India’s public service broadcaster at center of political row


The India media is the subject of the news yet again. This time though, the private news channels — the usual suspects – are only reporting the news. Instead, the latest war of words among politicians has thrown the public service broadcaster, Doordarshan, into the limelight.

Narendra Modi, prime ministerial candidate for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was interviewed by Doordarshan, and it appears that comments he made about a friendship with a senior member of the ruling Indian National Congress were edited out of the final interview. The news broke on social media, and immediately the channel was accused of censoring the statements that might make Congress seem too chummy with their sworn opposition.

The CEO of Doordarshan, Jawhar Sircar, in a letter to the board of Prasar Bharti, the autonomous body that runs the channel, made it very clear that the public broadcaster does indeed suffer from government interference. Reportedly, Sircar wrote in his letter that there has been a lost opportunity to convince a “young minister to break this long traditional linkage between the ministry and the News Division, which has continued unabated long after Prasar Bharati was born and assigned its distinct role in 1997”. This is a direct reference to the current Minister of Information and Broadcasting, Manish Tewari. In the same report, carried by the Economic Times, a member of the Congress have rubbished this claim, saying that Sircar is “merely currying favour with the new dispensation as he had never raised the issue of autonomy earlier”.

Narendra Modi interview isn’t the first time Sircar has brought up the question of autonomy for the broadcaster. Sircar’s personal website carried news items relating to “freeing Prasar Bharti from government control”, papers that suggest DD could follow the BBC’s annual license fee model, as well as older news items about how the channel, under the Congress-led UPA government has previously neglected to give Narendra Modi the kind of airtime the private channels have accorded. For his part, Minister Tewari has made a statement that “autonomy of Prasar Bharti is guaranteed by an act of Parliament. I&B ministry has an arms length relationship with Prasar Bharti”.

One can be sure the complaints about airtime will be flipped around if another party forms the government. Therefore, politics aside, the basic question needs to be addressed: despite an autonomous status, does the government in fact wield undue influence over Prasar Bharti (which includes radio as well)?

The current structure of the public broadcaster stands as such: the Prasar Bharti is an autonomous body that answers to the Parliament of India through the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting. All of its staff are officers recruited through the Union Public Service Commission, and are transferred to their positions at Prasar Bharti after having served in other government departments. There is belief that this might be the reason for the “government” mindset shown in the two directorates under the body; All India Radio or Akashvani, and Doordarshan, the television broadcaster. In fact, till 1997, both had been directly under the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, but had been given this separation to be able to function in a “fair, objective and creative manner”.

The government had appointed a committee under Sam Pitroda, a man who is credited for helping Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi bring the telecom revolution to India in the 1980s, to present a report on the function of Prasar Bharti. The report batted for more autonomy for the broadcaster, but went further and suggested that it also be open to use private sources of funding and monetizing its assets. In an event to release the report, Pitroda said that the broadcaster must “look at public interest and not just government interest”. Along with input on technology, human resource and content, the two volume report (which had the current CEO as a member) also delves into government and organisation. The suggestions include transferring complete ownership and management of assets to Prasar Bharti to make the organisation administratively and financially autonomous of the government, and setting up a regulatory body to ensure public accountability of all content on their radio and television networks, while acknowledging that the state does have a distinct requirement to “broadcast messages and accomplishments of public interest which can be met by using existing public and private broadcaster infrastructure”.

The report was submitted to the government in February 2014, and is “under consideration”. It will be up to the next government, to be formed in mid-May, to take action, especially in light of the recent controversy.

Not all are convinced of real change taking place on the ground. In editorial a few months before the report was released, the Pioneer suggested that “the Government supports the idea of an autonomous public broadcaster, in practice it has never been able to let go. Unless this fundamental dichotomy is resolved —either the Government gives up control or relinquishes the autonomy idea — the Government will continue to have a complicated relationship with Prasar Bharati, no matter how many expert committees it sets up. In the meantime, the tax-payer-funded broadcaster will continue to drain the exchequer and be of even less use to the public.” Others, such as media analyst Sevanti Ninan of The Hoot even questioned the genuine interest the government has in reforming the broadcaster by initiating the Pitroda expert committee, asking: “I don’t know why they are undertaking this just before the elections time because if there are radical recommendations there is no time to implement them.” In an article on the subject she addresses the crucial question of attracting talent, writing that “to attract the best personnel the salary/ package should be linked with the market compensation. The tenure of full time members should be for a period of five years and for the Independent Directors for a period of three years. So, no more pegging salaries at a level that only attracts applications from former government personnel. The CEO of Prasar Bharati so far, in its 16 years of existence, has always been a former IAS officer.” There are also serious updates needed in technology upgradation, content and presentation of the news.

