‘Bringing up an an elephant to dance takes time’
For someone who has clocked 60 and spent most of those years in the Government of India’s bureaucracy, Jawhar Sircar packs surprisingly high levels of energy and purpose. It is a little before eight in the evening when we start talking and he remains in full flow till well past nine. People say he likes to talk. That is no doubt true, but our sense is he is seriously hooked to the idea of being en effective CEO and turning Prasar Bharati into a credible public broadcaster.
Prasar Bharati’s offices are every bit sarkari and gloomy, tacky too, but Jawhar Sircar is not. He is witty, perceptive and intelligently outlandish. A liberal orientation and an understanding of India’s diversity are wonderful attributes for the head of a public interest broadcaster to have – and he has both in good measure.
Sircar’s mission as CEO is to make Prasar Bharati – which means Doordarshan and AIR – an independent public broadcaster of repute capable of raising the bar for other TV channels and radio stations. It is a tough job because though Prasar Bharati is independent under an Act of Parliament the truth is that it is known as the voice of the government.
In the brief time that he has been CEO, Sircar has brought in new talent and made Doordarshan news snappier and better looking. He slogs till 10 at night each day to make such things possible and there is lots more action to come, he tells Civil Society in an honest and freewheeling interview.
There have been several committees and reports by wise people recommending changes in Prasar Bharati. What is your vision? What do you want to do?
Much of my vision is already outlined in the Prasar Bharati Act. The fact that it was not done is a sad story. The reason why the Government of India (GoI) created a body at arm’s length is very clear. You have to understand why this did not happen. I can give you three reasons as logic but not as justifications.
The only body that I know of in India that has not undergone recruitment in the past 16 or 17 years is Prasar Bharati – Doordarshan and Akash Vani. You show me an organisation that hasn’t recruited, that is operating live every single day of the week and still not shutting down for a single day….
But now things are changing. It has taken some 17 years for us to advertise. The youngest ‘kid’ here is 42 or 44. Assuming your recruits are 25, he and the next person would be divided by some 18 years.
Secondly, we have had only two full-time CEOs. For a large part, Prasar Bharati has been manned by part-timers. An Additional Secretary has a lot of responsibilities. And then if he or she is told to go do this work or a Director-General of Doordarshan, is asked to handle this organization and run his own show, he or she can only give part-time attention.
The third reason has been zigzags in policy. There has always been a lurking feeling among staff here that this is supposed to be either a government channel or a ‘safe’ channel.
How do you see it?
I have taken this assignment on the sole criterion that Prasar Bharati is a public service broadcaster. One of the models to look up to is the BBC. You also have the Australian Broadcasting Corporation and NHK in Japan. Now bringing up an elephant to dance is difficult. It can’t happen overnight, but if your ideas are clear it is possible to make a difference.
A public service broadcaster must have a soul. What do you see as the soul of Prasar Bharati?
We have to make up our minds on where and what we expect Prasar Bharati to do. If you want to make it a commercial channel, earn its keep, then one set of activities has to be undertaken. Or do you want it to run like the BBC on a television tax, licence fee and a separate dispensation altogether? Do you want it to be super competent like the NHK?
Well laid out plans cost money. And when something costs money, the government tends to spread it over a period of years – may be 10 to 15 years. As a highly technical broadcasting organization that has to compete in a very fickle atmosphere where even newspapers don’t know if they will last tomorrow in paper form, a provision made 12 years ago is like a child marriage you have walked into without realizing its consequences. At the same time if you operate within the government system you have to follow some fiscal discipline.
So what is the mechanism you are proposing?
It would largely depend on the magnanimity of a liberal government to work out a mechanism and on Parliament to take a renewed call on what we want. In my case, the Parliamentary Standing Committee, the ministry, and other committees of Parliament have been more than kind – they have been generous. Give us a note, they have said. I am on the backfoot working till late at night. How do I work out a note? I need a break to do that.
What is foremost on your mind? What will you tell the Sam Pitroda committee for instance?
Sam Pitroda knows technology very well. In the first meeting he made it clear he would like to have the best hands possible from a domain outside the government to bring in what he calls a breath of fresh air. Fair enough. The entire media depends on fresh air.
Till 2000 Doordarshan was smug about being the only operator. In 2004 they thought, Bachche log aise kheltey hain. And then they got licked.
Having the largest infrastructure doesn’t mean much if you can’t send the best message. Now we have gone in for a remould, especially on eight or 10 issues, but, as I said, what pulls us back is the lack of young people.
So you need talent.
I need talent and my board has been good enough to agree to a Special Assignments Committee. They have said, explain to us the people you need and we will give you the leeway to go in for a transparent system of engaging people – we call them assignments. We are hiring people the way the market does. Why do you need to create posts all the time?
So, now we have people who have come in from the best channels. We pay them at par, sometimes five or ten per cent more than the others because many did not want to come since they thought they were joining a sleepy channel.
Won’t your search for talent be determined by how much independence you have?
Listen, credibility is something the other guy thinks of you, not what you say about yourself. Identity is something towards which you move. It is not thrust upon you. Identity is the conscious movement of a person to an image he or she has predetermined. So even if I scream from the rooftops that I am independent, if my actions are not showing independence, they will not change perceptions. Credibility has to be established step by step.
