The value of soft power can never be underestimated, and if the West had once used it to further its interests, it is China’s turn now. The country has launched an ‘airwave incursion’ along the border areas with India and is actually filling the vacuum that has been created by the negligible presence of the public broadcaster, All India Radio (AIR).
In pockets with weak AIR signals, listeners are now greeted by Chinese radio programmes in Nepalese and Hindi. These radio programmes can be heard in some quarters of Ladakh in the northwest and Sitamarhi (Bihar) in the east, and even in the Northeast. It is not only Chinese, but South Korean TV programmes are hugely popular in the Northeast.
Riding on Nepal’s growing FM network, the State-run China Radio International has set up a radio station in Kathmandu and its programmes are relayed by over 200 stations. To regain lost ground, the I&B ministry has earmarked Rs 400 crore to set up FM towers and transmitters. The target is to expand FM’s reach to 60% of the country from the present 40% in the next two-and-a-half years, and then to the whole of India in five years.
No matter what the supporters of private broadcasting say, the role of a public broadcaster can never be overstated in a country like India. However, a caveat must apply: A public broadcaster must be autonomous in the true sense. In fact, despite the presence of so many private players, the role of public broadcasting and its contribution to democratic life is even more critical today as we see the disappearance of public space, and the ‘atomisation of audiences into special interest constituencies’.
Public broadcasting holds massive importance in India because commercial broadcasting does not meet the needs of informing, educating, and entertaining a vast section of the population. Even if a private broadcaster customises programmes for people in remote areas, the costs would make this content inaccessible to many.
The other charge against the public broadcasters is that their quality of programming is a key reason why they are losing their audience. This is a genuine issue, but not reason enough to curtail the role or question the relevance of a public broadcaster.
While entertainment and news are the biggest grossers in broadcasting, there are many in India who still benefit from the ‘mundane’ information like new agricultural trends or educational opportunities. And as citizens, their needs have to be met as much as our needs for ‘quality’ programming.