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Road fraught with political & bureaucratic potholes for new MIB secy

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For a person taking charge as the head of bureaucracy in any Ministry, perhaps the biggest challenge is to put aside his or her own personal views and get down to translating the decisions of the Government and the Minister into action.

However, this becomes even more onerous when there are tasks that have to be accomplished within just a few months.

For senior Indian Administrative Services (IAS) officer Sunil Arora, who is slated to take over as secretary in the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting (MIB) from 1 September, the first major task looming over him is Phase III of the Digital Addressable System (DAS) for Cable TV, which has to be accomplished within four months. 

Arora is an IAS officer from the Rajasthan cadre of the 1980 batch. His immediate predecessor - Bimal Julka belongs to the 1979 batch from Madhya Pradesh. Julka took over his post in the MIB in July 2013 when Uday Kumar Varma retired.

DAS PHASE III

Even though the present government changed the deadlines for the last two phases of DAS, the stakeholders do not appear to be ready for it. There is still a dire shortage of compatible set top boxes (STBS), and there has been little headway despite the incentives offered under the Make in India scheme. Even at present, a large number of local cable operators (LCOs) are having to work with poor quality STBs made in China or other countries. 

Added to that is the fact that a large number of broadcasters, multi system operators (MSOs), and LCOs still have to work out their agreements – an issue further complicated by the directives of the Telecom Disputes Settlement and Arbitration Tribunal (TDSAT), which wants a re-look at the tariffs.

It is also a fact that analogue transmission continues in many parts of cities and towns that have gone digital and the Government has failed to get the stay of DAS in Chennai vacated. 

TRAI

Although these are issues that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) is dealing with, all decisions relating to the broadcasting sector can only be effective if there is proper coordination between the regulator and the Ministry. This effectively means there has to be a quick response to any issues that either parties raise to the other, if deadlines have to be met.

Other issues pending before TRAI relating to broadcasting include the need to reconsider the foreign direct investment (FDI) norms for media, shortage of spectrum, a growing demand by states seeking permissions to start their own television channels despite the TRAI having opined against it twice since 2008. 

Although broadcasting duties were handed over to TRAI just over a decade back, it is also clear that the Ministry will have to consider whether there is need to form a broadcasting-specific body as TRAI is primarily a body set up for the telecom sector. If the Government decides to continue with TRAI handling both portfolios, the Regulator will be under pressure from the MIB to strengthen its broadcasting team and also ensure greater coordination among officers in both broadcasting and telecom.    

With convergence of technologies becoming a reality, and with issues of spectrum already bringing telecom and broadcasting together, the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) Government has again begun to talk about convergence and this is bound to gather pace over the next two years.

SPECTRUM

Though the Defence Ministry has in principle agreed to hand over some spectrum and swap some other spectrum, the whole process is caught up in bureaucratic wrangles. If the Ministry wants to continue with its policy of ensuring there are no caps on the number of television and FM radio channels or direct-to-home (DTH) and Headend in the Sky (HITS) platforms in the country, the issue of spectrum will need early solution. 

FM RADIO AUCTION

The Government is in the midst of the FM Radio e-auction, and is committed to continue the process till all slots in the first stage of Phase III – of 69 cities, which already have FM channels - are completed. With at least 13 cities failing to get even a single bid, the new secretary may have to find ways of either lowering the reserve price for those cities or move those cities to the next stage. 

The fact that the cumulative winnings from the channels auctioned so far has exceeded the reserve price by more 100 per cent is undoubtedly a matter of great satisfaction, but some cities failing to attract bidders remains to be an irritant.

AD CAP

The matter of enforcing the advertising cap of 12 minutes an hour is already before the Courts, but the Ministry may have to do a rethink in the light of the I&B Minister Arun Jaitley having said that he was opposed to ad caps on the print or electronic media, and because the free-to-air channels (most of which are news channels) have already expressed their opposition to this. TRAI had failed to get permission to take action against television channels violating its diktat of the total of 12 minutes of commercial and promotional advertisements every hour, though all broadcasters were asked to keep records of this by the Delhi High Court. 

