A Suitable Woman

BY Sajan Venniyoor| IN Media Practice | 29/06/2006
The Public Service Broadcaster has never had a woman Director General in its 80 years of existence. Perhaps it is time for a change.

Sajan Venniyoor

When Vijayalaxmi Chhabra, the gracious and very capable Deputy Director General (Marketing) of Prasar Bharati was rated as one of the ¿25 Women who Matter¿ in Indian media by the website, indiantelevision.com, I called up ¿Ms. Media¿ to congratulate her.

?By the way,? I added casually, ?I assume you have applied for the Director General¿s job.? The Doordarshan Director General¿s post is about to fall vacant, and I assumed that Mrs. Chhabra would be one of the front runners for the job. ?I haven¿t thought about it,? she said, sounding rather taken aback. ?I don¿t think I¿ll even qualify.?

As her profile in the special report noted, Vijaya Chhabra has spent 26 years with the public broadcaster, and currently holds the rank of Deputy Director General, just one step away from Director General. She has a track record that¿s impressive by any media standards, starting as a programme executive in All India Radio and working her way up through the ranks to head the prestigious marketing division of Prasar Bharati for the last six years. If Doordarshan earned a record Rs.947 crores in revenue last year, a substantial part of it was due to Mrs. Chhabra¿s ability to sell cricket and Krishi Darshan with equal aplomb.

The recruitment rules that deny Vijayalakshmi Chhabra a shot at the top post, which should have been the natural culmination of her exceptional career, are not specifically biased against women. But in the history of the public broadcaster, from the days of the Indian Broadcasting Company almost 80 years ago, no woman has ever served as the head of either All India Radio or Doordarshan.

It is not that ¿suitable¿ women candidates were never to be found in the ranks of the 45,000 strong workforce. There is the particularly bitter case of Mehra Masani, AIR¿s first woman Deputy Director General. In the 50s and 60s, Masani - a product of the London School of Economics - was a greatly admired and respected figure in the headquarters, as much for her style and personality as for her broadcast skills. But, as Amita Malik notes, ?it was well-known that when it came to becoming Director-General, she was by-passed simply because she was a woman. Ironically, with the vast expansion of the media, women DDGs are a dime a dozen, but one is still waiting for a woman DG.?

Women DDG¿s are not quite a dime a dozen in Doordarshan these days, but it seems just as unlikely that one will make it to the DG¿s post this year either.

Along with Vijalaxmi Chhabra, her very good friend and batch-mate Usha Bhasin could also be considered a shoo-in for the top job. Mrs. Bhasin heads the Development Communications Division of Doordarshan. In the last financial year, DCD notched up revenues worth Rs. 192 crores, running campaigns for 15 ministries and government departments. Usha Bhasin has been in the radio and TV business for 29 years, and her pioneering projects on adolescence, gender issues, HIV/AIDS, environment, women empowerment, reproductive & rural health and education - like ¿Dehleez¿ and ¿Tinka Tinka Sukh¿ - are written up in standard textbooks on broadcasting. She¿s a Hubert H. Humphrey Fellow, and winner of the Gates Malaria Award, Commonwealth Broadcasting Award and Doordarshan¿s Special Award.

Usha Bhasin is definitely Director General material, one would think, but when I broached the subject with her, she smiled wryly and echoed Vijalaxmi Chhabra¿s words, ?I don¿t think I will qualify.?  (The recruitment rules for DG have been so drafted that departmental candidates never manage to qualify for the job, while most joint secretaries from the IAS do.)

In a survey carried out in the capital by the Media Study Group in May-June 2006, it emerged - to no one¿s surprise - that ¿upper caste men?, who form eight per cent of the country`s population, hold 71 per cent of the top jobs in the national media. Women are grossly under-represented - only 17 % of the key decision makers are women. Prasar Bharati is no different. The central Pay & Accounts division of the national broadcaster lists the proportion of male to female officers (of senior rank) in the department: 5296 men to 488 women. This skewed proportion goes all the way down the ranks.

I showed these figures to some officers in the DD headquarters, and they were quick to point out that there is no visible gender bias in Doordarshan. This is true: none of the women officers I spoke to said that they felt discriminated against in preferment. In fact, one senior IIS (Indian Information Service) officer joked that she was more concerned about being discriminated against because of her cadre than her sex. But she was just as shocked by the statistics.

It is in the engineering cadre that the gender inequity shows up starkly. I asked a young Director (Engineering) how many women have risen to the level of Chief Engineer in AIR or DD over the years. A CE is the engineering equivalent of Dy. Director General. ?None in the last 19 years that I¿ve been in service,? he admitted after some reflection.

The truth is that neither AIR nor DD has ever had a woman Chief Engineer, far less an Engineer-in-Chief.

This bit of Prasar Bharati trivia shook up the young engineering officer somewhat, but he quickly rallied with the argument that engineering is not really a woman¿s game. ?In my Engineering College, probably less than 10% of the students were women,? he pointed out. ?And naturally, there are hardly any women at the entry level in AIR and DD.? 

Bertrand Russell has a story about the Indian guru who explains to a white woman that the world stands on the shoulders of 8 elephants, who stand on the shell of an enormous turtle. ?But what does the turtle stand on?? asks the puzzled foreigner. ?You can¿t catch me out like that, madam,? says the guru triumphantly, ?It is turtles all the way down!?

Perhaps there cannot be a woman at the top in the national broadcaster, because it is men all the way down 

venniyoor@gmail.com

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