Public service broadcasting is a story of lost opportunities which has brought neither quality nor autonomous programming. And unlike the 2G scam, no one talks about it…

Everybody is agitated over spectrum for telecom because it is all about money, rather big money, and has a cast of powerful players. Nobody is even faintly agitated about how the spectrum reserved for broadcasting is being used because the people affected are ordinary, even poor. Even as 2G and 3G spectrum continue to dominate public consciousness, the spectrum reserved for public service broadcasting and community broadcasting is a story of massively wasted potential, stifled by the government. But that arouses no indignation at all.

Terrestrial broadcasting spectrum in 60-plus years of independence has been monopolised by the government and what it calls a public service broadcaster. There is additional terrestrial broadcasting spectrum available but no government has had the vision or gumption to let others — private or public — deploy it. Last fortnight, when the President's decision put the head of Prasar Bharati on the road to removal by permitting a Supreme Court inquiry against him, it marked a very sorry culmination of an experiment begun 13 years ago. One of giving people the kind of broadcasting they were thought to deserve. Something better and freer than State-owned broadcasting.

Too many compromises

A couple of years after the Supreme Court decreed that the airwaves belonged to the people, a process of creating an autonomous broadcaster to serve the public interest culminated in an act of parliament creating Prasar Bharati. Under it come the terrestrial frequencies permitted for broadcasting. Some compromises went into passing the Act, many compromises have followed in bringing the idea of autonomy to life.

Every Chief Executive Officer appointed by a high level selection committee in those 13 years has been a former bureaucrat. Under the UPA's dispensation, even the Chairperson of the Board selected was a former bureaucrat. Tell the ministry officials that and they will tell you that administrative ability is also required to head a broadcasting organisation, something a media professional may not have.

Every minister has failed to rise above partisan considerations in selecting the Prasar Bharati Board. Beginning with Jaipal Reddy in 1997. And the UPA government has cheerfully changed the rules of the Act to allow it to oust a chairperson appointed by a BJP government. Autonomy all the way!

That apart, the experiment delivered neither autonomous functioning, nor quality. The Act had sought to insulate the Chief Executive from whimsical removal by the government of the day. In the case of Mr. B. S. Lalli, the current CEO, it worked to insulate him from accountability to the Board he was supposed to be governed by.

Before Prasar Bharati came into existence, the people selected to head Doordarshan and All India Radio used to be serving government officers, often from the IAS. Post autonomy this continued. The institutions did not, alas, magically transform into quality-conscious professional outfits. They did not develop an alternate agenda to commercial television. They did not cease to project the ruling party. And now their disillusioned employees are clamouring to go back to being proper government servants.

In the case of telecom, the airwaves belong to those with money or influence or both. In the case of broadcasting, they belong, at least de facto, to government and nobody has cared to challenge that. When the government decides to make some money off spectrum it sells FM radio licences. The short answer to how broadcasting spectrum reserved for public service fared is, poorly. It was not put in the right hands to create useful, and imaginative broadcasting.

The government also set up a regulator for telecom spectrum and gave him oversight of broadcasting. What became the norm for selection of the regulator? Former bureaucrats, of course!

Neglected segment

And then there is the sorry story of community radio and lost opportunities in it.

In 2002, the BJP government conceded that a big, vibrant, democracy like India with a large rural population should have community radio, utilising spectrum available for local frequencies. But since the government is always fearful of the intentions of common folk, it decided to begin by permitting community radio on educational campuses. And decreeing that these should serve development purposes. A few years later the government of the day came up with an official community radio policy. And five radio frequencies were earmarked by the Wireless Planning and Coordination wing of the Ministry of Communications for community radio.

Next step: deciding who can be trusted to broadcast at the village or mohalla level. Oh dear, what if they fall into the wrong hands? So today, with about 120 licences given, two thirds are on educational campuses! And they are not allowed to cater to their communities who are students. The CR policy says they must do Development. With a capital D. The potential is for 4,000 licenses, at least.

Last week community radio people from all over the country converged in New Delhi to discuss with each other and the government how the sector was developing. The short answer was that it isn't. Licenses are not given unless the government is convinced about sustainability. Or bona fide intentions.

Having earmarked spectrum for rural communities the government has five ministries vetting applications so that they do not fall into the wrong hands. And guess what, all applications from Jharkhand are not being processed because of objections from the Home Ministry! No prizes for guessing what will happen to applications that might come from Chattisgarh or Kashmir.

The government has also decreed that community broadcasters cannot broadcast news at the level of their community. Not political news, an official clarified. “You can discuss community needs.” So someone rose to point out that all debates on development are political in nature. And others pointed out that the ban on news and current affairs (which applies currently to both FM and community radio) is unconstitutional.

Said one of the stalwarts of the Community Radio Forum, the purpose of CR is to give people a voice. “One way extremism can be contained is by allowing people to talk about issues.” And another pointed out pithily that the “wrong hands” are not waiting for a licence from GOI to function.

Telecom spectrum, despite scams may have created a communications revolution. Terrestrial broadcasting spectrum alas, is creating no revolution of any kind.

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Sunday MagazineJune 28, 2012