Television

"Coda will become the single, most powerful national association of cable operators in the country" : Anil Parab Cable Operators and Distributors Association president

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Shiv Sena Vibhag Pramukh and Coda (Cable Operators and Distributors Association) president Anil Parab is the man of the hour - at least for many cable operators and distributors in Mumbai. With the backing of his mentor Sena supremo Balasaheb Thackeray, Parab has managed to stall the conditional access system (CAS) that came into force (in south Mumbai) from 1 September 2003.

Parab is an advocate by profession and the only person representing the cable operators in the Central government appointed 18-member CAS task implementation committee.

By virtue of being the proprietor of Dattatray Cable (operations in Mumbai's suburban areas), Parab had a good understanding of the issues pertaining to the cable consumers and the operators. Little wonder, Thackeray gave him charge of the movement against CAS.

Under the auspices of Coda, Parab organised three meetings of the cable operators in Mumbai with the most recent one at Rang Sharda auditorium, Bandra Reclamation, Mumbai on 7 September 2003. The meeting was attended by top Sena leaders like Uddhav Thackeray, Subhash Desai, Sena member of Parliament Sanjay Nirupam, amongst others.

Parab spoke to indiantelevision.com's Ashwin Kotian about various issues.

Excerpts:

Tell us about yourself?

I was born and brought up in Mumbai, Bandra (east) and my office is located just next to Chetana College in Kalanagar, Bandra (East) in suburban Mumbai. Since my childhood days, I have been associated with senior Sena leaders due to the fact that I stayed in an area very close to Balasaheb's residence Maatoshree. I obtained a law degree from New Law College, Mumbai. During my college days, I used to get actively involved in the affairs of the Bharatiya Vidyarthi Sena. I worked with the trade unions like Maharashtra Shramik Sena for 15 years before getting into the cable TV business in the mid-1990s. Initially, I worked on piracy related issues related to the cable and satellite industry. I was also associated with Cable Sena.

So how did you get entangled in the CAS issue?

When Balasaheb Thackeray gave a clarion call opposing CAS, like any other saccha (true) Shiv Sainik, I decided that I wouldn't rest till our leader's orders were followed. In the Sena, we don't question, we just follow instructions.

In fact, I was present when the information and broadcasting minister RS Prasad visited Balasaheb's residence with members of parliament Sanjay Nirupam and Pritish Nandy. Even then, Prasad had no answers when I posed him questions. He mentioned that the Delhi officials weren't aware of these ground level intricacies. Finally, Balasaheb asked Prasad to nominate me on the CAS task force.

Cable operators were fragmented in the first half of this year. You are the only person who managed to get them to rally around you. What was your strategy to bring them under a single umbrella?

I knew that the primary handicap was the lack of unity amongst the cable operators. The operators were disorganised and used to fight for trivial issues such as number of points and areas.

The key was to get the cable operators to trust us. I also used the experience gathered during my stint in trade unions. The methodology remains the same whether in mill unions or in the cable trade.

It was easy for me to inspire confidence because the cable operators knew that I had the backing of Balasaheb. I united the highly fragmented cable operators under Coda and took up cudgels against the unscrupulous multi-system operators who were dictating terms to the last mile operators.

The very first meeting of Coda received an overwhelming response from the cable operators. This encouraged me and gave me confidence. I realised that the issue was linked to bread and butter - therefore of primary importance.

"Why couldn't the highest body in one of the largest democratic countries of the world force these foreign broadcasters to toe the line?"

Do you feel that the I&B ministry has goofed up? Why?

The Sena is a part of the BJP-led alliance but the nature of our relationship still gives us the liberty to express our views when we feel that something is not quite right.

Basically, Prasad and other I&B ministry officials have been victims of incorrect information. Also, the ministry officials gave too much significance to those members of the CAS task force who used to merely say what the broadcasters or the multi-system operators (MSOs) wanted them to.

The CAS implementation fiasco has also exposed the lack of adequate homework done by the ministry - and the government's alienation of ground realities on the cable industry.

We still don't know why the minister is adamant about going ahead with CAS - wonder what are the obligations that are at play. Pay TV broadcasters treated the Central government ministry officials with disdain - one example is the fact that the minister had to literally beg the pay TV broadcasters to disclose their rates despite repeated reminders.

Why couldn't the highest body in one of the largest democratic countries of the world force these foreign broadcasters to toe the line? The government and ministry officials haven't been able to assert their strength and power.

