[Reader-list] Public service broadcasting in India: Which master's voice?

Harsh Kapoor aiindex at mnet.fr
Wed Aug 20 05:45:46 IST 2003

The Indian Express
August 20, 2003

Which master's voice?
Prasar Bharati must serve us all, not just the government of the day

B. G. Verghese

Prasar Bharati celebrated a proud moment in its history earlier this 
month, the 60th anniversary of Broadcasting House in Delhi. Many 
referred to Gandhiji's inspiring words in praise of openness and 
pluralism inscribed over its portal and hoped for a new beginning of 
creativity, excellence, credibility and autonomy as the nation's 
public service broadcaster.

Only days later, the axe fell. Without reference to the board that 
appointed him, or even Prasar Bharati's chairman or chief executive 
officer, or anything in writing, the government surreptitiously 
informed the director general of Doordarshan that he was being 
removed mid-term as he no longer enjoyed the confidence of the 
minister of information and broadcasting/ government.

No reason was assigned nor any grounds cited even later in 
communications with the chairman and CEO. The action was arbitrary 
and mala fide and inconsistent with the letter and spirit of the 
Prasar Bharati Act. Whether the prime minister or deputy prime 
minister were previously or subsequently consulted is immaterial.

The DG, an honourable, upright and competent official, enjoyed the 
confidence of the PB Board to whom he is responsible. He will now go 
as soon as formal orders are passed - which could well await the 
adjournment of Parliament so as to minimise the stink.

Prasar Bharati has suffered a gratuitous body blow as a national 
public service institution for collateral reasons that may have more 
to do with ego or petty political or electoral gain through trying to 
ensure a pliant trumpet. Its credibility and autonomy - such as it is 
- will be grievously undermined both within the organisation and in 
the public eye. There is already no DG AIR and now there will be no 

The CEO will be required to man all these posts as also that of 
director (personnel), whose selection has not been made for six 
years. Virtually all personnel and finances still remain under 
government control.

Ex post facto justification may now be offered. This would be 
dishonest and is unlikely to convince anybody. It is a specious 
argument that the outgoing DG DD is an IAS officer on deputation who 
did not resign from his cadre and that his services are therefore at 
the disposal of the government.

The PB rules framed by the government under the act stipulate that 
the two DGs, who are ex officio members of the board, shall be 
selected from among civil servants. Only in the event of no suitable 
incumbent being found may the board go outside that circle, with 
prior official permission.

In this case, the outgoing DG DD was sounded out by the government 
and persuaded to give up a prestigious posting and offer his 
candidature on a three-year deputation. He did so, and was selected 
by the PB board from a large field of candidates. It cannot now be 
argued that he can be plucked out of his selected appointment 
capriciously, at the whim and fancy of his cadre controlling 
authority - and that too without grounds or for some larger, stated 
national purpose.

The act vests the government with reserve powers to issue directions 
to Prasar Bharati in writing but only in the interests of 
sovereignty, public order, etc, none of which apply here. It has no 
innate power to transfer personnel. If it did so on earlier occasion, 
it was because each of these incumbents was appointed ad interim on 
an emergency basis because of the inability to make a statutory 
appointment through prescribed procedures.

To plead that the DG and other PB employees are paid by the 
"government" and therefore remain government servants and subject to 
its will is frivolous. The salaries of all public (and civil) 
servants, including ministers and judges, are defrayed from the 
national exchequer through established parliamentary processes. 
Governance cannot be a matter of whim and fancy. We take pride in and 
must uphold the fact that ours is a government of laws and not of men.

The issue raised by this episode is more institutional than 
individual. That focus must not be lost. Over and beyond that, it is 
the freedom of speech and expression of the common citizen that is at 
stake. This is not a proprietorial right that goes with any imagined 
official ownership of PB. The Supreme Court's airwaves judgement of 
1995 spelt out the law in the broadcast domain and while private 
channels were permitted to go on air, AIR and DD were later brought 
together under PB as a public service broadcaster. PB is accountable 
to Parliament through its budget and annual report through the I&B 
Ministry. The Central government is only one part of the many diverse 
and plural "publics" that PB serves and cannot statutorily or morally 
seek to reduce PB to His Master's Voice.

At the same time, Prasar Bharti needs to put its own house in order. 
Autonomy is not given as much as grasped. It has to get its 
priorities right in accordance with its charter as laid down in 
section 12 of the act. Its programming, including news and current 
affairs, must uphold plurality and diversity and air contrasting 
voices, certainly giving the government its due. It must devolve more 
autonomy on its regional and local kendras, emphasise local, 
community and instructional broadcasting as a means of grassroots 
articulation and empowerment of the voiceless and underprivileged. It 
has to cater to the citizen and not merely the consumer or those in 

The PB board is cast as a trustee of the freedom of speech and 
expression of the national collective and the conscience of public 
service broadcasting. It must build a close interface with its 
listeners and viewers including all levels of government - its many 
"publics". Such traditions are not established in a day. There have 
been the inevitable ups and downs. The latest government diktat marks 
a slide down a snake. But the game is not over and there are ladders 
to climb. Good sense and wisdom must be encouraged to prevail.

The ideal of public service broadcasting in the Indian context is too 
valuable a prize to be abandoned to the whims of small men and the 
idiosyncrasies of the moment. But wake up to the challenge. It is 
your freedom that is at stake. Let none take it away.  

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