Prasar Bharati chair Mrinal Pande stings government with criticism

Minister for Information and Broadcasting Manish Tewari said on Friday that if the government was footing the bills of Prasar Bharati (PB), it could not be expected to keep an “arm’s length” from the public broadcaster. His remarks followed stinging criticism by PB Board chairperson Mrinal Pande, who tore into the “intricate circles of bureaucratic power” surrounding the institution.

Both were speaking at the inaugural session of a meeting of the recently constituted expert committee to review PB’s functioning. The committee is headed by the Prime Minister’s adviser on public information infrastructure, Sam Pitroda.

Mr. Tewari said the key issue was whether India needed a public broadcaster, and its relationship with the government. “Two-thirds of I&B Ministry’s budget — Rs.1,885 crore of the Rs.2,800 crore — goes to Prasar Bharati. I am the recruiting authority, the disciplinary authority, the sanctioning authority. Yet, I am supposed to keep an arm’s length. I am not God.”

This is the clearest admission by the government in recent times that PB may not be as ‘autonomous’ as it emphasises in official responses.

The Minister said that if it was decided that the country needed a public broadcaster, one option was to follow the ‘Comptroller and Auditor General-Finance Ministry’ model. “If you want to take it out of the government’s ambit, PB can be directly accountable to Parliament. This will then allow me to have another full spectrum communication agency which puts the government’s viewpoint in the public space.”

Ms. Pande, however, had earlier rejected the proposition to remake All India Radio and Doordarshan as government departments as ‘rubbish.’

Dual control

She asked the expert committee to focus on programming issues, where the problem was a “dual control system,” with the government retaining final regulatory powers on a range of issues. “Committed professionals and innovative artists… are replaced by grim men and women behind desks who tell us not how change can happen, but why it must not.”

In a scathing critique, Ms. Pande also highlighted the systemic misalignments in the “hastily crafted” PB Act, where the government picks the top three members of the PB executive, even though the Board is supposed to be supervising and managing the corporation’s affairs. Ms. Pande added that much to its embarrassment, the Board learnt of certain PB-related issues from the next day’s papers.

She spoke of unmet hardware needs: “Why is there so much of it but why is most of it useless?”

Mr. Tewari emphasised that for any change to be sustainable reforms had to be “incremental and gradual” so that it could deal with the resistance within the system. But Mr. Pitroda, speaking after the Minister, said sharply that he believed in “disruptive approach and generational change. If it is not disruptive, it is not worth doing.”

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