The All India Radio halted the live broadcast of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s favourite radio programme Mann Ki Baat in ten countries due to the acute shortage of regular employees.
The External Service Division (ESD) of AIR, which broadcasts radio programmes in 15 countries, doesn’t have translator-cum-announcers to interpret and air it. Even the live web-streaming has also been stopped in these languages.
As a substitute, it is posting the translated audio version on the website.
When the government announced a lockdown on March 25, the AIR suspended the live broadcast of its programmes in all 15 languages. However, when the lockdown was lifted, it resumed live broadcast only in five languages, Chinese, Pushto, Dari, Baluchi and Persian.
People associated with the ESD, says that the suspension of services has hit many other shows and programmes related to important government policies.
“In the 80s, there were more than 70 employees out of 108 sanctioned posts (Foreign Languages). Now we are only 6. Rest have retired and in the absence of any rules of appointment, no new recruitment was done,” says an employee requesting anonymity.
He says that Prasar Bharti hires people to work on an assignment basis for six days in a month.
“Earlier some short-term contractual employees were hired which too has now ended. All these are an interim arrangement. Despite there being a casual hand available, they cannot be engaged for more than six days as per the Prasar Bharati policy. It is highly inadequate and cannot fulfil our daily requirement,” he added.
Since Mann Ki Baat is translated in three other languages, Spanish, German and Japanese which are still not part of ESD services, translators for these languages at a government rate is very difficult to find.
“We are somehow managing these languages through some amateur students and external sources, but any experienced person is beyond our reach,” said the employee.
AIR, which started its services in the pre-independence era to propagate India’s viewpoint during World War-II, has two broad divisions – home service and external service.
While the home service runs news and views for the Indian population, ESD does the same for a global audience in 15 foreign languages - Russian, French, Arabic, Burmese, Thai, Indonesian, Tibetian, Swahili, Sinhala, Chinese, Persian, Baluchi, Pushto, Dari and Nepali.
In pre-Covid19 lockdown period, broadcast continued in all these languages with the help of over-worked regular staff and a handful of casual short-term contractual employees.
However, the AIR decided to halt its all foreign languages programmes during Covid-19 lockdown I and II.
“When India-China border stand-off started in June, it resumed the live broadcast in two languages, Chinese and Pushto. Later on, Dari, Baluchi and Persian were also added. But rest of the languages are still on hold,” said an employee associated with ESD on a contractual basis.
Veterans say that the internal rivalries between the two divisions have actually hurt the government’s publicity arm for a global audience.
Before Prasar Bharati came into existence in 1997, both AIR and Doordarshan were directly under the Ministry of Information and broadcasting.
However, bringing the two under one body didn’t help much as the recruitment rules for ESD remained confined to the bureaucratic process and have not come into existence till date.
The 5th Central Pay Commission had made certain strong recommendations regarding the cadre structure of ESD in AIR.
Available documents show these recommendations were examined in the past thoroughly by concerned authorities at all levels including the DG/AIR, CEO Prasar Bharati, Secretary of the concerned Ministry. It was finally approved by the then Minister of Information and Broadcasting.
Parliamentary publications suggest that even a Parliamentary Standing Committee on Ministry of I & B earlier had recommended to mainstream the foreign language cadre of ESD/AIR.
“Why the ESD foreign language cadre not yet restructured? This is beyond anybody’s comprehension. The result can be seen today, that such a vital arm of country’s publicity abroad like ESD is at the brink of collapse”, said an employee at the helm of affairs requesting anonymity.
“We went to court and got orders in our favour but the government still didn’t implement it fully. Since the employees kept retiring, they lost interest in continuing a legal battle. End of the day, it is the government’s loss if the division is shut down,” said another one, retired from the division.
He added, “At the time when we need our views and voices to reach in countries like Indonesia, Burma, Thailand, Tibet, especially when the theatre of geopolitics has shifted to Indo-Pacific region, we are not able to reach such countries through our daily broadcast.”
Employees say that China is far more ahead in international broadcasting beaming to South Asia and countries in the Indo-Pacific region.
They question whether this augers well in our national interest at a time when India is vigorously pursuing its diplomacy and foreign policy in the background of the present geopolitical scenario.
“We are relying on poorly maintained webcasting, without any live-streaming, while the live broadcast is completely stopped at least in 10 foreign languages. When would ESD/AIR resume all its broadcast post-COVID-19 remains a million-dollar question?” said the employee.