RadioandMusic
| 04 Dec 2020
I&B Ministry's new secretary- Sunil Arora, to face political and bureaucratic potholes in the roadway

NEW DELHI: For a person taking charge as the head of the 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/Ministers into action.

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

For senior Indian Administrative Officer Sunil Arora, who is slated to take over as Secretary in the Information and Broadcasting Ministry (I&B) from 1 September, the first and most major task looming over him is the third Phase of the Digital Addressable System for Cable TV which has to be accomplished within four months.

Sunil Arora is an Indian Administrative Service officer from the Rajasthan cadre in the 1980 batch. His immediate predecessor Bimal Julka belongs to the 1979 batch from Madhya Pradesh. He had taken over as Secretary from July 2013 when Uday Kumar Varma retired.

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 thirteen 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 is an irritant.

Spread of FM Radio v/s DRM

Even as All India Radio has spent crores of rupees on the digitised Digital Radio Mondiale, Prasar Bharati feels that Frequency Modulation which is an analogue technology should be promoted until the nation is read for digital radio sets. The Ministry can resolve this issue only if it can ensure adequate manufacturer 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 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 and the Ministry

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

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

In any case, 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 has been the intervention of the Government 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 completely.   

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 as 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 proved, but the Home Ministry – and the I&B Ministry – 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 in the freedom of the media. Even the Supreme Court while permitting Sun Group companies to take part in the FM auction said so.

TRAI

Although these are issues that the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India 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 of the two raises 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 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 earlier, it is also clear that the Ministry will have to consider whether there is need to form a broadcasting-specific body since 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 I&B Ministry 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 Government has again begun to talk about convergence and this is bound to gather pace over the next two years.

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, and there has been little headway despite the incentives offered under the Make in India scheme. Even as present, a large number of LCOs have to work with poor quality STBs made in China or other countries.

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, FM radio channels, or direct-to-home (DTH) Headed in the sky (HITS) platforms in the country, the issue of spectrum will need early solution.

AD Cap

The matter of enforcing the advertising cap of twelve minutes an hour is already before the Courts, but the Ministry may have to do a re-think in the light of I&B Minister having said early this year 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 a 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.

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 and the Election Commission also wanted some steps to be taken to stop this. But there has been no tangible action so far.

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