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Lunch with BS: Jawhar Sircar

The accidental bureaucrat

Vanita Kohli-Khandekar 

Jawhar Sircar

Jawhar Sircar is loquacious. It is the loquaciousness of a 63-year-old man who loves to read. He has an informed, if not always politically correct, on almost everything to do with culture, education and media - the areas he has worked in for most of his life as an (IAS) officer. Every time I have met the CEO of the state-controlled Prasar Bharati Corporation, which runs (DD) and All India Radio, we have gone way over our allotted time for conversation. So, I am prepared for a long, chatty lunch as I walk into The Imperial in New Delhi on a hot June afternoon. We had agreed to meet at 1911, the hotel's coffee shop. Sircar was keen on a sandwich lunch since he is trying to keep his weight in check.

We start chatting the moment we spot each other and are deep into the story of how Sircar got branded as an 'upper class' boy at Presidency College in Calcutta (now Kolkata). This was in 1969 when the whole place was abuzz with passion for socialism, Mao was a hero and Vietnam was a just cause. We come back to the present as the waiter catches our eye and we order. Sircar settles for a smoked salmon sandwich and a lime soda. My choice is a duo of Scottish salmon and watermelon juice. It is good summer food. But the freezing coffee shop feels like Kashmir in winter. After requesting to increase the temperature of the air-conditioning, we are back to chatting.

Sircar's leanings, his philosophy of life, were shaped early on by his father, a government employee who believed in "simple living and high thinking". The evidence is in how the senior Sircar named his children - Jawhar, Gandhi, Subhash and Sarojini - all names of freedom fighters. When he was selected by Avery (a weighing machine firm) from Presidency for a job, he didn't take it because, "my father said he would kill me". The senior Sircar was keen on his son going the route and after a year of working at DCM in Delhi, Sircar agreed. After his IAS, he was with the West Bengal government in various roles, handling the communal riots in 24 Parganas and Burdwan and the coal mafia in the Asansol-Raniganj area or steering the Haldia Petrochemicals project in its initial years, among other things.

However, "within five years of being in the IAS, I understood that it was a mistake. The bureaucracy is obsessed with increasing their numbers like rabbits and scrawling illegible notes," he says waving a French fry. There must be some good moments though?

Jawhar Sircar
There were. He says he took "extreme relish in being part of Chidambaram's team (when P Chidambaram was Union Minister of State, Commerce, 1991-92) that broke the (economic) Berlin wall in 1991 (through liberalisation)". After 1995-96, the first signs of what liberalisation could achieve became apparent. By 1999 it was clear that "if the government structure is not repaired then they will make a nuisance of themselves", says Sircar, forking his sandwich. It was his stint as the culture secretary from 2008 to 2012 that he relished the most. "Culture is more complex than just song and dance or IHC (India Habitat Centre, a sort of hub for the arts in Delhi), especially in a nation where the tectonic plates are not settled. India's diversity is playing itself out through culture," he says.

Roughly half his time in bureaucracy has been spent in finance and commerce. The other half has been in education, culture and media. On the way, there have been awards and recognition for the work he has done on reviving museums or getting the Kolkata Book Fair off the ground, among other initiatives.

Maybe that is why he was hand-picked for the job of running Prasar Bharati. One of India's most asset-rich media firms is in a mess. In spite of a Rs 2,140-crore handout from the government last year, it remains financially and qualitatively hobbled. This is largely because no government - irrespective of its ideology - has ever cut the umbilical cord with Prasar Bharati. The corporation cannot hire or fire its own people, it cannot raise money. It does not even own its assets - 1,400 transmission towers, lots of spectrum and real estate - because no government ever transferred them to Prasar Bharati after the Act that created it was passed in 1997.

It is completely beholden to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, despite its status as an 'autonomous' corporation. Instead of a BBC then, India has a monolith that employs 31,621 people churning out 33 channels that few people watch. There are now only 10 million DD or terrestrial homes out of a total of 161 million TV homes.

We have finished lunch and ordered a coffee and tea. Time then to talk about the tough stuff.

Sircar took up the Prasar Bharati assignment to "clean up" but soon realised that fixing the troubles at India's monolithic state broadcaster was far from easy. The system rose up against some of the bigger changes he wanted - on DD's very successful direct-to-home (DTH) service or getting more independent outside voices in programming.

There has been some headway though. For one, in making Prasar Bharati relatively tech-savvy by being out there on social media to getting people within to use e-mail, Sircar has brought some fresh air in the way one of the largest broadcasters in India interacts with the world outside. The other thing he is proud of changing is the whole discourse around technology within the corporation. "There were massive vested interests in keeping Prasar Bharati backward by investing more in terrestrial without checking how many terrestrial antennae are left," says Sircar. It is mandatory for cable and operators to carry DD channels giving it 100 per cent coverage. Why then should the corporation invest in more towers?

On the other hand, the possibilities with DD's Freedish, the largest operator at an estimated 20 million homes, are phenomenal. But for two years that I have been talking to Sircar, he has been unable to push up the offerings from 59 to over 100 channels or to encrypt the service, make it addressable and, therefore, more lucrative.

Also, the ministry has been visibly tightening its grip. There have been appointments made without informing Sircar and some of the new appointees now report directly to the ministry. How can he run a company where people can be hired or channels be launched without his involvement?

"I have reached a state of equilibrium. I have realised that I cannot be the only autonomist around while 30,000 people are screaming 'we don't want autonomy'. I can't get autonomy (for Prasar Bharati), the rest of the country and the machinery has to support it," he says.

This is when he gets philosophical. He points out that 20 years ago, if someone had mentioned AC Volvo buses as being common in India, they would have been dubbed elitist. Now they are universally accepted. Just like India got the transport it wanted, when it wanted it, it will get the state-broadcaster it deserves, eventually.

First Published: Fri, June 26 2015. 22:32 IST