The MSOs said that they were ready and the government believed them. Importing set top boxes and storing them in the godown is not a sign of readiness. How can the MSOs say they are ready when it is the cable operators who will have to sell it to the consumers?

The ministry officials knew the exact quantity needed to implement CAS in the four metros but they were content with the fact that the MSOs had imported just above a lakh (100,000) set top boxes. Was the government aware of the fact that a majority of consumers will stay away from STBs? In that case, why implement CAS at all? Again, how can this low number of STBs (107,000) indicate readiness?

Has the issue of commissions between the cable operators and MSOs and broadcasters been sorted out?

The MSOs have offered us certain commission structures and packages but haven't put anything in writing. Yes, we have given them a counter offer but they haven't reverted on this counter offer. The point remains that the last mile operator (LMO) should get a bulk of the commissions if you consider the average - I understand that the LMO will get more in the case of weaker channels and vice versa. But the point is we are supposed to be living in CAS that started as of 1 September; how can the government continue to ignore these happenings? The ministry seems to be content with the fact that CAS exists only on paper.

There is talk that the Sena is targeting one particular MSO. Is this true?

We are not targeting any MSO in particular - all of them are in the same bracket as far as we are concerned. If they don't look after our interests, Coda will react. Coda might have its own infrastructure in place. Financers are ready to fund us - some have already approached us but we are yet to take a decision.

Even if it happens, a separate Coda division will be formed and will comprise professionals from the industry. The point is that the Mumbai cable operator fraternity is united under the single Coda banner. Other associations in Delhi, Kolkata and Chennai are also in talks with us. Coda will become the single-most powerful national association of cable operators in the country.

"But, we shall not allow this to happen because such rate hikes affect cable operator-consumer relationships; lead to quarrels. Rate hikes will have to be routed through Coda in the near future"

Will Coda raise other issues too?

One hears rumours that pay TV broadcasters are planning to increase rates of bouquets irrespective of whether CAS happens or not. There is talk that the cable rates will touch Rs 600-700 per month soon. The government won't have the will or the inclination to stop these hikes. Consumers will suffer.

But, we shall not allow this to happen because such rate hikes affect cable operator-consumer relationships; lead to quarrels. Rate hikes will have to be routed through Coda in the near future.

I have spoken to the officials of the Prime Minister's office and the finance ministry officials about according industry status to the cable and satellite industry. This will be a part of the new initiatives that Coda will plan.

Will Coda support the Indian Media Group - association of Indian broadcasters?

We are always in favour anything that is Indian. We don't want the money to go outside the country. We will back the Indian Media Group but they must come with a concrete proposal that will benefit the LMOs.

What is Coda's next step on CAS?

The ball is in the government's court. All we have seen are half-hearted attempts by the ministry. The government has to forcefully make its stand clear. But, it shouldn't discriminate between the local cable operators and the foreign channels by having two separate rules/yardsticks for both.

"There is this eternal debate about the political control of propaganda vehicles"

Isn't there an ulterior motive in the Sena's attempt to control the cable distribution network - especially since elections are coming?

There is this eternal debate about the 'political' control of propaganda vehicles. The opposition parties claim that the ruling government misuses media; but face the same allegations when they come into power.

Yes, with elections around the corner and the proliferation of news channels, political parties need to make their presence felt through the medium of television. The cable distribution system is an important cog in this wheel. Also, the I&B ministry officials seem to lack the will-power to discipline erring broadcasters.

There has to be stricter controls over unwanted and unnecessary propagation - for instance Coda has opposed airing Pakistan's PTV. Similarly, we shall strive to retain the power (amongst the cable operators) to blank out harmful foreign propaganda that could be aired on news channels promoted by foreigners. Also, there is a need to reiterate and re-emphasise Indianness and Indian values.

Does the state BJP unit support the Sena's line as far as CAS is concerned? What about Kirit Somaiya?

BJP is our alliance partner in the state and at the centre. BJP member of parliament Kirit Somaiya raised the CAS issue to obtain political mileage but he did it in a haphazard way. He wasn't even aware of the ground-level issues. He put up banners praising CAS and misguided consumers. He hasn't even responded to my challenge of having an open debate with him on "whether CAS favours the consumer". I suppose he has got what he wanted because one doesn't hear much about him on the issue.

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