to rest the question of whose employees they are: the government’s or the corporation’s. Will someone ask what then is the difference between Prasar Bharati and a state broadcaster? 
 
It would seem that three milestones achieved by non Congress governments in 1978, 1990 and 1997, have been quietly reduced to rubble.
 
Lal Krishna Advani mooted the idea of broadcasting autonomy in 1978, P Upendra presided over its becoming an Act in1990 and seven years later yet another non-Congress government hastily notified the act just before the government fell. But for all their pains, what has developed since represents neither public service broadcasting in its best sense, nor autonomy. A 38,000- employee behemoth now has its 20 plus registered employee unions all clamoring for the Act to be withdrawn. They want Prasar Bharati to go back to being what they euphemistically call a national broadcaster so that they can go back to being proper government servants. With tax payers now footing an annual bill of Rs 3000 crore for the privilege of having a public service broadcaster!
 
Meanwhile the Central Vigilance Commission has found colourful examples of autonomous functioning by the CEO and his colleagues amounting to questionable financial dealings. And the board set up to oversee Prasar Bharati finds itself in a quirky position. The decisions it takes are simply not recorded by the CEO who records the minutes. A huge democracy that set out to give itself broadcasting autonomy has ended up giving one man autonomy, through the tenures of three different chairpersons. And while one arm of the government tries to sack him, the prime minister’s office has for the moment scuttled those efforts, sending back a file sent to it by the Ministry of I and B.  
 
How did this country’s experiment with an autonomous public broadcaster come to such a sorry pass? And why is this state of affairs allowed to persist? 
 
If there is one institutional territory where the writ of the presumed boss of the United Progressive Alliance Government does not run, it is in the corridors of PTIBuilding on Parliament Street in New Delhi, on the floor occupied by Prasar Bharati. Sonia Gandhi’s men get named to the board at Prasar Bharati only to come up against a man who derives his power from elsewhere. And guess whose writ endures?
 
Arun Bhatnagar who served on Ms Gandhi’s National Advisory Council was named as chairperson of Prasar Bharati after the UPA government rather blatantly removed the previous chairperson before his term was over. It brought in an ordinance to amend the Prasar Bharati Act, fixing the upper age limit of board chairman at 70 years. The chairperson, MV Kamath, was an NDA government appointee. The government broke the tradition established in Prasar Bharati’s short life of appointing a media person as chair. Bhatanagar was a retired IAS officer. But after the government pushed through his appointment he came up against another retired IAS officer appointed earlier by the UPA.
 
The CEO of the corporation, BS Lalli, appointed at the end of 2006 has been functioning with a fair degree of autonomy vis-a-vis the Prasar Bharati Board. He was exploiting something in the rules of the corporation which allowed him to call meetings and minute them: as the new chairperson of the Board Bhatnagar found that decisions the board took were simply not being minuted. There are financial decisions Prasar Bharati takes which the board has not approved, but Lalli goes ahead with them. And if a decision does not exist in the minutes it is not a recorded decision. Finally after conducting five meetings for which the CEO produced his own minutes, Bhatnagar threw in the towel and resigned. That is still happening under the current chairperson Mrinal Pande. And the CEO continues to retain his powers. Opposition from the board to contractual decisions related to Doordarshan’s role as host broadcaster for the Commonwealth Games were simply not recorded in January 2009, and therefore not taken into account! If it were not a truly bizarre state of affairs, it would be comical.
 
In the recent round of new appointees Suman Dubey, a former editor of the Indian Express, and a close friend of the Gandhi family, was made a member of the Prasar Bharati board. Dubey too has found that the minutes of meetings issued by Lalli don’t reflect the discussions held by the board, and wrote a letter to the CEO recently after a meeting.
 
Lalli is a UP cadre officer, the third former IAS officer to become CEO, a job with a five year term. The first, S S Gill was sacked in a year’s time, when the government changed in 1998. Too many IAS officers are not a recipe for either fostering a sense of broadcasting excellence or of developing a tradition of editorial autonomy. Or even the sense of editorial relevance which a public service broadcaster requires. But since its inception, that is the only kind of CEO this broadcaster has had.
 
