RadioandMusic
| 21 Oct 2019
New I&B secretary Ajay Mittal has his tasks cut out

NEW DELHI:  The biggest challenges for Indian bureaucrats can be summed up in just a few words: being unprepared, and forced to make compromises.

Senior Indian Administrative Service officer Ajay Mittal is taking over the reins of the administrative machinery in the Information and Broadcasting ministry from Sunil Arora who had barely eight months to grapple with problems in the I and B space. Arora joined the Ministry on 31 August last year just as the ministry was making preparations for the Digital Addressable System Phase III and was in the midst of the Phase III auctions of FM Radio.

Mittal, who has taken over after the retirement of Arora, is a senior Indian Administrative Service officer of the 1982 batch from the Himachal Pradesh cadre.

Now, Mittal has to deal with not only the onerous task of overseeing the implementation of the last phase in DAS which will cover all remaining urban and all rural areas of the country by December-end, but bringing the government out of the morass of legal cases which stayed the implementation of DAS Phase III in many states and have now been transferred to the Delhi High Court.

Born on 24 February 1958, Mittal is a law graduate and also has a Masters degree in rural development. His first posting was as principal secretary to the then chief minister of Himachal Pradesh and in the Information and Public Relations wing in the state. Mittal was empanelled as Secretary in December last year when he was Additional Chief Secretary, Transport, Social Justice and Empowerment Department, Shimla.

FM Radio Auction

When Sunil Arora took charge, the government was in the midst of the first stage of auctions of the FM radio e-auction which only covered cities which already have FM but there were some vacancies. Learning from the experiences where there were no bids in 13 of the 69 cities, the government has now decided to revise the guidelines for the e-auction. The new Secretary may have to find ways of either lowering the reserve price for those cities or finding other incentives before the next stage of e-auction.

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.

Spectrum

The Defence Ministry has in principle agreed to hand over some spectrum and swap some other spectrum, and the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (Trai) has also worked on the process of auctioning the available spectrum and given out reserve prices, the whole process is caught up in bureaucratic wrangles as it involves the Telecom Ministry. If the I and B 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.

Spread of FM Radio vs DRM

The Digital Radio Mondiale Consortium feels that All India Radio has done the most in terms of digitisation of radio. AIR has in fact spent millions of rupees on the digitised Digital Radio Mondiale. But Prasar Bharati feels that Frequency Modulation which is an analogue technology should be promoted until the nation is ready for digital radio sets.

The ministry can resolve this issue only if it can ensure adequate manufacture 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. The fact remains that there are just one or two manufacturers of DRM sets and these have also been successfully demonstrated in moving cars, but they remain unaffordable.

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 and has also been giving away awards, 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 had decided as a measure to help the pubcaster that persons employed as on 5 October 2007 will get their 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 give him full freedom and there is interference at every level and has said so either in speeches or in articles by him or others in the pubcaster.

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.

While there is generally full autonomy as far as content goes, there are allegedly checks and balances placed by the government in administrative matters.

In a new development that has in principle been accepted by the government, Prasar Bharati which has been losing revenue and viewership has decided to auction prime time slots – perhaps inspired by the success of the e-auctions of slots on the country’s only free-to-air direct-to-home platform DD Freedish, or the FM auctions.

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 in full. 

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 television channels are concerned. And while the issue relating to foreign ownership can be understood, the denial of security clearance to Sun TV and its affiliated MSOs 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 and 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 n the freedom of the media. Even the Supreme Court while permitting Sun Group companies to take part in the FM auction said so.