ON 15 SEPTEMBER 1959, India’s national television station, Doordarshan, made its first experimental telecast out of a makeshift studio in Delhi. It was not until 1982, however—with the Delhi Asian Games looming—that Doordarshan started regular national broadcasts. Both Doordarshan and All India Radio, which had been in operation since 1930, were units of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting until 1997, when the government established a new autonomous body incorporating both services, to be called Prasar Bharati. Though the act to create a putatively independent broadcasting corporation was passed in 1990 (and not implemented for another seven years), the argument for autonomy had been discussed for decades, with the hope that it would foster more professional and unbiased state broadcasters.
But autonomy and professionalism continue to elude Prasar Bharati. India’s public broadcaster is still mired in a web of political interference, bureaucratic lethargy, nepotism and corruption. The result: an embarrassing waste of public funds, year after year, to produce insipid programming that mostly covers government events and retains little credibility among audiences. While Doordarshan and All India Radio once enjoyed a monopoly over India’s airwaves, viewers have largely moved to the hundreds of private television channels and radio stations that have opened up since 1991—and yet India’s public networks still have the widest reach and the most lavish funding of any Indian broadcaster.
For the current financial year, Prasar Bharati has been allocated a whopping Rs 2,180 crore ($363 million) as grant-in-aid from the government; in the five years leading up to 2012, it received more than Rs 12,000 crore ($2 billion). Compare this to NDTV, one of the country’s leading English networks, which had an annual turnover of only Rs 409 crore ($68 million) last year. To put Prasar Bharati’s funding into a global perspective, the royal family of Qatar spent $137 million to launch Al Jazeera in 1997, built its globally influential English-language channel with another $1 billion, and now backs the network with $100 million annually. Given that it has equal or greater finances at its disposal, India’s public broadcasting corporation should be serving up higher quality programming and besting the country’s private channels, if not global juggernauts like Al Jazeera and the BBC.