For five years, power struggle holds up equipment purchases at DD, AIR

After five long years, while Doordarshan and All India Radio struggled with equipment falling apart and becoming obsolete, their parent organisation Prasar Bharati could finally get the power to approve its own purchases.

A proposal is in the works at the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting to give the official broadcaster some long-awaited financial autonomy and bestow decision-making powers for about half of its Rs. 5,000-crore annual budget on the Prasar Bharati Board.

“I support the proposal for devolution of powers to the Board,” Information and Broadcasting Minister Ambika Soni told The Hindu. “I will approve it when it comes to me.”

While Prasar Bharati has officially been an “autonomous” body for over a decade, its Board has hardly any financial powers to go with that title. Soon after it gained autonomy in 1997, the government decided that it would have financial powers equivalent to that of a Secretary of the Government of India. That means it can only approve purchases up to Rs. 20 crore. Any higher amount involves government approval.

The situation was even worse for the Directors-General of Doordarshan and AIR. As heads of government departments in 1997, they had powers to approve purchases up to Rs. 20 crore. Once Prasar Bharati was created, their powers dropped to just Rs. 1 crore each.

“Rs. 20 crore is nothing when you consider the cost of the equipment we need,” said a senior official at Prasar Bharati. “The cost of a pair of transmitters is more than Rs. 50 crore… Our equipment is getting antiquated, but nothing can be done.”

“This has been one of the major weaknesses of Prasar Bharati,” said a Board member. “If you have to go back to the Ministry for every small thing, then where is the autonomy? It makes every process inordinately long and time-consuming.”

Internal conflict

In the early years, Prasar Bharati's requests were sent to the Ministry for clearance. However, an internal power struggle between the suspended CEO, B.S. Lalli, and some Board members paralysed its functioning in the recent past.

“It was only after Lalli was suspended and A.K. Jain [Member, Finance] was moved out of daily financial administration, files finally started moving,” said a senior official in the Ministry. He said the first procurement requests after at least five years came to the Ministry about three months ago. “Suddenly about Rs. 170 crore [worth of procurement requests] landed up on our desks at the Ministry. Everyone is in shock…many people had not even realised that such purchases need to be cleared by the Ministry because it has been so long since the Board sent us such requests.”

If the proposal to devolve financial powers to the Board was approved, Prasar Bharati would also be required to generate its own resources to meet programming expenses, said a senior Ministry official.

The government would continue to meet the salary expenses of a little over Rs. 2,000 crore a month.

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