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Comment: Why it’s important for Rathore at MIB to walk the (sports) talk

MIB referring to TRAI issue of temporary uplinking can impact Khelo India initiative

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He may have started the #HumFitToh IndiaFit campaign that went viral on social media last month and had celebs and plebs posting images of their health routine. He may also be a comparatively low-profile minister in the PM Modi cabinet who has delivered on various fronts, including being proactive on issues relating to sports. But Minister of Information & Broadcasting and Youth Affairs & Sports Rajyavardhan Rathore now needs to bring his Olympian attitude-to-succeed and political astuteness to marry the various causes his two ministries espouse.

Though he has been around at MIB for some years now, acting as a junior to more high-profile ministers like Arun Jaitley and Smriti Irani, Rathore’s rise at MIB has lot to do with his success as minister of Youth Affairs and Sports. And, India’s broadcast and entertainment industry, still reeling under the after-effects of a slow economy and some economic policy decisions taken by the federal government, believed they may have found a messiah in Rathore when he was given independent charge of MIB a couple of months back. The arrival in the ministry of a new Secretary (Amit Khare) raised hopes further of removal of many artificial roadblocks created by the previous regime.

Many of the earlier and controversial moves by the Ministry, headed by former TV actress-turned-politician Smriti Irani had the broadcast industry, especially, in a bind and hindered unencumbered growth and expansion. Policy decisions like introduction of hiked processing fees, new classification of `regional’ channels, unofficially nudging TV channels and teleport operators to move operations from foreign to Indian satellites, centralization of regular approval processes, etc. sent the industry into a tailspin.

What was intriguing that though justified by the former minister and some bureaucrats, such moves in the MIB flew in the face of the present BJP-led government and PM Modi’s repeated assertions that India was taking policy steps to improve the country’s global ranking in the `Ease of Doing Business’ index. So much so that the Prime Minister’s Office  had to intervene and order a rollback of a MIB decision under Irani on online content and fake news.

Col. (retd.) Rathore as both the Sports and MIB Minister has all the powers at his command to take right steps for the development of sports culture in the country that has produced only a handful of Olympian medalists in individual sports --- he himself shot at a silver medal successfully. He has proved his determination in revamping school games with the successful conduct of `Khelo India’ (Play India), which is a holistic approach to prepare athletes from schools to Olympics.  It is aimed at achieving the twin objectives of mass participation and promotion of excellence in sports through competition on ground and slick packaging through TV sports channels to give the much needed exposure to emerging Indian talents in the sporting arena.

However, some critics have questioned his commitment to promote sports through media as despite being the Sports Minister, he didn’t protest when his senior at MIB  introduced in December 2017 a whopping Rs.100,000 as processing fee for channels telecasting live sporting events.

Given the fact that for the first time he has freedom and a free run to integrate promotion of sports with industry-friendly media policies, it is hoped that he uses the time wisely and work to fulfil the Prime Minister’s ambitious goal of making India both a global media and entertainment hub, and a sporting power.

The lifeline of a sports channel is to have at least three or four live sports properties in a day and channels like Star Sports and Sony-ESPN excel in such a lineup. But a high processing fee per channel per day for live telecasting sporting events could soon make such business decisions unviable for sports channels; especially when they not only invest in telecast rights, but also building up properties from the scratch --- Pro Kabaddi League, Pro Wrestling League and Ultimate Table Tennis are prime examples of this model. High fees, which also include temporary uplinking costs incurred on government permissions and technologies, not only put heavy burden on sports channels but also act as a dis-incentive to invest in other non-cricket and emerging sports like badminton, table tennis, weightlifting, boxing, basketball, gymnastics, football and athletics.

Unlike in developed countries, the governing bodies in India that are running these non-cricket sports mostly survive on government grants and fail to attract major sponsors or TV channels as partners for promotional activities. Some of the recent policy decisions of MIB (in the form of high processing fee and creation of artificial barriers) have further disincentivized TV sports channels in joining hands with sports federations to showcase sporting competitions with a view to give a platform to emerging talents and bring more audience to the television screens and also on the ground.  

If the government --- and the MIB ---believes that those managing and telecasting games like cricket can afford to pay the high processing fees and, thus, should be taxed is an argument that’s flawed. It is like in aiming to punish a high performer --- also admittedly a bit controversial ---for its success, the government has, in reality, managed to end up pushing those low-profile but potential target-sports further down. Controversies and opaqueness notwithstanding, it cannot be wished away that India’s cricket administrative body BCCI has successfully managed to promote the game in India and abroad with resounding success --- and in turn making the country a global force to reckon with.

Even the sector regulator, TRAI, had opposed formally introduction by MIB of processing fee for live telecast by non-news and current affairs TV channels and questioned the government as why such a step was taken without due consultation process. Now that the regulator has come out with some progressive recommendations relating to Ease of Doing Business in the Broadcast sector and issues relating to uplink and downlink of TV channels, instead of acting on those suggestions, another move has upset the industry --- a recent MIB reference to the regulator to study the matter of temporary uplinking has not gone down too well with the industry that was hoping some respite under Rathore at MIB.

The Sports Minister, who is also the MIB Minister, has a rare opportunity to showcase his talent --- to promote sports in India through mass media by easing regulations and lessening the burden on the broadcast sector through administrative reforms, which will very well be in line with PM Modi’s vision. Khelega nahin India, toh champion kaise banega India (If India doesn’t play and gets a chance to showcase talent, how would champs be created)?

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