Biting the bullet on Prasar Bharati

BY sevanti ninan| IN Media Practice | 26/01/2014
The Pitroda Committee report identifies clearly the outstanding blocks to Prasar Bharati's autonomous functioning and sets out the drastic changes required.
SEVANTI NINAN says the report deserves closer attention.

 It is typical of  the way the public service broadcaster is run that when yet another committee report comes out on Prasar Bharati, they produce for the press a summary of recommendations which does no justice at all to the report. The media therefore has gone away and not explored the significant proposals that have been made.

Also, the Pitroda Committee appointed around this time last year has  taken so long over its labours that any decisions on its recommendations are unlikely to be taken during the remaining life of the United Progressive Alliance government.  Any new government that comes in  is unlikely to treat public service broadcasting as its immediate priority. And since there are recommendations here which do address fundamental problems, a new dispensation may take its time getting down to an overhaul.

 But even so, the many current problems which plague the broadcaster have been documented and analysed to produce a roadmap. If civil society finds much wrong with the way they are served by the current media, they need to participate in a debate on the contours of a public service broadcaster, which is needed more than ever before.

What are the changes recommended? First, the expert committee dealing with the thorny issue of  autonomy, headed by a former secretary of the ministry of information and broadcasting  has documented  how the Act that was passed in 1990 took care to undo, simultaneously, whatever autonomy it gave. It recommends scrapping of all the sections and clauses in the act which allow the government to decide what employees and board members should be paid, what service rules they should have, how recruitment boards should be set up and governed, how accounts and annual reports should be prepared. The ministry of information and broadcasting and other ministries controlled the smallest aspect of the running of the corporation through rules prescribed, the clear recommendation is amend the Act to scrap of all this is if the public broadcaster has to function. The corporation needs to decide for itself the manner in which it will recruit people and what it will pay its employees, and the board members.

It says, “Prasar Bharati has to be made administratively and financially autonomous of the Government.” So the second major recognition is that the Government’s financial powers to sanction funds in dribs and drabs for the running of PB, needs to be scrapped. The government needs to transfer the entire appropriation made by Parliament in a particular financial year to a non-lapsable account maintained by Prasar Bharati. A corporation that needs more than Rs 2000 crore a year to run has disbursal powers, only recently given, of no more than Rs 300 crore. It makes a total mockery of autonomous functioning.

“Real autonomy flows from financial independence. Budgetary flow should be like “charged funds” as flow to constitutional bodies. Govt. must allocate resources and then follow a totally hands-off policy. Alternatively, Public Service Broadcasting Trust Fund/ Corpus needs to be set up. The money for the fund/ corpus could be raised through cess on sale of TVs and media related electronic goods, part of the revenue share of DTH and Cable distribution, to Prasar Bharati as equity/ capital.”

The report says, “Currently, oversight and monitoring of Prasar Bharati and all business connected with public broadcasting news services is officially one of the primary functions of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. This is in direct contravention with the objective of creating an impartial public broadcaster and with the Prasar Bharti Act. Remove this function from the remit of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and create new structures for autonomy and accountability.

The relationship between Ministry of Information and Broadcasting and Prasar Bharti should not be one of superior and subordinate as is currently the case, but more akin to that between the Reserve Bank of India and the Ministry of Finance or that between the Comptroller and Auditor General of India and the Ministry of Finance.

 The relationship between Prasar Bharti, the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (and the Government of India) will need to be defined much more precisely so that the PB retains its functional autonomy, while being responsible to the Parliament and to the public (in Australia, for example, the Minister for Communications is empowered to direct the ABC to broadcast certain matters inthe national interest but must always explain every such direction on the floor of the Australian Parliament).” 

 Third, the manner of selection of the chairperson of the Board and the members.  “Selection of the board, in a transparent manner, is the single most crucial factor in making Prasar Bharati an autonomous board run organization.”  So the report says a search committee should prepare a panel of names for the selection of the chairperson, MD/CEO and Directors of the board and the the final selection should be made by a committee consisting of Chairperson of Rajya Sabha (Vice President), Leader of Opposition in the Lok Sabha, and a Judge of the Supreme Court nominated by the Chief Justice of India.

 And here is the clincher. The committee’s selection has to be final and binding. To attract the best personnel the salary/ package should be linked with the market compensation. The tenure of full time members should be for a period of five years and for the Independent Directors for a period of three years.”

So, no more pegging salaries at a level that only attracts applications from former government personnel. The CEO of Prasar Bharati so far, in its 16 years of existence, has always been a former IAS officer.

The government should no longer oversee Prasar Bharati, a committee of members of Parliament as recommended earlier, should.   If this is to happen though, and the Act is majorly amended, the limits of permitted interference by the parliamentary committee needs to be also spelt out. The report does not say this.

Since autonomy is judged by how independent the news broadcasts are the committee has also  unequivocally recommended that the information service should not be in charge of producing news for Doordarshan and AIR, they should instead develop their own news organisation and pay market rates for the professionals hired. 

The biggest section of the report, and one that also makes a very significant recommendation is the one on technology. It reviews the corporations current digitisation plans, the state of the current market with regard to demand for terrestrial broadcasting and concludes that the way forward for the broadcaster is to hinge its future digitisation plans on satellite rather than terrestrial broadcasting. It does how ever also suggest a plan B which recommends limited digital terrestrial services for hand held devices.

The clear recommendation for Doordarshan to focus on satellite-based  DTH and cable services has serious implications for thebroadcaster’s huge engineering workforce manning hundreds of high power and low power terrestrial transmitters all over the country.

The committee’s detailed analysis of Prasar Bharati’s financials, including its prospects for getting advertising, and its limited  current appeal for advertisers, also constitute a substantial part of the report.

 

Download the Report - Vol 1 (18.13 Mb) | Vol 2 (19.89 Mb)

 

 

 

 

 

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