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71 Years Of Independence: Government Of India And Media & Entertainment
Media and Entertainment have since Independence received mere lip service from successive Government. The drafters of the constitution had no time for this sector, as it does not even find a mention in their debates
Photo Credit : Tribhuwan Sharma
In 71 years, India has never had a National Media or Entertainment policy. Needless to say, every Government talks about the fourth estate and freedom of expression and does precious little to ensure it. Many times political leaders have acknowledged the role of films as India’s biggest cultural ambassador but done nothing to promote it. Millions of people are informed, entertained and even reformed through media and entertainment, yet as a sector, it remains neglected. This is when politicians and governments need its support to not only inform the public about their policies and work but also for propaganda and in case of film stars, for drawing attention or raising. This has been the case since independence. Let's take a look at some history.
Media and Entertainment have since Independence received mere lip service from successive Government. The drafters of the constitution had no time for this sector, as it does not even find a mention in their debates. In fact, it remains on the States list (where entertainment was included as a sin activity along with gambling etc.), as it was not important enough for the Union or Concurrent list. The first Government under Pandit Nehru ignored Entertainment, except for legislating a new Censorship Act in 1952, which actually carried on the legacy of Colonial British rulers. Nehru ‘s Government did, however, pass the Indian Copyright Act in 1957 ushering in the first modern Intellectual Property Regime. The Cinematograph, as far as Print media is concerned, while lauding the role played by Indian Press in the freedom movement and then nation building, was lauded by all politicians but no one was actually happy at giving complete freedom to it. Nehru’s contempt for newspaper barons, whom he referred as the Jute Press (since Birla, Goenka, Dalmia, Jain had made their initial money in Jute business) was well known. Besides imposing restrictions on newsprint, Nehru, in a famous Cabinet resolution of 1956 (which still prevails), banned the ownership of Indian publications by any foreign owner. The current Government has done the same by creating Press Information Bureau, Photo division and then setting up the Directorate Of Audio Visual Publicity (DAVP), an institution to distribute government advertising (or political patronage) to various publications.
It was partisan then as it is now. In spite of restricted freedom, the Press remained independent. Nehru’s personal equation with many Editors and journalists and even film fraternity were excellent yet he did precious little for them. Entertainment has remained one of the highest taxed sectors.
Jawaharlal Lal Nehru, however, did excellent work in setting up the three Academies-Lalit Kala, Sangeet Natak, and Sahitya -which did yeomen work in supporting Culture in the early years of Independence. He was also instrumental in expanding All India Radio. One of the blemishes was the stupid ban on film music and the harmonium imposed by his Minister of Information of Information & Broadcasting BV Keskar. This was corrected later and the Vividh Bharti Service begun in 1957. Various media units like Publications Division, Song & Drama Division, Films Division, and Children Film Society were created in the 1950s. Film Institute and National School of Drama were set up. However, in his obsession with the Soviet model, private entrepreneurship was discouraged. Since the film Industry was ignored (except for Censorship) Indian cinema flourished in 1950s and 1960s because it was left alone by the Government except for Censorship and high taxation.
The Governments after Nehru were happy to carry with the status quo. Mrs. Indira Gandhi increased state control on the sector and though she set up the Film Finance Corporation and formalized the International Film Festival and helped usher in TV in India, her handling of the media with heavy hands during the emergency is too well known to be repeated. Rajiv Gandhi allowed Independent TV but fell short of permitting private broadcasters. In spite of the fact many film stars entered politics, nothing substantive happened for films. Narasimha Rao’s Government, in a general relaxation of trade controls, helped open up the Broadcasting and Telecom sector. Atal Bihari Vajpayee's notable contribution was granting Industry status to the Media & Entertainment sector and pushes the mobile revolution. The first Manmohan Singh government was generally pushing economic reforms and this helped Media & Entertainment too. I remember as the President of the Film & TV Producers Guild, I had the good fortune to meet him a few times and he responded to the need of reform in the new Information, Communication Sector by setting up an empowered committee on ICE (of which I was a member). We worked hard (specially Karan Karnik and me) and prepared a comprehensive report, which though accepted informally by the Government, remained lost in the quagmire of Delhi’s power corridors. Nothing much happened since then except more politicization of the sector, specially news media. The present Government is largely indifferent to the sector except for News and has not altered the landscape. Another group of cronies has replaced the earlier set of political appointees.