For the moment, Doordarshan is thinking about probing into the matter of the edited Narendra Modi interview. But the larger problem cannot be solved on a case-to-case basis. Since 1996, Pitroda’s would be the fourth panel the government has created to look into this issue of Prasar Bharti. It would well be worth the effort for a new government to give the public service broadcaster to the public.

This article was posted on May 9, 2014 at

India fails to throw weight behind NETmundial


India was among the few governments that did not sign the NETmundial outcome statement. But why does it seem that the world’s largest democracy is not putting its weight behind a “bottom-up, open, and participatory” multistakeholder process?

In his address to the NETmundial gathering, Vinay Kwatra, the official Indian representative said, “We recognize the important role that various stakeholders play in the cyber domain, and welcome involvement of all legitimate stakeholders in the deliberative and decision making process. Internet is used for transactions of core economic, civil and defence assets at national level and in the process, countries are placing their core national security interests in this medium. Now with such expansive coverage of States’ activities through the internet, the role of the governments in the Internet governance, of course in close collaboration and consultation with other stakeholders is an imperative.”

The message was clear. The internet has a large role to play in India’s national policy goals, and to that end, a global internet governance ecosystem has to be managed, at the international level, by multilateral mechanisms.

India has over 200 million Internet users — with about 52 million subscriptions — over 900 million mobile telephone subscribers. These numbers are only going to grow. Kwatra, continuing his address, added that, “On our part, however, we would have liked to some of important principles and ideas, highlighted by us and many other countries reflected in the draft outcome document… (we) look forward to constructively engaging with other delegations in collectively contribute to making the Internet open, dynamic and secure, and its governance balanced between rights and responsibilities of all its stakeholders.” (sic)

Kwatra was speaking, of course, at NETmundial, dubbed the “world cup of internet governance.” Held in Sao Paolo, Brazil, on April 23-24, 2014, the conference was announced by Brazil President Dilma Rousseff. The entire chain of events can be traced back to the revelations by Edward Snowden that the US’s National Security Agency had been spying on its own citizens and other countries alike, including the personal communication of President Rousseff. In a heated statement at the UN General Assembly in September 2013, she called for the UN to oversee a new global legal system to govern the internet. She said such multilateral mechanisms should guarantee the “freedom of expression, privacy of the individual and respect for human rights” and the “neutrality of the network, guided only by technical and ethical criteria, rendering it inadmissible to restrict it for political, commercial, religious or any other purposes.

Soon, after a brief consultation with Fadi Chehade in October 2013, the head of ICANN — Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers an organization thatcoordinates the Internet’s global domain name system, the dates of NETmundial was announced. And to add expectation to the event, in March 2014, the the U.S. Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) announced its intent to transition key internet domain name functions to the global multistakeholder community. It clarified that it would not hand over ICANN to any government-led body. Suddenly, NETmundial gained weight as it was to be the next international forum where the future of internet governance was to be debated – and now one of the organizations government a part of the internet was in play. A far cry from what President Rousseff had suggested in the UN General Assembly, instead of talking about an international legal regime to govern cyberspace, the focus of the meeting turned to multistakeholderism as the way forward in the sphere of internet governance.

The draft outcome statement and the subsequent final outcome state released after the two-day conference is a result of 180 input documents and 1300 comments from over 47 countries, and the work of the 1229 delegates from 97 countries who attended NETmundial. India had an official delegation as well as civil society participants who attended the meeting. In fact, an Indian academic was chosen to co-chair the organizing committee for civil society for the event. Remote participations hubs were set up in cities around the country, including Gurgaon, Chennai and Bangalore. Within the Indian contingent too, as with any large country, there are divergent views on the governance framework to be taken for the internet, with those who support the governments view for multilateralism at the international level and multistakeholderism at home, and those who oppose the official view and encourage an international multistakeholder regime.

