Angered by Prasar Bharati’s Defiance, Smriti Irani Blocks Salary Funds for DD, AIR

New Delhi: At war with Prasar Bharati over its refusal to pay nearly Rs 3 crore as fees to a private company at the cost of national television channel Doordarshan, I&B minister Smriti Irani has taken the unprecedented step of withholding funds the The public broadcaster has had to pay the salaries of its employees for January and February out of a contingency fund, says Surya Prakash, chairman of the Prasar Bharati board.
public broadcaster needs to pay the salaries of its employees.

As a result of her punitive action – unparalleled in the history of the government of India – Prasar Bharati (PB) has had to pay staff salaries for January and February out of a contingency fund, Surya Prakash, chairman of the PB board, told The Wire. If the standoff continues, the broadcaster will run out of money by April.

It’s a bit like finance minister Arun Jaitley making it hard for the RBI to pay its staff because he does not like the interest rates.

The Union government earmarked around Rs 2,800 crores in budget 2018-19 towards Prasar Bharati. The allocation is routed through the I&B ministry, which releases money to PB on a month-to-month basis for the salaries of its approximately 5,000 employees.

Prasar Bharati sources say that every month the ministry has been raising queries and creating problems before releasing the money. But since December, it has not released money for salaries, forcing a drawdown of contingency funds.

The crisis, they say, began after Surya Prakash, who heads the ‘autonomous’ institution, started questioning some of Smriti Irani’s actions.

Apart from rejecting the ministry’s demand that Doordarshan pay a private company Rs 2.92 crore for an assignment it says was unnecessarily outsourced, Prakash and his board angered Irani by blocking a move to fill two key editorial posts with journalists whose salaries would have been much higher than PB could bear.

Though the journalists were nominated by a search committee, Irani is said to have personally backed their selection. One of the nominees functions as her “unofficial media advisor”, ministry sources said.

At the Prasar Bharati board meeting on February 15, the I&B ministry’s representative, Ali Rizvi, allegedly threatened to withhold the money for employee salaries. “How dare you talk like this on a budget allocation?”, Prakash is said to have shouted, leading to heated arguments. “The monthly transfer of salaries to government staffers working in Doordarshan and All India Radio is a budget commitment … it does not come from your home,” Prakash said, sources familiar with what transpired in the meeting told The Wire.

DD and AIR have around 1000 of their own staff including casual and contract employees. Their salary bill has to be met from Prasar Bharati’s own revenue. But there are more than 5000 Central government employees whose emoluments come from Central funds.

Controversy over selection of private firm

While the appointments issue has gone on to a back-burner for now, the ministry’s insistence on DD paying a private company for the footage it provided from the International Film Festival of India (IFFI) held recently in Goa has led to an open revolt in Mandi House, where Prasar Bharati is headquartered.

Right from the time the film festival started, Doordarshan has always covered the inauguration and the closing ceremony. But in 2017, soon after getting the coveted I&B portfolio, officials say that Irani abruptly “snatched” this away from DD. She did not even bother to give any reasons for this on file, senior officials familiar with her decision told The Wire. She also transferred the management of IFFI from the ministry’s directorate of film festivals to the public sector National Film Development Corporation (NFDC).

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