THE Hindu recently (September 19) carried a full-page article on Prasar Bharati, wondering whether the Government of India can really afford to run the organisation. Sevanti Ninan, a well-known media critic, who wrote the piece, wanted to know how come this country’s experiment with an autonomous public broadcaster has come to such a sorry pass, which is exactly what Prasar Bharati has now come to be, as anyone can tell.
To begin with, consider this: In August, according to Ninan, “the Minister for Information and Broadcasting recommended the dismissal of Prasar Bharati’s Chief Executive, to the Prime Minister”. The Chief Executive (CEO), one Shri BS Lalli, runs the show as if it is his personal fief. To quote Ninan: “The Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) has found colourful examples of autonomous functioning of the CEO and his colleagues, amounting to questionable financial dealings. And the Board set up to oversee Prasar Bharati finds itself in a quirky position. The desions it takes are simply not recorded by the CEO who records the Minutes. A huge democracy that set out to give itself broadcasting autonomy has ended up giving one man, autonomy, through the tenures to three different chairpersons”. And even more relevantly, Ninan adds: “Though found guilty of presiding over highly suspicious decision-making by the CVC, the next step, that of suspension, so that an equiry can take place, has not been taken. The leaders of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha and Rajya Sabha, both former Ministers of Information and Broadcasting, should be asking why”. And that is a very valid question. And what are the facts? The CVC conducted its enquiry, after receiving a reference from the Prasar Bharati Board, on the direction of the Delhi High Court which was hearing a case of financial wrong-doing in Prasar Bharati. The CVC, it is claimed, upheld most of the charges against the CEO as valid.
The I & B Ministry recommended the removal of the CEO. All that needs to be done is for the Government of India to refer the matter to the Supreme Court for a final ruling, as stipulated in the Prasar Bharati Act. The average citizen has the right to ask why this is not being done. The point has been made that at the time of notifying the rules of the Corporation in 1998 “there was a goof-up while defining the powers of the CEO which ended up giving him more powers than the Prasar Bharati Board”. At the same it is held in theory, if the Board gave the CEO powers, that same Board can take them away from him. The present incumbent to the job has been treating the Board with total disdain, bordering on contempt.
The Government has three options: One is for the Government immediately to refer the CEO’s case to the Supreme Court. It may or may not end up in his dismissal, but at least a decision would have been seen to be taken by the authorities. The second, and more relevant, option is for the Government to amend the Prasar Bharati Act to make it clear beyond any recall, that the final authority is the Board, and NOT the CEO, his sole duty being to carry out the Board’s decisions efficiently and unquestioningly. That puts any future CEO in his place, as your obedient servant. The third option is to scrap the Prasar Bharati Board and treat Doordarshan as just one more government department to be run down by illiterate babus. At least this will give the over 38,000 employees some relief. They can claim to be regular government servants, entitled to all the perks associated with their position, even if it costs the tax payer an annual bill of Rs 3,000 crore. Presently their situation is anamolous.
The trouble is that the government wants the babus to run the show, even when they are unfit for the job. Pranay Roy is not a babu. Nor is Rajdeep Sardesai, nor Barqa Dutt. They are professionals who know what news is even if they may occasionally cross the Laxman rekha; but no one can challenge their credentials. Babus are different. It is one thing to administer an organisation and quite another to be a leader in the field of communication which requires imagination and the ability to take quick decisions. Judging from one’s knowledge of such IAS officers one has had the doubtful privilege of working with, the conduct of Prasar Bharati either as Directors General or CEOs is beyond their capacity. The jobs should go to professional journalists whether in the print or electronic media, or should be filled through promotion within the system.
It is a sheer sign of obvious stupidity to think that an IAS officer who has served several terms as Secretary of this or that Ministry is automatically entitled to serve in the capacity of CEO of Prasar Bharati. To expect these characters as entitled to be guides to programme-planners is plainly ridiculous. In the year 2005, the then Broad unanimously agreed that Doordarshan should run a series of programmes to highlight the great changes that had taken place in various fields in India since 1857. The series was to be run in 2007, exactly one hundred and fifty years since the War of Independence. The Board gave plenty of time for the top officers to get on with the job. The concerned IAS officers deliberately sabotaged the resolution. It not only showed the extent to which Minsiters are influenced by officials, but their calculated disrespect for the Board whose unanimous resolution was ignored. It was clear that the IAS officers felt inadequate to take on a major project and did not want to take risks. Their cowardice was obvious. But where was no way for the Board to punish the officers for their dereliction of duty.
What presently is sad is that the Government should ignore the findings of the Central Vigilance Commission and let the present CEO continue in office. It is an insult to the public and an affront to good governance. There is a gathering suspicion that the current CEO was deliberately planted in the organisation to show the irrelevance of the Prasar Bharati Act. The most decent thing that the government can do is to scrap the Act and show some honesty in public behaviour. It can then enthrone mediocrity in public service and show its true colours. The Central Vigilance Commission is apparently irrelevant as is increasingly becoming evident these days.