I&B ministry and MEA at odds over All India Radio external service
The external services division of All India Radio (AIR) is caught in a turf war between the ministry of information and broadcasting (MIB), which runs it and the ministry of external affairs (MEA), which is expected to fund it.
While the MIB wants the service to continue and even expand; MEA has been suggesting shutting down the programmes, pointing out that the service offered through short wave transmission has outlived its utility and does not attract listeners abroad, said an MIB official aware of the developments.
According to this MIB official, the service, which was started soon after the outbreak of World War II has emerged as a bone of contention between the two ministries, as the cost of running the shows is high and the MEA has been unwilling to pick the tab.
AIR is a broadcast arm of public broadcaster Prasar Bharati and anchors the external services division (ESD).
“As per the Prasar Bharati Act, which was passed in Parliament, the external services division has to be completely funded by the MEA. However, the ministry has not paid since the service started, despite the fact that it plays a crucial role in diplomacy and outreach,” an official of the Prasar Bharati said.
The official said the broadcaster has also raised the issue of revamping the infrastructure with the MIB, pointing out how the installations are outdated and need replacement. “The MIB too has not released funds for replacement of equipment,” the official said.
On the need for the service, the official said feedback from listeners’ abroad acts as “eyes and ears of the government” and allows them a peek into perceptions abroad. “The short wave transmitters are used to send content meant to popularise and propagate Indian point of view on contentious issues,” the official said.
Another official of Prasar Bharati said feedback on issues raised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in his radio show Man Ki Baat; policy decisions or bilateral issues are duly shared with the PMO, MEA and the home ministry.
“The feedback that we received during the trial of Kulbhushan Jhadav (Indian national accused of being a spy by Pakistan) gave us a valuable insight into what people abroad, including in Pakistan felt about the issue,” he said.
To keep the service alive, AIR has asked the MEA to pay Rs 97 crore for the financial years 2017-18 and 2018-19 and the same amount going forward year on year, but so far the MEA has so far not responded.
According to the information provided by AIR about the service, the external broadcasts were started on October 1, 1939 “purely as a tool for propaganda for the Allies during the World War II with a service in Pushto language to counter the German Radio Blitzkrieg in the region and supplement the efforts by the BBC in this part of the world.”
Since then, the service offers news bulletins and other programmes across 108 countries in 27 languages as a “vital link between India and rest of the World, specially with those countries where the interest of India are intertwined because of Indian population”, AIR website says.
The foreign language services include Arabic, Baluchi, Burmese, Chinese, Dari, French, Indonesian, Persian, and Baloch; plans are under way to start services in German, Japanese and Bhutanese.
A former Prasar Bharati official who had concurred with MEA’s suggestion to shut down the service told HT: “No one outside India ever hears Akashvani external services — over short wave or medium wave. It’s a waste of public funds. A few years ago as a test case we had asked a few ambassadors to give us feedback on the popularity of the shows; at least two wrote back saying that the frequencies of the programmes in their respective countries could not be found.”
This official went on to add that maintaining short wave transmission installation is a huge drain on the exchequer as they “guzzle power” and the equipment is “expensive to maintain.”
While an official of the MEA, requesting anonymity said the issue of shutting down the service is “under consideration”, director general of AIR F Shehryar said the biggest problem being faced by the division is that the infrastructure has not been upgraded.
Declining to comment on whether the service is being shut down, he said: “We have not been able to replace about three-decade old short wave transmitters which are directed to beam signal to the strategic locations. Usually one transmitter has a life of 8-10 years and once they cross this limit, the valves go off and the transmitters stop catering to the service area.”