In 2009-10, Prasar Bharati’s revenues were estimated at Rs 1,050 crore. Its total operating expenses were Rs 2,200 crore. In the private sector, the CEO would have been sacked for this kind of performance and the company would have gone under. In Prasar Bharati, supposedly an autonomous public broadcaster, not only does the government seek that employees be treated as government servants so that there is security of tenure, but the CEO’s post is also prized by retiring or retired civil servants.
In the Alice in Wonderland world of public-meets-private, B S Lalli — an IAS officer of the 1971 batch (Uttar Pradesh cadre) — took over as CEO of Prasar Bharati in 2006. He will now have to face an enquiry conducted by the Supreme Court following findings by the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC) that he was involved in questionable administrative decisions and dodgy financial practices.
The CVC says it found wrongdoing in five out of the seven cases it investigated. When Lalli was questioned, he claimed his decisions were not only endorsed by the board that oversees Prasar Bharati, but they also saved the government money.
Further allegations of wrongdoing were made in the granting of broadcasting rights for the Commonwealth Games. In this case, the CEO said it was not he who handled this, but the games organising committee.
The President of India has now given her assent to a Supreme Court enquiry into the CEO’s decisions and the CVC’s report. She has left it to the government to decide whether the CEO should continue in situ while the enquiry is on or be suspended.
The goings on at Prasar Bharati have brought the morale of those working in the organisation down to their shoes. Between 1978, when broadcasting autonomy was first suggested by L K Advani, and 1997, when the Prasar Bharati Act was notified by the government, Doordarshan (DD) began its cautious forays into professionalism by allowing programmes such as the World This Week and Newsline, but the taxpayer continued to foot the bill. Then it was argued that All India Radio (AIR) and DD must be run along commercial lines.
As governments dithered, private sector ‘entrepreneurship’ and bureaucratic collusion made many millionaires many times over: recall the case of an additional director-general arrested in August 1999 when CBI seized Rs 1.23 crore stashed in a bed-box from his house. Even after furnishing details of expenditures and investments, he was found in possession of assets worth over Rs 2.31 crore. These were allegedly bribes paid by those who wanted Doordarshan to buy their programmes without officials asking questions about the cost of making them.
B S Lalli has also been charged with something similar. The CVC found he took decisions related to the management of advertising revenues from the telecast of cricket matches on DD without the approval of either the empowered committee on sports rights or the Prasar Bharati board. Moreoever, bids were invited five times; each time, Prasar Bharati obligingly revising the terms to favour a private sector broadcaster.
Another private sector broadcaster got exclusive rights to show T20 cricket matches when Doordarshan decided it didn’t want to broadcast them because it concluded that T20 wasn’t really cricket, but ‘pyjama cricket’. AIR negotiated for rights to broadcast the 2007 one-day internationals with a private sector broadcaster; Lalli says AIR earned Rs 4.9 crore by spending Rs 30 lakh. But the CVC says the balance of advantage during the negotiations was with the private sector.
BS Lalli is only the messenger — of the strong message that even the combined wisdom of the government and Opposition cannot set right an organisation like Prasar Bharati, which is structurally flawed. Although corruption must be punished, the government is keen to simply shoot the messenger.