SPREAD OF FM RADIO vs DRM

Even as All India Radio (AIR) has spent crores of rupees on the digitised Digital Radio Mondiale (DRM), Prasar Bharati feels that Frequency Modulation (FM), which is an analogue technology should be promoted until the nation is ready for digital radio sets. The Ministry can resolve this issue only if it can ensure adequate manufacturing at affordable process of DRM sets under the Make in India programme. Until then, this continues to be a thorn in the already dicey relations between the public service broadcaster and the Ministry.

COMMUNITY RADIO

More than a decade has elapsed since the introduction of community radio, but the number of operational stations still remain very low. To boost this sector, the Government introduced a new scheme last year for funding community radio, but bureaucratic wrangles continue to hold up the smooth implementation of this scheme. 

PRASAR BHARATI & THE MINISTRY

On paper, as per the Prasar Bharati (Broadcasting Corporation of India) Act 1990, it is clear that the pubcaster is autonomous. However, in reality this appears quite contrary.

On the one hand, as a measure to help the pubcaster, a Group of Ministers had decided that persons employed as on 5 October, 2007 will get the salary and pension from Government funds. However, for employees who joined after that date, Prasar Bharati was left to fend for itself.  

Since Prasar Bharati is listed as an autonomous company under the Ministry, this means – and it appears so even from the manner in which questions relating to the pubcaster are answered in Parliament – that there is dispute on what real autonomy is.

Prasar Bharati CEO Jawhar Sircar – a former bureaucrat himself – feels the government does not given him full freedom and there is interference at every level and has said so either in speeches in articles by him or others in the pubcaster.

While there is generally full autonomy as far as content goes, there are allegedly checks and balances placed by the government in administrative matters. 

Journalists on the Parliamentary beat are often flabbergasted by the fact that when it suits the Government, a reply will say that the pubcaster is an autonomous body, and yet there are times when the Government has intervened even in appointments in Prasar Bharati.

FOREIGN DIRECT INVESTMENT

The TRAI had given its recommendations for an increased FDI in many sectors of the media in a report in July 2013. Although there was some change by the Government earlier this year, it has still not implemented the FDI report of TRAI in full.  

SECURITY CLEARANCE

While the Home Ministry has decided it is doing away with security clearance for MSOs, it has not taken a decision as far television channels are concerned. While the issue relating to foreign ownership can be understood, the denial of security clearance to Sun TV continues to flummox everyone in the media.

It is generally felt that an accused is not guilty till proven, but the Home Ministry and the MIB appear to have decided that the Maran brothers should be denied security clearance despite the fact that the cases against them have no relation to the security of the country, and are in fact an incursion on the freedom of the media. Even the Supreme Court while permitting Sun Group companies to take part in the FM auction said so.

PAID NEWS

It is now almost five years since the issue of paid news became the talk of the town. The Press Council of India set up a committee, which even gave recommendations, and a Parliamentary Panel along the Election Commission also wanted some steps to be taken to stop this. However, there has been no tangible action so far in this matter.

FILM INDUSTRY

The film industry has been raising similar issues year after year. As far as taxation issues were concerned, it was hoped that the Goods and Services Tax (GST), when implemented will help. But the way the matter is stuck in Parliament forces the industry to just wait and watch.

Entertainment tax is another issue on which there has been no unanimity and states have different taxes. About a decade earlier a proposal for bringing cinema into the Concurrent List of the Constitution might have solved the problem, but most states opposed the idea. 

In a country producing around 1000 feature films every year, apart from the large number of films from overseas, India still suffers from an acute shortage of theatres, with the number less than 11,000. With the high rates of ticketing charged by the multiplexes, the average cinegoer is denied the pleasure of seeing a film in a cinema hall. 

All attempts to curb video piracy appear to have failed because the film industry and the government have failed to work together to curb the menace. This in turn means huge losses for the makers of bold films unless there are big stars to lure the audiences.

The Film Museum has been in the planning and making for more than a decade, but it does not appear that the Museum planned for 2013 to coincide with a centenary of cinema will see the light of day for at least a couple more years.

The Film and Television Institute of India (FTII) has been caught in a logjam that just refuses to untangle. The appointment of a Chairperson, who was said to be close to the ruling party, is what triggered the issue, but the continued struggle has led to the police making an entry into the campus in Pune. 

Clearly, the new MIB secretary has his job cut out for him and will have to tread carefully on the long road ahead – but it is not without political or bureaucratic potholes that can hold up even his best intentions.

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