For the second time in recent days, Prasar Bharati has politely but firmly rebuffed trespasses on its terrain by the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, to which it is attached. It has refused to pay a fee of Rs 2.92 crore to a private firm, to which the National Film Development Corporation had outsourced live coverage of the opening and closing ceremonies of the International Film Festival of India, which falls under the ministry. It has also explained why: Doordarshan has the equipment and expertise to cover much bigger events, like the Republic Day parade, and so, there was no plausible reason to seek external aid and to expect Prasar Bharati to foot the bill. But DD’s capability, or lack of it, is not the real question here. The issue is institutional autonomy.
In its last skirmish with the ministry, Prasar Bharati had blocked proposals for appointments and brushed aside a communication from the ministry calling for retrenchments. The sticking point was a ministry proposal to appoint a serving IAS officer as a full-time Board member through the Appointments Committee of the Cabinet. The Board read the insertion of a government appointee as an infringement on its autonomy, guaranteed by the Prasar Bharati Act. Earlier, proposed editorial hires were rejected as exorbitantly expensive. This determination to hold the perimeter appears unusual, and heartening, at a time when, in different degrees and locales, the autonomy of institutions is perceived to be besieged or eroded. For instance, the Reserve Bank of India was reduced to an innocent bystander in the demonetisation saga. The Election Commission was seen to have been too accommodating of the ruling party in announcing poll dates. And the judiciary, which has been doing battle with the government over appointments reached the point where the divisions within threatened to undermine both its credibility and independence.
Of course, the Prasar Bharati is an old campaigner, and it has been under pressure from every government since its inception, irrespective of political-ideological inclination — at one time, staffers referred to their institution as “Pressure Bharati”. Though it has not been adversarial earlier, it has pushed back against the latest incursion. But why should it have had to? The government — any government — should have the wisdom and grace to respect the autonomy of institutions, and give them room to grow. Attempts by the government to plant nominees in their decision-making bodies only strengthens the impression of nominal autonomy, and should be strongly opposed.