Friday, May 18, 2012

Ansari’s Rajya Sabha TV swallows huge state resources


In creating an independent television channel to promote the Rajya Sabha (RS) and its members, Vice-President Hamid Ansari, who is chairman of the Upper House, seems to have indulged in an extravagance that our stretched public resources can ill-afford.Headed by Gurdeep Singh Sappal, formerly OSD (officer on special duty) to Ansari, Rajya Sabha TV is soaking up money faster than a sponge does water. For 2012-13, the bill will be around Rs 73 crore. A high-level committee of the Upper House — the General Purposes Committee (GPC) — had initially (in May 2006) shot down the idea of a 24-hour TV channel for the RS and the issue had been put to rest.


That was until November 2007 when Sappal, then OSD to the chairman, requested the file on the initiative to “launch Rajya Sabha Television, which was eventually abandoned” to be put up for his perusal.Subsequently, in April 2008, when the GPC gave its ‘in principle’ nod to RS TV, the channel was proposed as joint project with Lok Sabha TV, under a common network called the Sansad Television Network. However, what transpired – the launch of RSTV as an independent entity – was neither approved nor endorsed by the GPC. This, despite members of another Rajya Sabha committee, expressing strong reservations about the creation of an independent channel. In December 2009, when the Rajya Sabha Secretariat informed the House Committee that the possibility of setting up an independent RS TV channel was being seriously considered after the integrated Sansad Television Network hadn’t materialised due to “some problem with the Lok Sabha Secretariat”, the move was strongly opposed by its members.


The minutes of that House Committee meeting (held on 16 December, 2009) state that the members “opined that setting up of a new RS TV channel by spending several crores of rupees may not serve any purpose, as it would not be run by experts in the field, thereby leading to production and airing poor quality programmes. Moreover, the exercise to project the members of the Rajya Sabha was not advisable as proceedings were already being telecast by Doordarshan…The members of the committee, Jaya Bachchan, NK Singh, and Rajiv Pratap Rudy, directed the joint secretary (of the RS Secretariat) that the GPC should be apprised of the observations made by the members as the former had already deliberated upon the issue.”

But that was not to happen.


Cut to March 2010. When the Lok Sabha Secretariat was continuing to delay the submission of a concept paper on RS TV for the launch of a common Sansad Television Network, a detailed note of meetings between members and officials of the two Houses and top officials of LS TV on the subject was submitted to the chairman.The note acknowledged the GPC’s endorsement of RS TV “under a common network” and stated that there had been a “subtle reluctance on the part of the Lok Sabha Secretariat” to the proposal.In conclusion, it sought the chairman’s orders on “setting up RS TV as an independent entity under the control and supervision of the RS Secretariat” since the Lok Sabha Secretariat was “reluctant to the proposal.”


It also sought the chairman’s orders on the appointment of Broadcast Engineering Consultants India Ltd (BECIL), a public sector enterprise which also set up LS TV, to be appointed consultant and implementing agency for setting up RS TV. Two months later, on 25 May 2010, both proposals were “approved” by Ansari. No detailed working paper of the proposal had been prepared by the Rajya Sabha Secretariat. The decision seems to have been taken entirely on the basis of a BECIL project report on setting up a television channel for Rajya Sabha, previously prepared on the request of the RS Secretariat.


No gazette notification was issued on the setting up of the channel. And on 26 August 2011, test transmissions of RSTV began.In its revised report, BECIL estimated the initial cost of setting up RS TV at Rs 28.94 crore and an annual operating expenditure of Rs 15 crore (excluding cost of content creation). But post-launch, RSTV seems to have run wild on expenditure. As per expenditure details of the Finance & Accounts Wing of RS TV (No.7/3/2011-RSTV(F&A)), the revised estimate for 2011-2012 was a whopping Rs 67.31 crore,  which was incidentally Rs 30 crore more than what had been budgeted for that year at Rs 37.75 crore.


And for 2012-2013, the budgeted expenditure is an equally astounding Rs 73.30 crore.Compare this with LS TV budgets in its initial years of launch. According to figures quoted in communications by the Rajya Sabha Secretariat, LS TV incurred total expenditure of Rs 23.70 crore (recurring Rs 8.70 crore and non-recurring Rs 15 crore) in 2007-08. And for 2008-2009, it had earmarked Rs 14.25 crore (recurring Rs 9.25 crore, non-recurring Rs 5 crore). With 103 professionals on its payroll led by a CEO who commands a monthly salary of Rs 1,75,000, RS TV has an additional list of 56 professionals contracted on an ad-hoc/temporary basis with some senior professionals being paid Rs 88,000.


Not bad at all for a government job.


Compare the runaway expenditure of RS TV with Doordarshan’s quote when it had been initially asked to estimate the cost of converting DD Lok Sabha and DD Rajya Sabha into 24-hour channels. For converting them into 24-hour channels, DD’s cost estimate was Rs 85 crore and a staff requirement of 250.While there is no dispute on the merits of promoting more in-depth coverage of Parliament and its proceedings, was it worthwhile spending a packet on the endeavour when far leaner and efficient models could have been adopted?


For example, why wasn’t, as was suggested by a former Prasar Bharati CEO in the initial rounds of discussions, the model of the BBC-Parliament Channel of UK, seriously considered? France too has one dedicated Parliament channel - La Chaîne parlementaire –  to cover the activities of the national assembly and the senate.The BBC-Parliament Channel that provides detailed coverage of the House of Commons and the House of Lords, focuses exclusively on issues concerning Parliament — its debates, procedures, committees, members and so on — unlike the RS TV, where the scope of programmes telecast are far wider than the title of the channel.Raising the question, do we really need more general interest programming using taxpayers’ money — on a channel dedicated to Parliament, when we already have a national broadcast network (Doordarshan) with a fleet of channels catering to everything from news and current affairs to entertainment, sports and more?

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