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February 11, 1999


Autonomy appears a pipe dream for Doordarshan

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Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi

They demand autonomy for Doordarshan when in the opposition and seek control when in government. And nowhere does this ring truer than with the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party.

Years ago, Doordarshan ruled the airwaves alone, and with the Congress governments ruled first by Indira Gandhi and later by Rajiv Gandhi, the official channel was nicknamed Gandhi-darshan! There was not a day when there wasn't some news or the other concerning the prime minister and the ruling party, regardless of how irrelevant it was.

The Bharatiya Janata Party and other opposition parties had then demanded autonomy for Doordarshan along the lines of the British Broadcasting Corporation. This meant that while DD would receive funding from government and be accountable to Parliament (not to the government of the day), it would have complete operational and financial autonomy.

"That is the problem with political parties," said Prof S Pachauri, who has written many books on Doordarshan, including one titled Doordarshan: Swayatata aur Swatantra [Doordarshan: Autonomy and Independence].

"It is quite clear that the BJP fears an autonomous Doordarshan, which might ignore the party and not highlight its leaders.

"It is the history of our country for the past 50 years," added B George Verghese, a member of Prasar Bharati board that was set up to oversee Doordarshan.

Information and Broadcasting Minister Pramod Mahajan proved this during the BJP national meet in Bangalore between January 2 and January 4. The Doordarshan evening news did not lead with the prime minister's address to his party members. The result was that the station director was transferred and Mahajan, who has a diploma in journalism, insisted that not showing Atal Bihari Vajpayee was poor news sense and that politics had nothing to do with the decision.

Today, Doordarshan ends up carrying regular news items of the prime minister and the BJP.

Mahajan has also, in his few weeks in office, announced that given the huge stake of the government, complete autonomy was not in the nation's best interest, and that his ministry would have to exercise some influence and control. The government has invested Rs 600 billion over the years in the hardware for Doordarshan, India's only terrestrial channel.

"Whom is he kidding about national interest?" asks a disgusted Rajendra Yadav, member on the Prasar Bharati board.

"We know from experience that Doordarshan accountable to a board is far better than if it is accountable to the government. Given the government's pressures and pulls, can we really expect the minister concerned not to intervene? And the money does not belong to this or any other government but to the people of India."

"It is really a cheap mentality that talks of money," said Pachauri, adding, "This money has been given for the benefit of the people at large. Does not the government invest in all the public sector units? Will it now ask all of them to pay back before divesting shares."

Doordarshan's struggle for autonomy makes for depressing reading. The idea of autonomy for the government controlled All India Radio and Doordarshan was first mooted when the Janata Party came to power in 1977 in the aftermath of Emergency when the AIR and Doordarshan ended up as the government's mouthpiece. However, the bill could not be passed.

The idea was revived when the Janata Dal took office in 1989. As per the Prasar Bharati Act 1990, the functioning of Doordarshan is to be guided by the Prasar Bharati board and a chief executive appointed by the government. The board, in turn, is responsible to the parliamentary committee on information, broadcasting, and communications. The Prasar Bharati bill was passed and received presidential assent in December 1990. But before the notification making the bill into law could be issued, the V P Singh government fell.

The following Congress government showed no interest in the bill despite making politically correct noises about autonomy. It was only when the I K Gujral government took charge in 1997, with S Jaipal Reddy as information and broadcasting minister, that the bill became law. However, even the Gujral government wanted to make some changes to suit its purpose, and rather than introduce the amendments to the bill in Parliament (where it may have failed in passing them), the Gujral government issued an ordinance to enact the legislation.

Former chief executive S S Gill is all praise for the United Front. "Only Jaipal Reddy and Gujral stood by their words on autonomy. No one else has," he said. In fact, Reddy went on record to state that his mission was to close down his ministry of information and broadcasting.

"The Gujral government too had its own agenda in issuing the ordinance. For one, they did away with the age limit for the chief executive so that 74-year-old Gill, a friend of Gujral, could hold that office. Then the need for a Broadcasting Council (to hear complaints against Doordarshan) was bypassed," said Pachauri, adding, "Yet, it is to the credit of S Jaipal Reddy that the bill was finally introduced."

The ordinance of 1997 lapsed in 1998, forcing Gill to relinquish office. It has also left the Prasar Bharati board members with a sense of déjà vu about their future with the government showing no interest in actually activating organisation.

"We are awaiting the act of legislation. At present there is no final legal framework, certain offices remain to be filled including that of the chief executive. The process is yet to be completed," said George Verghese.

While there is an acting chief executive officer, the posts of director of finance and of administration are lying vacant. Doordarshan still does not have a director-general. Moreover, out of seven board members, two posts are vacant, caused by former home secretary A Padmananbhan becoming governor of Mizoram and the death of senior journalist Nikhil Chakravarti.

Verghese said that simply giving autonomy to Prasar Bharati without giving it the instruments to enforce its autonomy was useless. "Without access to finance and the ability to call the shots, autonomy is just a meaningless word," he added.

Both Verghese and Yadav also lamented the absence of board members and directors, saying that an incomplete organisation made their work difficult. "All the members of the board are eminent persons working elsewhere. Yet we joined the board due to our commitment to a free media, at our own expense. All these delays and inactivity only adds to our troubles," said Yadav, who is editor of Hans, a Hindi monthly, and a writer.

Pachauri said that if the members of the board were willing, there was a way out.

"The lapse of the ordinance only means that those provisions no longer apply. But other laws are there. The board members, despite their smaller numbers, must now bring out the annual report and present it to Parliament, so that the country knows the current situation," he said.

Yadav said that the board members -- including Romila Thapar, Abid Hussain, and U V Rao -- are planning to bring out the annual report. However, Gill doubted if an annual report could be submitted since, de jure, there is no Prasar Bharati right now.

While the minister has spoken of the need to retain some government control over Doordarshan, the fact remains that today most Indians have many channels to choose from. And while satellite and cable television is primarily an urban phenomenon, it is slowly spreading into the rural areas. Today, India reportedly has 60 million TV sets, which means an audience of at least 300 million, or about 30 per cent of India. Satellite TV reaches only 30 per cent of this vast audience, but most of them in the towns.

"One reason that people in towns stopped watching Doordarshan was simply because of the lousy programmes. The better programmes on private channels drew away audiences, and it was only when the Prasar Bharati came in that the quality of programmes on Doordarshan improved and the audiences returned," said Pachauri.

Added Yadav, "Gill was no doubt an autocratic person, but there is no doubt that during his tenure Doordarshan became more professional. Now it is back to the old times where people come in at 12 noon and go home by 3 pm. Programmes are chosen on the basis of bribes or favouritism with the minister. At this rate, Doordarshan will collapse, and 48,000 employees will be hurt."

Yet the fact that Doordarshan still has a vast reach throughout India is no doubt alluring to any government, especially one that is seen on the defensive. "The BJP is a party seeking to spread its ideology and hence it needs control over the media. This applies to other ideological parties also, which is why autonomy is proving so difficult," said Gill.

It also proves that "the party with a difference" isn't all that different from the Congress.

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