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Broadcasting woes

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If we are to transform India, a realist or ‘Patelist’ engagement with the rest of the world is what we must implement; engaging the world from strength while recognising reality for what it is, foreswearing hubris and belligerence”, remarked Shiv Shankar Menon during the Patel Memorial Lecture of All India Radio last year. India in effect continues with Sardar Patel appreciation against taking the Kashmir issue to the United Nations and has been successful in averting international manipulation in our internal affairs.  In the recent past, reports appeared in sections of the press that our neighbours are active in rolling controversies and possible resentment for rehabilitating surrendered militants via Nepal. Yasin Bhatkal's revelation of Nepal remaining the favoured nation for transiting members of the Indian Mujahideen further fuelled diplomatic irritation.

The most disturbing vilification campaign alleging torture of Nepalese people whipping up local sentiments and a number of FM stations with content paid up by vested interests and mixing attractive Bollywood stuff in Nepal are psy weapons that merit the nation's intervention. Gorkhas of Nepalese origin have shared triumphs and sorrows battling in all theatres of operations as part of the glorious Indian Army. As of today, there seems to be no coordinated trans-border broadcast policy to air either views or the stand point of the nation. India’s National Public Broadcaster, Prasar Bharati, continues to be sub-optimally utilised.

After Independence and up to the eighties, the External Services Division of AIR functioned in close coordination with MEA through External Publicity Division with greater interaction between the two keeping in view foreign policy requirements, dynamics of foreign relations, and priorities set from time to time.

Due to its colonial links with England, AIR entered the domain of external broadcast in 1939 purely as a tool for propaganda for the allies during World War II with service in Pushto language in order to counter German Radio blitzkrieg and complement the efforts of the BBC in this region.  When the theatre of operation expanded to South East Asia and East Asia by 1945, External Services Division had a total of 22 language services.  The importance waned once the War ended, plummeting from 22 to just 10 languages. The capacity of ESD remains to cover 100 countries with coverage of 75% of world population in 16 foreign and 11 Indian languages with a targeted audience of 9 neighbouring countries comfortably.

But gone are the days of diplomatic bags overflowing with letters addressed by radio audiences from all over the world to External Service Division of AIR. The Urdu Service widely popular among Pakistan and at home is in a state of disarray and listeners’ feedback has become a trickle. Chinese domination in the visual and audio medium is of concern since a substantial Arunachalee tribal population living in East Syong, Tirap, Changlong, Ajnow, Lohit, Upper and Lower Dibang Valleys could access Chinese TV channels of  High Power Transmissions from Chinese territory whereas our own Doordarshan, Itanagar, covers a few kilometres through Low Power Terrestrial Transmission. However there being no impediment to satellite TV through DTH, the case for Set Top Boxes for DD free Dish is indispensable if Prasar Bharati has to prudently cover the North East. It is our national duty to reach inaccessible terrain inhabited by tribal Indians in and around Tawang who witnessed chaotic battle scenes during the 1962 operation and upper reaches near Leh, Ladakh.

In the changing scenario of popularity of FM channels compared to Medium Wave and Short Wave transmissions, the country needs to shift its primary broadcast to FM radio with relevant content retaining its own and traditionally loyal trans-border audience. There are more than 150 independent Radio Stations operating in Nepal. If India has to retain audience base in Nepal, augmentation of transmission power and number of FM stations is necessary as of yesterday.  As far as Bhutan, English added on to Dzonka could cover the whole population with increased presence of FM.  In times of crisis, it is AIR, BBC or Indian satellite channels which are tuned into in Pakistan for credible news; Maj Gen Mohd Azam Asif of PAK Army observed once, substantiating the relevance of AIR.

Coverage of regional content, news and current events for external audience could only succeed with local dialect and flavour. There is all round apathy about external radio broadcast of ESD among all stakeholders including MEA, resulting in progressive decline of our broadcast as an instrument of diplomacy relegated to the background, adversely impacting its performance, notwithstanding the historic role played.  It is unfortunate and ironic that our external broadcast is touching the nadir at a time worldwide efforts are on to re-invent the importance of external broadcast expanding and consolidating their position, adopting the newest of technologies including new media to meet the changing realities of international politics.

Complete dismantling or discontinuation of external broadcast may not be in the larger national interest and may turn out to be throwing the baby with the bucket of water. Credible assessment of external audience indicates decline in short wave and medium wave, suffers clarity due to concrete congestion and sky scrapers in Urban India and the neighbourhood. Simulcasting in FM, web streaming, proliferation in internet and availability in hand held devices would rejuvenate AIR. Unless ESD functions with regular interaction from stakeholders like MEA, MoD, MHA, meeting the needs of foreign policy and priorities, the vast infrastructural wealth of the nation in the hands of Prasar Bharati will continue to be wasted, risking its painful death. The nation has a duty and great opportunity to revisit and formulate an integrated policy on our external broadcast which is in the Government domain.

(These are purely personal views of the writer and do not represent the official views of Prasar Bharati and indiantelevision.com does not subscribe to these views)

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