Institution

The roots of Prasar Bharati’s angst

Almost a quarter of a century after the Prasar Bharati Corporation came into being, neither manpower nor properties have been transferred by the I&B Ministry to the Board

PTI Photo
PTI Photo

NH Political Bureau

In August 15 this year, the sight of the National Flag suddenly falling as it was being hoisted by the BJP party president and the situation being saved somehow by the personnel present who managed to get it up finally, shocked us all. But more shocking was the action of the hapless DD anchor, clicking his tongue and whispering, ‘disaster!’ Social media suddenly became alive with some usual wicked ones tweeting their concern for the DD anchor who they felt, was now going to be axed.

This led minds back to an incident reported last year when the usually mild mannered and agreeably inclined Board of Prasar Bharati suddenly chose to tread on the toes of the Information and Broadcast Ministry over a matter of retrenching the staff for both the AIR and DD. The Board, that so far had no history of tiffs with the Ministry, reportedly took “strong exception” to the Ministry’s directive about sacking dozens of professionals working on an ad hoc basis. They felt that the Prasar Bharati Act of 1990 has conferred autonomy upon the Corporation and iterated that its Board alone will have the final say in all matters pertaining to running it. Why then should the then Minister come out with this Nadir Shahi note without consulting them?

Why do our women continue to demand that laws and lawmakers guarantee them equality of opportunity and parity of wages? Doesn’t our Constitution promise these as the fundamental rights of all citizens of India?

The Indian interpretation of autonomy for its public corporations is strange to say the least. Let there be autonomous Public Corporations as distinct from the government, but the Government of India representative on the boards of these Corporations must retain an original entitlement to final decision making for the Ministry, because he/she represents the ultimate authority that is the Government of India.

Built-in tension therefore, crops up inevitably between all our deemed autonomous public enterprises and their parent ministries. Whatever their constituent Acts may have put down in writing, regarding autonomous decision making by the CEO and the Board, on-ground ministries’ ex-officio representatives are treated as superior to the nominated members of the Board.

The ex-officio members thus mostly step into the board rooms with a puzzlingly higher level of entitlement that their niche in the Ministry supports from the outside. Such an overarching presence of the GOI representatives who report to the Ministry, not the Board, invariably devalues the decision making authority within. It also casts a veil of doubt on views or red flagging emanating from within. This is why successive governments have woken to sudden crisis situations and scams only after they have taken place.

The staff of AIR recently demonstrated outside in the streets because most of them feel cheated. After putting in decades of service, they are still not regular government/corporate employees. The reason is that a Recruitment Board that should have been created before the corporation became functional, has yet to be created.

Let us come back to the angst repeatedly recorded not only by Prasar Bharati Board as also the staffers of AIR and DD. It seems sad but not surprising that the then Minister of I&B, known to be a strong willed and outspoken individual, chose to direct the Board to okay the appointment of certain candidates for crucial positions within the corporation. And the minister simultaneously ordered an immediate termination of the services of the entire contractual staff (which by now may be almost three quarters of the total) without putting in place any alternative mechanism for running this vast organisation. According to reports, the usually compliant Board rightly considered this order as a, “violation of provisions (of the Act)”.

It rejected the orders because in its opinion the proposed new appointments and the compensation packages for two editors recruited by the Ministry were ‘exorbitant’. The Board was supported by the Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act. The introduction to the Act states clearly (Statement of Objectives And Reasons): “It is the Government’s declared policy to confer autonomy on Akashvani and Doordarshan…in this context it is proposed to provide for the establishment of an autonomous corporation …and to entrust it to it functions which are discharged by the Akashvani and Doordarshan…

“(The Act) also provides for the transfer to the Corporation of properties and funds at presented vested in the Central Government, transfer of employees of Akashvani and Doordarshan to the Corporation and other ancillary matters and the establishment of Recruitment Boards for recommending the appointment of officers and other employees.”(5). As for spelling out the powers of the Board, Chapter2, (4) states: “The general superintendence, direction and management of the affairs of the Corporation shall vest in the PB Board which may exercise all such powers.”

Almost a quarter of a century after the Prasar Bharati Corporation came into being, neither manpower nor properties (that include prime space and various well equipped buildings with DD and AIR studios in all major cities of India), have been transferred by the Ministry to the Board. So a corporation that is one of the biggest land owners in the country, remains perennially short of spending money. And its annual budget is still shaped finally by the Ministry. The Board on its own can neither appoint full time staff members, nor sell/monetise its properties, and can’t even get rid of its junk: old vehicles or obsolete machines. In an age when new technology ousts the old one within months, the Board can not go out and shop for technology to compete effectively with its market rivals, no matter how urgently needed. Each proposal of the Board must be submitted to various concerned departments to be examined and re-examined several times by countless committees of various ministries concerned.

The staff of AIR recently demonstrated outside in the streets because most of them feel cheated. After putting in decades of service, they are still not regular government/corporate employees. The reason is that a Recruitment Board that should have been created before the corporation became functional, has yet to be created. The corporation today has only three full-time members: the CEO, the Member Finance and Member Personnel. All others, including the chair are part time members. This is a Board selected by a committee headed by the Vice-President of India, Chair of the Press Council and a representative of the President (usually the Secretary from the I&B ministry). Yet, it is not allowed even a guest appearance in choosing its two permanent members in Finance or Human Resources. Mostly these posts go to senior serving IAS officials who report ultimately to the Cabinet Secretary and not the Prasar Bharati Board. And, even if the Board desires, it can’t terminate their services.

The recruitment has been outsourced by the ministry to another government agency with no proven domain expertise in selection of programme producers for AIR and DD. On the other hand, all contractual workers are now learning to their dismay that the I&B Ministry wants all of them removed at one go.

Under such circumstances whenever things go wrong (such as a hapless young anchor referring to the visiting Chinese President Xi as number eleven), all fingers automatically point at the corporation, and the representative of the Ministry is quick to quote autonomy of the enterprise and how the Ministry must keep it , ‘at an arm’s distance’.

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