The final statement – though non-binding – has squarely put its weight behind multistakeholderism. It talks about protecting the ‘rights that people have offline, must be protected online… in accordance with international human rights legal obligations.’ It also champions cultural and linguist diversity, which was part of India’s official submission to NETmundial. However, when the document starts to tilt towards governance structure is where it diverges from the official Indian position, with language such as – “internet governance institutions and processes should be inclusive and open to all interested stakeholders. Processes, including decision making, should be bottom-up, enabling the full involvement of all stakeholders, in a way that does not disadvantage any category of stakeholder.”

In the crucial area of cyber jurisdiction, it says, ‘It is necessary to strengthen international cooperation on topics such as jurisdiction and law enforcement assistance to promote cybersecurity and prevent cybercrime. Discussions about those frameworks should be held in a multistakeholder manner.’ On surveillance, the most controversial topic from 2013 which prompted the Netmundial meeting in the first place, the document says, ‘Mass and arbitrary surveillance undermines trust in the Internet and trust in the Internet governance ecosystem. Collection and processing of personal data by state and non-state actors should be conducted in accordance with international human rights law. More dialogue is needed on this topic at the international level using forums like the Human Rights Council and IGF aiming to develop a common understanding on all the related aspects.’

The reaction to Netmundial has been varied, depending on whom you ask. There are those who have hailed it as a first positive step towards a multistakeholder process, and are encouraged to find that participants found more things to agree on than disagree. The US called it a “huge success”. The European Commission felt Netmundial put it on the “right track.” Many big businesses released statements indicating they were pleased at the outcome. The civil society group at Netmundial expressed ‘deep disappointment’ that the outcome statement did not address key concerns like surveillance and net neutrality. Others commentators hailed it a big success for big business as it was able to ‘grab the ball on three important points: intellectual property; net neutrality; and intermediary liability’.

In a sense, India’s refusal to sign the outcome statement, and instead take back to its stakeholders seems to be completely aligned with its stated view of the internet. If, as documentation suggests, the internet is being viewed by India as not merely an open, free, global commons that should remain untouched by any major governmental control, but instead a resource that needs to reflect the values of an ‘equinet’ – a platform for commerce, e-governance, national security mechanism to be achieved through fair playing rules established by a ‘globally acceptable legal regime’ and a ‘new cyber jurisprudence’, then there is a long battle ahead. The official Indian argument does not need to be viewed through the lens that presupposes it wishes to inflict censorship in the manner that an authoritarian government might. The argument must be weighed on the merits of this line of thought – that for Indian netizens, business, and even state surveillance to survive, it must be the government who reflects the national interest in international platforms, after having consulted stakeholders back home.

It certainly seems that the weight and development of a billion people sits heavy on the shoulders of the Indian government. The question is: does it need to lead them to the world wide web, or can they find it themselves?

This article was posted on May 1, 2014 at

India’s elections: Hate speech and the “greatest show on Earth”

Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi filed his nomination papers from Vadodara Lok Sabha seat amid tight security on April 6. (Photo: Nisarg Lakhmani / Demotix)

Gujarat Chief Minister and BJP prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi filed his nomination papers from Vadodara Lok Sabha seat amid tight security on April 6. (Photo: Nisarg Lakhmani / Demotix)

Electioneering for the Indian elections of 2014 has reached a fever pitch. Never before in the history of modern India has it seemed likely that the country is ready to cut its cord with the Congress Party’s Gandhi family, and never before has its chief opposition party, the Bharatiya Janta Party (BJP) been projected as the sole inheritance of one man – Narendra Modi.

The “greatest show on Earth” – the Indian elections – is underway.  There are 37 days of polling across 9 states, with a 814 million strong electorate, and more than 500 political parties to choose from. The hoardings all seem to scream the “development” agenda, but unfortunately in India, this conversation seems to be skating on thin ice. Cracks quickly appear, and beneath the surface, political parties seem to be indulging in the same hate speech, communal politicking and calculations that work to polarise the electorate and garner votes.

