Sevanti Ninan

Media Matters - Questionable reforms

"Sordid state of affairs?” Photo: S. Subramanium  

Once badly bitten, twice shy. A ministry and minister that spent much of 2010 trying to rein in suspended Prasar Bharati CEO B.S. Lalli, are now looking to amend the Prasar Bharati Act which made it difficult to remove him. While Mr. Lalli is under suspension for questionable deals and contracts related to the Commonwealth Games, Ambika Soni and her officials are trying to prevent a repeat of a situation where autonomy mandated by law makes top officials difficult to remove.

The Ministry of Information and Broadcasting has proposed amendments to the Prasar Bharati Act to the Group of Ministers on Prasar Bharati. The goal is to increase the powers of the government over the supposedly autonomous broadcaster, and to use the current vacuum at the operational level to give the ministry leverage in the Prasar Bharati Board. At this point there is neither a CEO, nor Diretor Generals for All India Radio and Doordarshan.

Last week a Group of Ministers was to meet (this column is being written before their meeting) to consider some proposals put forth by the ministry. The trigger for this rethinking on the corporation's structure has been the report of the Shunglu Committee on CWG-related financial irregularities allegedly committed by Prasar Bharati's officers. This report followed on the heels of a CAG report which also questioned commercial decisions taken by Prasar Bharati. The Ministry note talks of the “sordid state of affairs in Prasar Bharati in conducting transaction of its business.” Strong language, to justify the curtailing of autonomy.

More power to the government

So what is it proposing? That the appointing authority for the Prasar Bharati Board should be the central government, instead of the President of India. That the tenures of the CEO and three other fulltime members on the Prasar Bharati board be reduced from six years to three. The act currently makes it really difficult to remove a Prasar Bharati member, hence the proposal to shorten the term. This bit has been softened by proposing that they would be eligible for another term. If they turn out to be sufficiently amenable, doubtess.

The Ministry is also proposing that the Director Generals of Doordarshan and All India Radio be removed from the Prasar Bharati Board. They are now ex officio members. There is currently a provision for two employee representatives on the Board, these two are to be also removed. (It is another matter that the unions do not nominate representatives to the board because they do not recognise Prasar Bharati and are agitating for the corporation to become a government department again.) A whole time member for technology is being proposed.

Currently the enquiry against a suspended member is supposed to be conducted by the Supreme Court on the reference of the President of India. This is to be changed to make this an enquiry by the Central Government!

Though it is a professional broadcasting organisation the IAS bureaucracy is already well entrenched in Prasar Bharati, autonomy notwithstanding. The fact is that the corporation has been headed by this service for all of its 13-year existence. But the retired officials who were selected as CEOs tended to become independent when it suited them. So until the enquiry against the suspended CEO B.S. Lalli is complete the person holding charge will not be one of the whole time members on the Prasar Bharati Board but the current Additional Secretary in the ministry who happens to be the ministry's nominee to the P B Board.

The acting CEO Rajiv Takru now wears two hats: one as an Additional Secretary, and another as executive head of an autonomous corporation. Wearing one hat he has to ensure the PB board does not become too wayward, wearing another he has to resist the ministry's pressure on the board.

The appointment has resulted in open hostilities between him and the Member Finance of the corporation, an IAS officer two years senior to him. The latter has filed a case in the Delhi High Court against both the corporation and the acting CEO. It is not the only piece of litigation in which the corporation is currently embroiled. The aspirant for the job of Director General of All India Radio has gone to the Central Appellate Tribunal after a curious set of developments.

In mid-March the Prasar Bharati Board interviewed candidates for the posts of Director Generals of Doordarshan and All India Radio and forwarded their names to the Government of India, listing them in a numbered order which could be read as the sequence of preference, though that was not spelt out. Candidates from the Indian Broadcasting Programme Service headed both lists. Nine signatures of board members, including that of the Additional Secretary who was acting CEO were appended to that recommendation. It was forwarded to the ministry by the Member, Personnel of the Board.

But a few days later on March 21, all nine members found themselves being asked to sign another page of recommendation pertaining to the same meeting, in which the order of candidates listed was changed to prioritise two IAS officers for the post of DG Doordarshan over the name of the IBPS candidate! The candidate originally listed first for the post of DG All India Radio also found himself relegated to second position and has promptly gone to the Central Appellate Tribunal. One of the IAS officers prioritised in the second list has also made himself a party in that case, along with the other IBPS candidate for DG Doordarshan.

The affairs of the corporation are currently being run by sub-committees appointed by the Prasar Bharati Board which is headed by journalist Mrinal Pande. Part time members now perform executive functions, including signing files. Since the board is currently at loggerheads with the Member Finance (who has gone to the High Court) the finance committee has a journalist and a doctor member signing off on financial matters, guided by the General Manager, Finance of the corporation. Then last week the Member Finance suddenly reasserted himself and sent around a circular citing observations made by the High Court and asking that files relating to financial matters be routed through him. But the fact is that the High Court has refused to stay the functioning of the committees created by the Board.

In a fix

Meanwhile, the case of the former Director General, Aruna Sharma, who was indicted by the Shunglu Committee, along with B.S. Lalli, with regard to contractual decisions made for the Commonwealth Games, awaits resolution. After the Shunglu Committee's report on her role, the Prime Minister said she should be repatriated to her parent cadre so she exited as DG. The next logical step was that the ministry recommend that she be investigated by the CBI. But it has not done that. Partly because in a strident defence of her actions Sharma has said that decisions being laid at her door were taken by the oversight committee which had both Minister Soni and Law Minister Moily as members! That puts the ministry in a bit of fix.

So a ministry official suddenly shot off a letter to the Prasar Bharati Board asking whether the three member committee it had set up on Prasar Bharati functioning had taken a view on what could be done about DG Sharma. The chairperson wrote back and pointed out that while the Board had set up a committee to look at systems in Prasar Bharati and fix culpability of individuals if possible, the fact was that the ministry had never even given it a copy of the Shunglu report! Thereafter the Board met and decided that it did not have the time or expertise to decide on this matter within a reasonable time frame.

While the tug of war continues, two new members have been nominated to the Board. One is the former CEO of Tata Sky, who is expected to be valuable at a time that Prasar Bharati is adding 200 channels to its DTH bouquet. The second new member will be the current director of IIM Ahmedabad, who again is expected to give a much-needed management advice to a broadcaster with 12,000 vacancies and 38,000 mostly disgruntled employees, some of whom have not received a single promotion in over 20 years.

A chief vigilance officer is also being appointed, presumably to forestall further scams, and a company secretary who will have the challenging task servicing a Board whose meetings result in multiple versions of minutes!

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Printable version | Aug 3, 2021 6:55:33 PM |

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