The CVC conducted its inquiry after receiving a reference from the Prasar Bharati Board on the directions of the Delhi High Court which was hearing a case on financial wrongdoing in Prasar Bharati. Now that its report that upholds most of the charges against the corporation and the CEO as valid, the I and B Ministry’s recommendation for the removal of the CEO has to be referred to the Supreme Court by the government of India, for that Court to  judge the case and give a final ruling. This is stipulated in the Prasar Bharati Act.
 
And as of now, given the unresolved legal dispute over the powers of the CEO vs the PB Board, even if the Board were to decide to meet and consider the CVC report , thereafter passing a resolution recommending the CEO's removal , they will have no choice but to ask the CEO! Because he has said that he alone according to the notification of 2001 , is authorised to call the meeting, prepare the agenda thereof and minute the proceedings . The PB Act also stipulates that all Board resolutions shall be forwarded to the Ministry by the CEO. So he will need to be asked to forward the proposal, even if it recommends  his own removal!
 
What, meanwhile, has the CVC found the corporation guilty of? Of taking decisions related to the management of advertising revenues arising from the telecast of cricket matches on DD without the approval of either the Empowered Committee on Sports Rights (ECSR) or the Prasar Bharati Board. The details are quite amazing. The decision on who would get to manage these revenues were to be decided through a competitive bidding process involving sealed bids, but when Prasar Bharati’s bid turned out to be the highest in the case of five different cricket series, it thoughtfully revised its bid each time to enable Nimbus to bid again and clinch the series! Five times! "Undue advantage to Nimbus" says the CVC.  
 
Then there was the case of the  T-20 Cricket World Cup matches which Doordarshan did not telecast, despite having the rights to it, through the Mandatory Sharing Act of 2007. This abdication meant that  ESPN could telecast them exclusively and make a tidy pile. This was after the ECSR said they should be telecast, and "also after obtaining a clear legal opinion affirming that T-20 cricket was to be considered a sporting event of national importance" says the report.
 
A third finding confirms more generosity on Prasar Bharati’s part. It procured radio broadcast rights for two cricket series from Nimbus at rates which were twice that of rates paid earlier for similar rights. What’s more the rates were twice those fixed by the ECSR, with the CEO finalising the higher rates. In fact between 2007 and 2009 no ECSR meeting was convened to discuss the rates on eight occasions. And in the absence of such meetings when All India Radio recommended rates, the rate finally decided in each case was higher than its recommendation! The beneficiaries of such generosity? Nimbus, ESPN-Star Sports, ESPN, Ten Sports, MSN/SET Max and ICC/ Big FM. Prasar Bharati today is the private sports broadcasters’ best friend.
 
Apart from all this the CVC found fault with the generosity with which Prasar Bharati paid lawyers engaged. Its policy in the matter of engaging lawyers was to be approved by the Prasar Bharati board, but was never put up to them, the CVC notes. And then there was the small matter of which lawyers firms were engaged. "The payments made to external non-empanelled advocates increased by almost 5 times as compared to earlier years." The report also mentions links that some of the hired lawyers had to a firm in which B S Lalli’s relative is a partner. 
 
So what will the UPA government do next in this sticky case of an overly autonomous CEO?  Will his writ continue to run? Will some in the highest echelons of this government continue to protect him?
 
The much bigger question is what is the continuing relevance of Prasar Bharati in its present form?  Can it be made smaller, more accountable, more public service oriented?
 
What is the legality of the government continuing to monopolise terrestrial transmission after the Supreme Court’s airwaves judgement of 1995?
 
And as for autonomy, can the nation can afford to continue a costly experiment which has come to grief?
 
 
Note: Mr Lalli did not respond to a formal request for an interview made at least ten days before this story was written.
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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