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Autonomy in prospect

Print edition : Sep 20, 1997 T+T-

The Prasar Bharati Act comes into force, marking a new chapter in Indian broadcasting.

THE Prasar Bharati Act, possibly the most important legislative move for the future of Indian broadcasting, came into force on September 15. With this, a three-person selection committee formally began the task of choosing the 15-member Prasar Bharati Board that will transform Doordarshan and All India Radio (AIR) into constituents of an autonomous Broadcast-ing Corporation. The committee comprises Vice-President Krishan Kant, Press Council Chairman P.B. Sawant and a nominee of the President who was yet to be named. How long the group was likely to take to complete its task also remained unclear.

What is clear, however, is that if autonomous public service broadcasting is to survive in India it is imperative that the Prasar Bharati Board should have as its members individuals genuinely committed to providing a democratic alternative to market-driven private sector television channels.

The coming into force of the Prasar Bharati Act marks the end of a prolonged struggle that revealed the enormous political and social importance attached to broadcasting in India. The issue of autonomy for state-controlled Doordarshan and AIR was addressed seriously for the first time by the B.G. Verghese Committee in 1977. The committee, set up in the wake of the Emergency, addressed issues of how state-owned broadcasters could be liberated from restrictive governmental control and censorship. The Verghese Committee's recommendations led to the introduction of the Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Bill in the Lok Sabha in May 1979. With the dissolution of the sixth Lok Sabha and the emergence of a Congress (I) Government, which made no secret of its hostility to autonomous broadcasting, the Bill was allowed to lapse. Experiments during the Rajiv Gandhi Government to give broadcast television some measure of freedom came to nothing. The build-up to the 1989 elections saw the medium exploited by the Congress (I) Government in crudely propagandistic ways.

V.P. Singh's coming to power in the wake of that watershed election saw the revival of the Prasar Bharati Bill in a somewhat modified form. It was passed by Parliament and received presidential assent on September 12, 1990. The Act provided for the creation of an autonomous Broadcasting Corporation that would manage Doordarshan and AIR, discharging all powers previously vested in the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, and through it, the state. The corporation will inherit the capital assets of Doordarshan and AIR and their management will be through a 15-member Prasar Bharati Board including the Directors-General of the two organisations and two representatives from among the employees. The Chair and other members of the board would be appointed on the recommendations of the selection committee headed by the Vice-President. A 22-member parliamentary committee would oversee the functioning of the Prasar Bharati Corporation and a 15-member Broadcasting Council, an ombudsman-like body, would address public complaints. A complicated procedure does exist to allow the government to supersede the board but only with the assent of Parliament.

THE Act of 1990 was not without its critics. The Left, for example, argued that further parliamentary accountability was essential if publicly funded television was to serve its raison d'etre. The experience of the Rajiv Gandhi years underlined these demands, illustrating how easily state-run television could in fact be subverted to serve commercial interests. These arguments, however, had nothing to do with the future progress, or rather lack of it, made in liberating Indian broadcasting. During the less-than-illustrious term in office of K.P. Singh Deo, Minister for Information and Broadcasting for the first half of Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao's term, Prasar Bharati, never notified, was dragged to the market for slaughter. After founding and then promptly killing the Air Time Committee of India, an experimental alternative to Prasar Bharati, the Information and Broadcasting Ministry's mandarins insisted the Act had been rendered obsolete by events. An expanding private sector was used to justify continued state control over public broadcasting. Private broadcasters, unsurprisingly, were delighted with this bizarre argument.

Prasar Bharati was, however, rescued from violent death by Supreme Court intervention. The Supreme Court order of February 9, 1995 in Union of India vs Cricket Association of Bengal held that the air waves were public property, not assets of the state to be disposed of as it wished. The bench consisting of Justices P.B. Sawant, S. Mohan and B.P. Jeevan Reddy had, in Cricket Association of Bengal, interpreted Article 19(1) of the Constitution (which guarantees citizens the right of freedom of speech) and 19(2) (which guarantees the right to practice a trade or profession) to mean that all interests and groups would be given access to the broadcast media. Indeed this was the principal thrust of Prasar Bharati.

While directing the Government to set up an independent broadcasting authority that would give access to all interests and groups, the Judges made clear that indiscriminate privatisation and euthanising public broadcasting would not be acceptable. "Private broadcasting, even if allowed," the court held, "should not be left to market forces." This, the Judges said, was because of the evident "danger flowing from the concentration of the right to broadcast/telecast in the hands of (either) a central agency or of a few private affluent broadcasters."

Prasar Bharati comes into being ahead of the perhaps inevitable passing of the controversial Broadcasting Bill during the winter session of Parliament. By the time issues of staff transfers and the selection of the Board are finalised, more time would have elapsed. The Broadcasting Bill, tabled by Information and Broadcasting Minister S. Jaipal Reddy, will enable Indian and foreign private broadcasters to provide services in India legally. It will also legalise Direct-To-Home (DTH) satellite broadcasting, a technology that will give international media conglomerates, notably Rupert Murdoch's STAR TV, near-monopoly control over an emerging area of television broadcasting. The growing and legally sanctioned presence of multinationals on the Indian broadcasting landscape will make Prasar Bharati's role vital in ensuring broadcasting that addresses the diverse needs of those millions of viewers who are not on the agenda of advertising-driven commercial channels.

Yet, as Jaipal Reddy has pointed out, such restrictions by their nature are unlikely to be widely deployed. A more worrying issue, perhaps, is what interpretation the Broadcasting Corporation will give to its public sector commitments. In an already highly competitive television scene, where several channels have recently announced cut-backs and retrenchments, pressure on Doordarshan to retain its profitability could be intense, leading to a glut of market-driven commercial shows, and relatively little alternative programming.

Just how successful Prasar Bharati will be in ensuring plurality and democracy in the broadcast media will obviously be dependent on the Board to be selected. In the final analysis, the future of Indian public television will depend on those who run it. The President's nominee for the Prasar Bharati selection committee will be seen as a standard bearer of the Government's intentions for Indian public broadcasting as a whole.

The recent controversy over the defection of top Doordarshan figures like Ratikant Basu to STAR, and reports that top production houses connived with bureaucrats to swallow large sums of public money from state television, illustrates just how easily and in how many ways the integrity of public institutions can be eroded.

The real question that may emerge over the first years of Prasar Bharati may not be its independence from government, but from private sector and multinational monopolies.