An intervention by Prasar Bharati, the autonomous public service broadcaster, after a public outcry has led to the reversing of a Ministry of Information and Broadcasting Ministry order effectively closing down seven Regional News Units (RNUs) under All India Radio.
The Ministry’s August 9 order was part of a series of ‘restructuring’ changes over the last month leading to the closure of 19 offices across its three organs — Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI), Press Information Bureau (PIB) and All India Radio (AIR).
The changes at AIR, however, brought the Ministry into direct conflict with Prasar Bharati. Just days after the Ministry order relocating 19 Indian Information Service officers without mentioning a destination, resulting in the closure of seven RNUs and ending the presence of AIR correspondents in five towns, AIR Director General (News) Sitanshu Kar sent an ‘Important Advisory’ that the affected RNUs “are hereby requested to continue with their normal services such as news bulletins, and programmes etc as usual till further orders.” He also wrote that the same would apply to affected correspondents. “This is issued on the direction of Chairman, Prasar Bharati,” he added.
“The decision to close the Regional News Units of the AIR has been kept in abeyance by the Minister. The decision was taken on Friday,” Frank Noronha, Director General of PIB and principal spokesperson of the government, told The Hindu on Saturday.
Responding to the decision, Prasar Bharati Chairman A. Surya Prakash said the Ministry’s decision came after he wrote to Union Minister for Information and Broadcasting M Venkaiah Naidu. “I wrote to the Minister in response to a public outcry: Prakash Javedekar and Vinay Sahasrabuddhe were among those who called me expressing concern. I thank the Minister for his decision,” he said, speaking to The Hindu.
PIB offices closed
Other wings of the I&B Ministry have, however, faced the axe with the first of three orders passed just nine days after Mr. Naidu took charge on July 5. The government moved to close all five field offices of the Registrar of Newspapers for India (RNI) with effect from July 30.
Officers at the State units of the Press Information Bureau were given additional charge of the Registrar of Newspapers. On August 2, the MIB ordered the closure of seven of the PIB’s 34 branch offices — the Cuttack, Indore, Kota, Kanpur, Madurai, Rajkot and Nanded offices have been asked to end operations by August 31.
The August 9 order on AIR units led to widespread condemnation, as it would have ended the AIR’s presence in towns which have a long emotional bond with the radio broadcaster.
The RNUs at Indore, Pune, Dibugarh, Bhuj, Dharwad, Trichy and Kozhikode were to be closed while Allahabad, Pauri, Jalandhar, Patiala and Coimbatore would have ceased to have correspondents.
Copies of the August 11 Prasar Bharati order have not been marked to the MIB. “The Ministry makes appointments in the news division while Prasar Bharati makes all other appointments.
However, it looks like the MIB did not even consult Prasar Bharati before taking the decision to close the Regional News Units (RNUs),” said an officer in one of the three affected bodies who did not want to be named.
A senior Prasar Bharati official confirmed that the organisation considered the Ministry's decision as an intrusion on its autonomy.
“It is the Ministry's prerogative to transfer its officials. However, it is up to the Prasar Bharati to ensure that there is no break in our programming," he said.
The Prasar Bharati has no plans to end programming in any centre, the official said.
“Dharwad, for example, is the cultural capital of Karnataka. The fishermen rely on our Tiruchi programming for information," said the official.
An MIB spokesperson requesting anonymity said the changes were part of a streamlining effort.
“This was a good way of strengthening the PIB. The government has to keep reinventing itself and make better utilisation of resources,” he said, refuting suggestions that the Prasar Bharati had not been taken into confidence: “There is a lot of understanding that goes into any decision the government takes.” Before the AIR order was in kept in abeyance, in all, 24 cities and towns across 13 States have been affected by the changes made by the MIB. Tamil Nadu stood to lose the most, with Chennai losing an RNI field office and Madurai the PIB's branch, Trichy, AIR's RNU and Coimbatore, an AIR Correspondent.
The move has caught the officers affected unawares. Earlier this year, the Additional Director General at the Chennai PIB requested the opening of a new office. “It is requested that a new PIB branch office may please be opened in the UT of Puducherry which is the only Union Territory having a Legislative Assembly,” wrote ADG K. Muthu Kumar on March 3. Instead of a new office, the region stands to lose the Madurai branch.
The Registrar of Newspapers office in Chennai is already understaffed, with just three officials.
Blow to Tamil Nadu
“Tamil Nadu has a total of 8,225 titles and the office verifies 80-100 titles a months. They are already not able to perform surprise checks. When officers of the PIB take over, they will not be able to keep up,” said an officer familiar with the working of the RNI.
He added that if reforms were on the MIB’s mind, it could have given the new State offices the power to issue certificates; applications are still being forwarded to Delhi for allotting registration numbers.