So much about history. What needs to be done for present and future? India is the only major country in the world without a broadcast regulator. An ill-equipped Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI) has been trying to handle the important and vital sector of Broadcasting and New Media on an ad hoc basis even as India becomes a digital nation. We need a Convergence Commission on the lines of FCC or OFCOM to oversee the new Digital world of Content, platforms, access, and devices. This should have Industry experts and others with domain knowledge and not retired and serving bureaucrats or telecom officers. There is an inherent conflict in the role of Ministry of Information & Broadcasting and Ministry of Telecommunications & Information Technology. Besides the HRD Ministry handles IPR (Copyright) and Culture Ministry does its sideshow. Its time we have one omnibus Ministry handling all subjects relating to Media & Entertainment. Lets not forget, the global Media & Entertainment is a USD 2 trillion Industry while in India we are struggling to reach even USD 30 billion! The G20 countries have a Media & Entertainment sector averaging 3-5 % of GDP while India is at 1%. So much for soft power and knowledge economy.
For the past two decades, various committees have been set up to draft a new law on Film and Content Certification but I doubt whether any Government has the political to actually amend the outdated guidelines. The number of cinema screens has actually fallen from 13000 in 1975 to 10000 today while China has grown from 8000 screens to 60000 in 20 years. One of the reasons is the archaic laws which states have regarding the building of cinema theatres. We have an over regulated Broadcast sector where controlling news seems to be the only priority of every government. The rest of the business be damned. This Government and the previous one are indifferent to Entertainment segment except when it comes to talking of soft power. Why don’t we have a plan? Why is Niti Aayog sleeping over an Industry which provides 8 to 10 million people with direct and indirect employment and which has the potential to more than double its size in five years with just the right impetus? If you take out Prasar Bharti and other Government bodies there the Union Government does not spend even Rs300 crore per annum on this sector?
Why should Government run a film festival where Ministers and their favourites strut around? Why can't the Government set aside Rs 100 crore annually and support the two dozen odd film festivals held around the country? Why shouldn’t ICCR and Indian missions abroad promote Indian cinema overseas as a regular task? After all, movies are our best cultural ambassadors. Why should the Government be in the business of producing feature films and documentaries? Why can't we just put aside Rs 200 crore a year to give subsidy to deserving young filmmakers specially the debutants? Why should large Government delegations with Ministers and Bureaucrats and random acolytes romp around at film festivals, selling India as a filming destination to non-descript filmmakers? When we do not have a National Film Commission to handle this. Why should film tickets be taxed at 28% GST? Why should one and all be allowed to disrupt screenings of a legally certified film?
Prasar Bharti is another institution headed the Air India /BSNL way-overstaffed and ill-equipped to handle 21st-century broadcasting. Sure we need a Public Broadcaster but does it have to run so many vague and poorly produced channels. Let them have 1 National Channel and one regional channel broadcast from every state capital and let it be quality programming instead of boring and second-rate stuff. In this Digital Age where conventional broadcasting is living its last decade, we are still debating about controlling media and platforms. And whether FM stations be allowed news broadcast. Without understanding the lay of tomorrow land we are still debating about fake news and trolling. In 5 years this will be obsolete. Do we have a blueprint or even the regulatory ecosystem of the new age media and entertainment? If the Government is not ready the opposition is more ignorant and too busy engaging in dogfights on News Channels watched by less than 10 % of the population. The Government and opposition alike along with a few million avid news watchers are paying far too much importance to these news channels which hardly broadcast news but merely create sensationalism in a partisan manner.
The future lies in the Digital space. The present debate about fake news, bots and trolling is a phase which is about to run its course within the next few years. With AI, curation and customization, news and information will be focused and personalized. Why is the Government wasting so much energy trying to monitor the news? It's like trying to control the vast expanse of interstellar space. We must have a group of experts and not Ministers and bureaucrats working on the future of our web-based content and delivery. Unfortunately, we have half-baked self-styled IT cells headed by vague people. Digitization is a force multiplier and 'I support Aadhaar', for example, is a great initiative of this government. The obsession with privacy will soon be forgotten as in the world the tools to safeguard whatever information we want to conceal will be built in the websites and applications themselves. The rest, in any case, is in the public domain.
I agree that for too long our cultural elite and institutions have been in the stranglehold of a chosen few with a particular point of view. We can and should overhaul this system but let's get competent people to run these institutions. Ideological battles are won intellectually and not by coercion. I am not one of those who believe our freedom of expression is in peril. The fact is there is a political realignment and there is a paradigm shift in the Industry structure which is causing disquiet. That said, the government should also stop trying to control the media. If the Prime Minister is correctly briefed on the potential of this Industry things can change. I believe we need the right creative environment and also good financial and regulatory ecosystem. We need a new cultural renaissance for the new India. The Prime Minister has reformed many sectors of our economy and industry then why not Media & Entertainment? A nation of 1.3 billion people wants options to be informed and entertained in Digital India. I only wish that before we celebrate our 75th anniversary of Independence we had a National Media & Entertainment policy framework, which takes into account the rapidly changing world. This is too important a sector to be neglected.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.