The recent merger of four government film media units with National Film Development Corporation (NFDC) under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting is a part Centre’s larger plan to either shut or merge a number of its own departments and divisions to effect cost-cutting in a pandemic year.
However, I&B Minister Prakash Javadekar has a different justification. He says, “Bringing Films Division, Directorate of Film Festivals, National Film Archives of India and Children’s Film Society into one body will ensure synergy and efficiency in the industry and take Indian cinema to even greater heights. This will lead to reduction in duplication of activities and direct savings to the national exchequer”.
Javadekar further assured that while undertaking this exercise of convergence, interests of employees of all concerned media units will be fully taken care of and no employee will be retrenched.
This is second major merger in the ministry since the Modi Government took over in 2014. Earlier, in December 2017, a new department Bureau of Outreach Communication (BoC) was created by merging the erstwhile three big media units namely Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP)-mandated to print calendars, dairies, booklets, managing advertisements for newspapers and periodicals, holding photo exhibitions to showcase government programmes and policies, among others-Directorate of Field Publicity-a strong field outreach mechanism for reaching out to masses at the grass root level to sanitise them about various welfare schemes and other health related issues-and Song & Drama Division-entrusted with the task of creating awareness on government programmes through folk lores, ragnis, bhajans and songs in local languages. Presently, the BoC consists of 23 Regional Outreach Bureaus (RoBs) and over 145 Field Outreach Bureaus (FOBs) to carry out its activities with ‘synergy and integrated approach’.
This first-ever decision of a bold and major merger-plan, which was hanging fire for long-was taken during the regime of Smriti Irani, the then I&B Minister, who had then justified the move on similar lines, saying, “the merger will effect better utilisation of resources and workforce and will deliver better communication to the masses in every state and every district”.
However, almost the reverse has happened. Many FOBs have been closed down, while most of them are virtually defunct for lack of adequate staff, resources and transportation facilities. For example, out of three FOBs in Haryana, one has been permanently closed while the rest two have one or two staff members, with no vehicle and funds to carry out government publicity at grass-root level. Several group B, C or D employees, manning the FOBs, have been permanently posted in RoBs or in other unmanned far-flung FOBs, which are almost vacant for long and facing closure. In this way, Government publicity at the ground level has been hit hard due to lack of resources and manpower and merger does not seem to benefit even a bit. In fact, media units like DAVP and Song and Drama Division, don’t have their offices at district level while third merged unit, Directorate of Field Publicity, has its offices mostly at district headquarters. Hence, the merger has no significance at local level though it may be beneficial to some extent at regional and headquarters level, where publicity campaigns are not normally undertaken as these are primarily meant for educating and sanitising illiterate or semi-literate poor people residing in rural and backward areas, who can take benefit of various Government-funded welfare schemes of the Centre and States.
Unfortunately, in some FOBs, the situation is such that staff drivers are either sitting idle for absence of publicity vehicles or doing mundane official work, chowkidars are asked to perform as office clerks, clerical staff is tasked with running film projectors and field publicity assistants (FPAs) are acting as field publicity officers (FPOs).
In the absence of subsidiary staff, some FPOs or FPAs are sitting alone in some FOBs alone. Under such circumstances, how can the ministry achieve the target of publicising and popularising the schemes, policies and programmes and other mandates of a large number of client ministries, including the Prime Minister’s Office, Health and Family Welfare, Rural Development, Law & Justice, Social Justice and Empowerment, among the masses who are the intended beneficiaries.
Undoubtedly, such mergers do not seem to contribute anything towards ensuring any ‘synergy and efficiency’ except fulfilling Government agenda to downsize the ministries and departments to cut costs on office infrastructure and scattered staff, who have been brought under one umbrella organisation to save to the exchequer. The mergers could have served a better purpose had the ministry really worked out a post-merger ambitious plan to integrate, enhance performance, efficiency and reach of the concerned departments, while providing all logistics at the ground level. One must hope that the recent merger of four film media units, under umbrella of NFDC, don’t face the same fate of such organisational and managerial bottlenecks and succeed in ensuring balanced and focussed development of Indian cinema in all its genres-feature films/content for OTT platforms, children’s content, animation, short-films and documentaries as India is the largest film producer in the world with over 3000 films produced in a year.
Interestingly, the Ministry does not stop here. There are proposals to merger Registrar of Newspapers (RNI)-the media unit engaged with the task of allotting and registering titles of newspapers, magazines and regulating print media-with Press Council of India, Press Information Bureau-the Government’s main publicity arm-and Publications Division-another media unit engaged in publishing historical and cultural books-with Bureau of Outreach Communication (BoC). However, it is yet to be seen how these mergers will work in raising efficiency and competence in the ministry.
