Of all the combinations that the Centre has ever strung together to bail out Prasar Bharti, the latest seems the least workable. It involves bringing into force a ‘licence fee’ — read one-time tax — of Rs 500 on each colour TV set, Rs 200 for every black-and- white one and a tax on any new TV set. Also on the anvil is a 10 per cent licence fee on TV and radio manufacturers. And channels will have to pay 5 per cent of their gross revenue to fund the public broadcaster. The money raised will be, apparently, used to pay the salaries of Prasar Bharti employees. The Group of Ministers entrusted with this task was to meet on Wednesday to discuss the future status of Prasar Bharti and its employees. Only, the meeting was, predictably, deferred as it has been thrice before. The 38,000-odd employees have been in a state of limbo, neither government nor autonomous as consecutive CEOs of the broadcaster have failed to cobble together rules and regulations even for the administration of its personnel.
Sadly, for all the lofty ideals with which Prasar Bharti was launched as an autonomous public broadcaster, it has been a journey dotted with mistakes and lack of leadership. So it seems fair to ask, what is Prasar Bharti? As a public broadcaster, what has been its contribution? The proposed levies and taxes seem to have been designed on the lines of an education cess — for the greater common good. Only, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan manages to show some results, unlike Prasar Bharti’s schemes. Its repeated attempts to hijack feed, which has been paid for by private players, hasn’t helped improve its credibility. When accused of poor programming and corrupt practices, Prasar Bharti has lobbed the ball into the government’s court claiming it has little autonomy. The ball gets passed right back by the government, citing Prasar Bharti’s ‘autonomous’ nature.
The Supreme Court has ruled that the government must decide on the broadcaster’s future by early August. This slew of measures is probably intended to prolong its existence. But what is really worrying is that we seem to be going back to the 1950s, when television’s entry into India was stalled on grounds that it was a luxury that only affluent nations could afford. No public broadcaster can hope to function in this muddled manner in this day and age of competition.