It would be really ambitious to say that Prasar Bharti is all set to revamp itself and turn into an effective, profitable body on par with its other international counterparts like the British Broadcasting Corporation. However, if the Sam Pitroda-led committee is to be believed, the recommendations made by the panel suggests drastic changes, which, if implemented, will result in the systematic progression of Prasar Bharti so that it can finally live up to the stature of being the largest public broadcaster of the largest democracy in the world.
Prasar Bharti is an autonomous body that was set up by an Act of Parliament in 1990, became finally actionable in 1997, and comprises of Doordarshan Television Network and the All India Radio. The idea was to give autonomy to these broadcasters previously owned by the Government, like in any other country. However, many believe that this idea was implemented in theory more than in practice. Sam Pitroda, Advisor to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, formed a committee to examine this very intricate relationship that ostensibly existed between the Government and the broadcaster.
Giving voice to a greater concern is the fact that this is the fourth committee to have been set up to work around the matter of “government control” and public broadcasting and recommend ideas to revive this besieged white elephant. The first three – Sengupta Committee in 1996, Narayanmurthy Committee and Bakshi Committee both in 2000, all failed to impact the stimulation of Prasar Bharti into a bigger and better role. However, the recommendations this time are strong – demanding total freedom from government control and making Prasar Bharti a self-sustained profitable body by monetising its assets through involvement of the private sector for revenue generation.
There are hopes from the Ministry of Information & Broadcasting (MIB) and its agreement in principle with the recommendations given by the Committee focus on granting ‘real’, ‘visible’ and ‘workable’ autonomy to the public broadcaster. The general perception that the Government is non-serious in its commitment to make Prasar Bharti fully autonomous is slowly and radically changing and any real-time implementation of the Pitroda Committee’s recommendation is testimonial of the Government’s serious approach towards such change.
One of the most compelling ideas in the entire slew of recommendations by the panel is to develop a strong, sustainable funding mechanism with financial accountability for Prasar Bharti so that it can make profit. The panel further stated that to provide total control to Prasar Bharti, it is absolutely mandatory to let them have their own set of rules and regulations for their employees and grant them complete ownership of their assets and human resources so that administrative and financial autonomy is ensured. The larger picture here is to rebuild the 17-year old giant so that it has a strong representative body that can fully and professionally manage all functionalities and recast themselves as a global broadcaster with excellent standards to tap the international broadcasting community. The Pitroda Committee also recommended having a sub-committee in the Prasar Bharti Board that can act as a regulatory body to ensure public liability for all the content that is broadcasted in its television and radio network. If these ideas are taken up seriously and actively, there is much hope for the public broadcaster that is lying in decadence as of now.
However, the Government has to focus on overcoming real challenges to this opportunity, including dodging the administrative dogma that concerns and the apparent narrow outlook, as well as the fact there has been a lack of intent in the past, when it comes to empower Prasar Bharti fully. These challenges make the recommendations non-practical and just reduce it to another mere paperwork. There is an overlapping dichotomy that exists in the entire situation here – the Government allocates funds to the broadcaster and oversees the relocation of salaries and positions for the body. In the current interim budget of 2014, around Rs 200 crore has been provisioned for Prasar Bharti, which is a marginal increase from last year’s grants. In December last year, the MIB had announced that it would invest a whopping Rs 3,500 crore on upgrading the existing infrastructure and develop stronger network, especially in remote areas of the nation to strengthen public broadcasting.
As it has been in the past, the very link with the Ministry, or the Government as one can safely say, that is the fundamental problem. If Prasar Bharti aspires to be fully autonomous, it cannot be enjoying the cushion provided by the Ministry or the Government when it comes to fund allocation. As rightly pointed out by the Pitroda panel, this very connection needs to be overhauled and dealt with. The Government’s monitoring of the broadcast network’s funds, its employees and resource allocation stands in direct contradiction with the Prasar Bharti Act that was passed in 1997 which makes it imperative for the body to shed all such links and hold itself accountable for its functioning and finance. As Pitroda bluntly pointed out after his recommendations, Prasar Bharti cannot be a vehicle for promotion of the Government’s propaganda, take their funding and aspire to have a separate independent autonomous mechanism, all at the same time.
One of the key issues that Prasar Bharti needs to address for a successful overhaul is content. It is imperative for the public broadcaster to roll out information, which is not biased of any Government and is factual and accurate. The citizens of the biggest democracy in the world need to be aware and informed, irrespective of their class and society and economic stature and it is the duty of the country’s public broadcast network to be able to fulfill this requirement. Unlike its private counterparts, Prasar Bharti’s objective is to provide relevant information to the audience and not be driven solely by profits. At the same time, there is a dire need to develop interesting content that is also sellable and makes the body profitable and attractive for international markets, much like the BBC.
The brighter and positive news is that the present Committee led by Sam Pitroda has offered solid recommendations and the Government as well as the MIB are ready to cut the umbilical cord with Prasar Bharti that till date has survived successive governments and stayed strong. Pitroda remains positive despite previous history that reforms are long overdue and will jumpstart into action very soon. The recommendations on Human Resource Management and Social Media are slated to kick-start in the immediate future and will hopefully revive the objective with which the broadcast network was formed in the first place. Though critics remain sceptical about possible developments, the Government remains strong in its reserve of bringing about a drastic overhaul in the entire functioning of the public broadcaster. Whether Prasar Bharti recuperates to compete at par with its global counterparts, or fades away in between tedious, incessant paperwork is something that only time can tell and the clock is ticking.