Meanwhile, the Centre’s emphasis on adopting ‘Niti Model’ of hiring young professionals for policy formation and other key roles instead of regular staff, has greatly influenced recruitments in different media units of the ministry, including Public Broadcasters All India Radio (AIR) and Doordarshan News (DDN) working under Prasar Bharati. The ministry has recently released result of a written test conducted last year to recruit some 50 young professionals for deployment on key posts in the ministry and its media units. There is a growing culture of hiring ‘consultants’ in the ministry and its media units in place of regular staff through Staff Selection Commission (SSC) and Union Public Service Commission (UPSC), on the posts lying vacant for long. Earlier, it also recruited contractual legal consultants in place of regular recruitments to push for Centre’s stress on hiring contractual professionals.
According to a report, I&B minister Prakash Javadekar is in favour of hiring consultants on contract basis instead of regular government staff to fill up a large number of vacant posts in AIR and Doordarshan, and their parent body Prasar Bharati. The report claimed that about 15,000 posts are lying vacant in the three government bodies against the sanctioned strength of 42,000, but the minister is stated to be ‘keen’ on outsourcing for such positions and consultants on a contract basis.
Accordingly, the ministry as well as its media units are already in the process of recruiting consultants on contract basis in a phased manner, giving jitters to those aspiring for regular recruitments.
Pertinently, public broadcasters AIR and Doordarshan are already a hotbed of contractual staff, generally hired after conducting written test and interview on an initial term of one-year renewable annually with salary hike after review of their performance. Besides, there is also a strong lobby of ‘consulting editors’ hired by the ministry or Prasar Bharati on political considerations other than merit or calibre to oblige ‘darbari’ type of ‘non-functional’ journalists who enjoy hefty salaries and other facilities-sometimes even higher than regular officers- without doing much work.
They seem to derive pleasure in supervising activities relating to news and programmes as self-proclaimed ’emissaries’ of their political bosses to ensure that ‘Government line is properly toed in the news stories’. In a way, they are rehabilitated by the Government at the cost of national exchequer. To quote an example, an ambitious journalist with RSS leanings, considered close to the then I&B Minister in 2016, was first decorated with the post of ‘consulting editor’ in Prasar Bharati, but the post did not satisfy him. Within a short span, the minister gave him the high-profile post of Director General of Indian Institute of Mass Communication (IIMC), where senior officers and academicians worked under him. Again, he was awarded the post of vice chancellor of a prestigious journalism university, immediately after he completed the term of DG. Similarly, a Delhi-based journalist of a private news channel, having strong clout in dispensation settled down with another high profile post of Editor-in-Chief of Rajya Sabha TV. Presently, he is serving as Head of Content Operations in Prasar Bharati, enjoying high pay and perks at the expense of exchequer. This is just a tip of the iceberg.
There are hundreds of such examples, where high-level editorial and administrative posts have been distributed with impunity among blue-eyed boys of the government. It takes years and years for regular officers to get promotion-that too after good or outstanding performance reports-but the way the favourites are given alarmingly high positions seem to suggest that merit and talent have taken a far backseat in the ministry.
To recall, during the tenure of Smriti Irani, considered to be an unfit minister, mass transfers of mid-level group-A officers of Indian Information Service (I.I.S) were ordered overnight in Prasar Bharati reportedly to clear passage for entry of over hundred contractual staff, headed by a high-profile journalist of the minister’s choice. However, the move was vehemently opposed by the Prasar Bharati, exerting its powers under the Prasar Bharati Act and the proposal ended with her shifting to the Textiles ministry.
Not only this, the minister was instrumental in causing immense but avoidable financial loss to the national exchequer when she suddenly summoned all the IIS officers, posted through length and breadth of the country, to her office in Shastri Bhavan only to know for how long they were working on the same station and why they shouldn’t be transferred. Subsequently, she ordered a large number of transfers in the ministry, causing functional difficulties. Surprisingly, almost all were again reverted back to their original place of posting, though in phase manner by her successor Rajyavardhan Rathore. This futile exercise caused triple doze of loss to the exchequer in giving TA/DA to the affected officers thrice within a year.
To recapitulate, cost cutting must not be the only objective behind convergences in the ministry. A strong backup plan must follow to ensure synergy and enhance work performance and proper coordination.
Otherwise, it will be an exercise in futility to further deteriorate condition of the media units at the local level. Moreover, it is also good to recruit consultants on contract basis as a potent manpower but not at the cost of talent and transparency. The ministry needs to shun away from its approach benefitting its favorites at the cost of national exchequer and must not treat media units of Prasar Bharati as a ‘rehabilitation centre’ to accommodate those who want to cash in on their strong contacts in the government. Such favouritism tend to earn notoriety for the ministry, which is entrusted with the task of disseminating factual and correct information to the masses through its media platforms.