An order directing the Prasar Bharati CEO to be appraised by the I&B Secretary and reviewed by the Minister — one of the first flashpoints between the two sides last year — is part of “serious attempts to disrupt the autonomy” of the public broadcaster and goes “against the mandate of Parliament”, Prasar Bharati chairman A Surya Prakash told The Indian Express.
The order was issued on July 6, 2017, within a week of N K Sinha taking over as I&B Secretary on June 30 — and nearly two weeks before Smriti Irani was named I&B Minister on July 18, replacing M Venkaiah Naidu who became Vice President.
For the other two wholetime Board members and directors-general of Doordarshan and All India Radio, both under Prasar Bharati, the I&B Secretary will be the reviewing authority for appraisals, the order stated. Shashi Shekhar Vempati was appointed as Prasar Bharati CEO on June 2.
“In view of the objects and reasons of the Prasar Bharati Act, as also its various provisions, wholetime members and other officers of the Corporation are required to function under its supervision, direction and control. The Act does not envisage the wholetime members of the Corporation and its functionaries to be subordinate to the functionaries of the central government and any attempt on the part of the ministry to exercise such control and supervision is not only in direct conflict with the letter and spirit of the Act but also strikes at its very root,” said Surya Prakash.
“Such an attempt goes against the mandate of the Parliament and can be construed as violating Parliamentary privilege,” he said.
Members of Prasar Bharati’s Board claim that this order is part of a consistent effort by the ministry to undermine the autonomy of Prasar Bharati, which was created by a Parliament Act in 1990.
Responding to a request for comment from The Indian Express, the I&B Ministry said that the decision on the CEO’s appraisal was “recommended” by outgoing I&B Secretary Ajay Mittal on June 29, 2017, and “approved by the then Minister of Information and Broadcasting,” Venkaiah Naidu, on July 3.
The Ministry said that the need for such an order “arose since earlier appointees to the post of CEO Prasar Bharati were largely retired bureaucrats”.
Citing the examples of public sector banks and the National Automotive Testing and R&D Infrastructure Project (NATRiP), the Ministry said that “similar practices” exist elsewhere too, where a Secretary does the appraisal of CEOs of autonomous bodies.
Further, the ministry said the Prasar Bharati Act “provides only for a part-time Chairman who does not oversee the day-to-day functioning” of either the Corporation or its CEO. It said that “the role of (the) Chairman is limited to chairing the board meetings” as per the provisions of the Act.
The Ministry also said that it was in the process of implementing the recommendations of the Sam Pitroda Committee, which had submitted its report in January 2014, to sort any issues of the public broadcaster’s autonomy.
The Ministry and the Prasar Bharati Board have been at loggerheads over a number of other issues, too.
During the last Board meeting on February 15, the Ministry wanted the Board to pass a resolution that a serving IAS officer be appointed as a wholetime member.
Some Board members argued that the move was “blatantly illegal” as the Prasar Bharati Act states that wholetime members, including the CEO, are employees of Prasar Bharati and selected by a committee chaired by Vice President of India. The Board dropped the proposal.
The Board also dropped and objected to an Office Memorandum issued on February 5 by the Ministry, directing Vempati to discontinue the services of several consultants on contract with immediate effect.
“The OM was not only in bad taste but an illegal and blatant attempt to interfere with and undermine the autonomy of Prasar Bharati and should be withdrawn forthwith,” a top Prasar Bharati official said.
Sources also attributed the delay in release of the Ministry’s grants-in-aid, which is used to pay salaries of Prasar Bharati’s 29,000 employees, to the intensifying differences.
On Thursday, The Indian Express reported on another contentious issue, of payments to a private firm involved in the government’s International Film Festival of India (IFFI) 2017.
Doordarshan had rejected a demand from the organisers to foot a nearly Rs 3-crore bill for the coverage of the opening and closing ceremonies by a private firm. Later, it was decided at a meeting at the I&B Secretary’s office on February 12 that the proposal for payment be put to the Prasar Bharati Board, which rejected it.
On February 22, signalling another point of contention, the Ministry directed Indian Information Services officers, working with various central ministries, to also work with Doordarshan News and News Services Division of AIR under the public broadcaster.
The order listed 15 officers for work at Doordarshan National (DDN) and 16 for NSD, AIR. “The enclosed list of STS/JTS officers of IIS Group A who were transferred to PIB, New Delhi, to look after the media and publicity work of the various ministries will hereby look after the work of DDN (HQ) and NSD:AIR (HQ) in addition to primary duty with PIB, New Delhi, with immediate effect and until further orders,” it stated.
This effectively means the Ministry’s “spokespersons” will double up as staff for the autonomous DD news and AIR news, said a Prasar Bharati official. “Apart from the conflict of interest, this is an example of the disrespect the Ministry has for the Act of Parliament,” a Prasar Bharati official alleged.
Surya Prakash said that he has “apprised people at higher levels of the developments and attempts to hit the autonomy of Prasar Bharati”.