Thursday 17 September 1998

Autonomous Airwaves - Getting the Picture Right

(Originally appeared in the 1990s in the Times of India, as published in M. D. Nalapat's book "Indutva", Har-Anand Publications, 1999)

"Have any colour car you like, so long as it is black", said Henry
Ford to customers of his Model T. So long as the company had
a monopoly in its price-quality range, sales were brisk. Once
competition revved up, they crashed. Some civil servants resemble
Henry Ford. Steeped in memories of the Imperial Civil Service,
when there were no pesky legislators or irreverent journalists to
worry about, many officials equate public good with their
personal opinions.

No Surprise
Which is why it came as no surprise when Jaipal Reddy replaced
the tyranny of the PMO and the information and broadcasting
ministry with that of a Prasar Bharati board that evidently
believes it has been given the divine right to force-feed the rest
of us with its standards. India Today carried an interview with the
new CEO of Prasar Bharati, in which the retired (and now
retreaded) bureaucrat has been admirable in his candour. "I
have to decide". If anything conflicts with his standards," it will
be thrown out without ceremony". Clearly, the information and
broadcasting ministry's views on democratic functioning are not
far removed from what they were during the Emergency.

Media pundits groan about the malign influence of proprietors
who cut into press freedom by dictating the direction and
content of writing. Clearly, there are publishers who believe that
what they and their social group like must necessarily be similar
to what the (somewhat larger) markets of their publications will
appreciate. However, there are at least as many editors who
routinely churn out views at variance with theirs, and who seek
to convert their publications into vehicles for their idiosyncrasies.

Quite a few newspapers and magazines have folded up as a
result of having been in the hands of such "activist" editors for
too long. Of course, it is a difference matter that many publishers
are attracted to such characters in the same way as damsels are 
said to swoon over ”strong" men, an attraction that seems to last 
long after their publications begin to nosedive. 

Clearly, the new Prasar Bharati team feels the same way. Just the 
as officials sometimes dream (and act) as though they were on 
horseback kicking the natives, our commissioners are acting as 
though Cuba or China are the proper models to follow. That and 
the glorious examples of the "civilising" of the aborigines in 
Australia or the native Indian communities in America. Both 
were taught that their own cultural inheritances were inferior 
and needed to be replaced with “advanced" models. In the same 
way, the new Prasar Bharati team reportedly feels that such 
"rubbish" as Indian mythological serials should be trashed. 

Programmes based on Indian mythology cannot be considered
religious epics. In fact, mythological stories should be taught to 
every Indian child. The kind of "secular" mind that condemns 
such works is the same one that pushes communities into the 
arms of fundamentalists. Some more of such policies and the 
VHP will expand several times as a reaction. Hopefully, the new 
Board will soon realise that its job is not to enslave the 
professionals who are working in All-India Radio and 
Doordarshan but to give them the freedom to make decisions. 
Even the CEO should intervene only by exception, when  
suspected breaches of taste or integrity take place. The country
has come a long way from the patemalism of the Nehru family.
After reading Satish Gujral, one realises how very close the 
Gujrals were to the Nehrus. However, hopefully this does not
mean that the political style of the dynasty will be followed.

The Nehru family, thanks to its western upbringing, made
secularism a bad word among those Indians not fortunate
enough to have studied in Europe. The best bulwark against
fanaticism is Indian tradition, as expressed in its literature and
mythology. Should the reported thinking of the new masters of
DD and AIR be correct, then classical dances and music may be
next on the chopping block, because both are staples of temple
festivals. Instead of such models of "secularism".

S. S. Gill and his commissioners need to allow fully the reflection
of local talent. After all, the taxpayer has paid for DD and AIR.
She has a right to programmes which she finds pleasant and

New Team
Next, the new Prasar Bharati team should unshackle radio and
television from the government’s grip, and give Indian companies
the right to uplink and to freely generate radio and television
programmes and air them. Should foreign companies be given
permission, they should commit themselves to airing India-
generated programmes on their international networks for fixed
time slots. The syncretic traditions of this land will thus be
beamed to other regions. The new team—and this includes the
CEO—comprises people of experience and integrity. Hopefully,
rather than micro-manage, it will ensure that it itself becomes
irrelevant by truly freeing the airwaves within the parameters of
the law. 

During the past few years, competition to the state-owned
media has emerged in television more than in radio. This process
needs to be taken further, so that the diversity of India is
reflected in its broadcast media as well. Had those in charge of
administering the country ever taken a break from living off the
exchequer and attempted to run even a pan-shop using their
own funds, they would have realised the value of capital. Sadly,
few “public servants” have such an experience. As a result, they
are cavalier when it comes to spending other people’s money.
PILs get filed to block project after project, and few object. These
days, the legal system is seldom used to obtain justice. Most
often, the motive is to delay. And hence the numerous stays and
adjournments. It should be mandatory for the judge to be told
how much a stay is costing the country in terms of wasted
resources. Were this to be done, the eagerness to grant them may

Best Service
One can only admire the judges who believe so passionately in
this country that they feel that it is feasible to set in place
improvements that even rich countries cannot afford. Thus
orders are sent out to close down hundreds of units in the
expectation that jobs will easily be available in cleaner enterprises
elsewhere. Dams that may—in the absence of the development
of nuclear power—help bridge the shortfall in power are halted
in mid-construction so that environmental interests are satisfied.
Strangely, many of our Greens lead very comfortable, even
luxurious lives, in the most tony colonies complete with polluting
refrigerators, air-conditioners and automobiles. However, the
rest of us have to pay the price of political correctness in the
shape of ramshackle infrastructure. Yet, no serious attempt has
been made to ensure that private funding can be given the
conditions to flow freely into key infrastructural areas such as
roads, power, ports and communications. 

Mahatma Gandhi talked of the daridra narayan. Before framing
policies or judgements, those living off the exchequer need to The
work out the impact of their decisions on the honest taxpayer. 
They may then find that several of them are the wrong ones. 
They may also find that the best service they can do is to create 
systems that ensure that they are no longer needed. 

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