But doesn’t the government need to define the autonomy of the public broadcaster?
I have been here for 11 months and I have not had any problems with operational issues. Yes, in one case, somebody screamed because our cameraman covered something. My answer was: do you expect me to go put a cap on the camera? Then why didn’t the editor clip it, I was asked. I answered, should I peer over the editor’s shoulder?
But you do have a serious credibility problem.
I have on my board people who have established themselves in their careers and are not dependent on a board assignment. The present secretary, myself, and the juniors down the line have an excellent relationship. We have cracked the coconut, so to speak. There are 1,500 people who are being notified. Even now my people don’t believe it. The guy handling the transmitter in some way out station in Ladakh doesn’t believe he is going to get a hand to help him. He thinks he will have to call the chai boy and ask him to run the generator when he is away.
Finance is another issue. Our minister, Manish Tewari, said why don’t I ask Parliament to give you funds directly. We discussed this and how to work it out.
You would need to place people in key creative jobs?
We opened up a set of creative jobs. How do you think all the glitz came? (Points to the news on air at that time.) Against four or five posts for anchors we received nearly 200 applications. We made a shortlist of 40 or 50. The Special Assignments Committee, consisting of eminent persons from the media, patiently interviewed them and ultimately five persons were selected in front of the camera, another half a dozen for behind the camera and the process is going on. We are taking 20 more persons from concept editor to visualiser to graphic designer.
There were professions, assignments and jobs not even known to the studios of Doordarshan. For example, FM Gold and FM Rainbow are two popular channels under Akash Vani. Can you imagine there is no post of radio jockey? So, modernization is now taking place.
Why are you going to Africa?
Africa should be one of our logical targets. We have a satellite operation that stretches from the northern part of Africa, West Asia, to China. Downlinking is poor. We can’t control that from Mandi House. We are in touch with our ambassadors and correspondents over this. A telecasting organization has to be faster. Three deals are about to be inked with three countries. If we can get one satellite position, English can be a common language. It’s a national cultural mission.
But you can’t be the voice of the Indian government.
No, no, the voice of India is not the voice of the government. The two are not coterminus. When Indians cheer an IPL team or the Indian cricket team it has got nothing to do with the government. India emerges as an international entity, for instance, when a lady goes up in a spacecraft and empathizing with her is the whole nation. Representing the nation is an essential part of the national public service broadcaster.
What is the kind of content you would like to change?
Content is expensive. More importantly, it has to be imaginative and planned out.
Content I find to my horror has been dealt with in a rather ad hoc manner. If a serial becomes patronage, you are inviting disaster. A serial is a signature of your quality and that comes when everything is above board. We are making a system of putting everything up on the website every few months – who applies, what are the criteria, why someone is chosen.
I have a family audience. We thought why don’t we have a programme by which people can phone in and talk to their MPs? Let the MP have his say, let somebody give an opposite view, give clips from the field and phone-ins.
We have pointed out where the public service broadcaster differs from the commercial channel. A commercial channel takes the liberty of interviewing a traumatized woman because it is ‘good’ news. But a public service broadcaster will never do that.
Manipur is a small disturbed state. Every day we broadcast in six major dialects and 23 minor dialects in Manipur. So one station is broadcasting in 29 languages.
India is an evolving story. It isn’t a final product that you market.
We were born when India was wracked with troubles. Certain sign boards would be tarred because they were in certain languages. Or there would be signage saying Indians get out. We have gone through it all. We go through it even now.
Akash Vani has a big role to play in the emergence of many an artiste. Vividh Bharati played a large role in bonding India. That subtext of pride is very much there in our voice. You won’t find it in a commercial outfit.
You don’t have to send a person to Manipur, where you don’t get a single paisa worth of advertising, and then broadcast in 29 languages to maintain the best of relations with all communities. It is not for the sake of the government but for the sake of the people of India.
Is size your strength?
Our huge size is because we have to serve underserved areas. I am proud of it. Somebody has to go there. The world has gone on satellite in so far as TV is concerned. We are on terrestrial cum satellite. If you take away the 1,900 terrestrial transmitters and their manpower, Doordarshan has for 67 kendras, 67 stations. It has 37 channels. For 37 channels, per channel per station, we have the least number of people. All India Radio has 350 stations. Some stations are single-transmitter stations. Some have multiple transmitters.
We have set up a huge terrestrial network over the years. What we are planning is to connect with local populations around the transmitter. Each high-powered and low-powered transmitter has a radius of coverage or a catchment. In each catchment area India differs.
This diversity of India is being affected by a lot of standardization. And you can’t stop history. The fact is there are many people who can understand only their dialect. And do you know how much a dialect differs? In Madhya Pradesh, for instance, from Morena to 200 km it is Bundeli that covers the most backward regions of UP and Bundelkhand, Gwalior, right up to Jabalpur. The language of Morena is a strange Bundeli. As you come to Gwalior you get a more refined version of Bundeli. Now if you use the Jhansi transmitter or the Gwalior or Morena transmitter for two hours to talk to the people about their rights, obligations and duties, think of what you have done for the people.
So this is your great strength?
It’s a huge strength we are trying to work on and that means working late.