Hate speech in India is monitored by a number of laws in India. These are under the Indian Penal Code (Sections 153[A], Section 153[B], Section 295, Section 295A, Section 298, Section 505[1], Section 505 [2]), the Code of Criminal Procedure (Section 95) and Representation of the People Act (Section 123[A], Section 123[B]). The Constitution of India itself guarantees freedom of expression, but with reasonable restricts. At the same time, in response to a Public Interest Litigation by an NGO looking to curtail hate speech in India, the Court ruled that it cannot “curtail fundamental rights of people. It is a precious rights guaranteed by Constitution… We are 128 million people and there would be 128 million views.” Reflecting this thought further, a recent ruling by the Supreme Court of India, the bench declared that the “lack of prosecution for hate speeches was not because the existing laws did not possess sufficient provisions; instead, it was due to lack of enforcement.” In fact, the Supreme Court of India has directed the Law Commission to look into the matter of hate speech — often with communal undertones — made by political parties in India. The court is looking for guidelines to prevent provocative statements.

Unenviably, it is the job of India’s Election Commission to ensure that during the elections, the campaigning adheres to a strict Model Code of Conduct. Unsurprisingly, the first point in the EC’s rules (Model Code of Conduct) is: “No party or candidate shall include in any activity which may aggravate existing differences or create mutual hatred or cause tension between different castes and communities, religious or linguistic.” The third point states that “There shall be no appeal to caste or communal feelings for securing votes. Mosques, churches, temples or other places of worship shall not be used as forum for election propaganda.”

This election season, the EC has armed itself to take on the menace of hate speeches. It has directed all its state chief electoral officers to closely monitor campaigns on a daily basis that include video recording of all campaigns. Only with factual evidence in hand can any official file a First Information Report (FIR), and a copy of the Model Code of Conduct is given along with all written permissions to hold rallies and public meetings.

As a result, many leaders have been censured by the EC for their alleged hate speeches during the campaign. The BJP’s Amit Shah was briefly banned by the EC for his campaign speech in the riot affected state of Uttar Pradesh, that, Shah had said that the general election, especially in western UP, “is one of honour, it is an opportunity to take revenge and to teach a lesson to people who have committed injustice”. He has apologized for his comments. Azam Khan, a leader from the Samajwadi Party, was banned from public rallies by the EC after he insinuated in a campaign speech that the 1999 Kargil War with Pakistan had been won by India on account of Muslim soldiers in the Army. The EC called both these speeches, “highly provocative (speeches) which have the impact of aggravating existing differences or create mutual hatred between different communities.”

Other politicians have jumped on the bandwagon as well. Most recently, the Vishwa Hindu Parishad’s Praveen Togadia has been reported as making a speech targeting Muslims who have bought properties in Hindu neighborhoods. “If he does not relent, go with stones, tyres and tomatoes to his office. There is nothing wrong in it… I have done it in the past and Muslims have lost both property and money,” he has said. There was the case of Imran Masood of the Congress who threatened to “chop into pieces” BJP Prime Ministerial candidate Narendra Modi – a remark that forced Congress’s senior leader Rahul Gandhi to cancel his rally in the same area following the controversy that erupted. Then there is Modi-supporter Giriraj Singh who has said that “people opposed to Modi will be driven out of India and they should go to Pakistan.” In South India, Telangana Rashtra Samithi (TRS) president K Chandrasekhar Rao termed both TDP and YSR Congress (YSRCP) as ‘Andhra parties’ and urged the people of Telangana to shunt them out of the region. The Election Commission has directed district officials to present the video footage of his speeches at public meetings, in order to determine punishment, if needed. Karnataka Chief Minister Siddaramaiah has been served notice by the EC for calling Narendra Modi a “mass murderer”; a reference to his alleged role in the Gujarat riots of 2002.

Shekhar Gupta, editor of the national paper, the Indian Express has published a piece ominously titled “Secularism is Dead,” but instead appeals to the reader to have faith in Indian democracy far beyond what some petty communal politicians might allow. The fact that the BJP’s Prime Ministerial candidate is inextricability linked in public consciousness to communal riots in his home state of Gujarat has only compounded speeches over and above what people believe is the communal politics of the BJP that stands for the Hindu majority of India. In contrast, many believe that by playing to minority politics, the Congress indulges in a different kind of communal politics. And then there are countless regional parties, creating constituencies along various caste and regional fissures.

However, perhaps the last word can be given to commentator Pratap Bhanu Mehta who writes of the Indian election: “But what is it about the structures of our thinking about communalism that 60 years after Independence, we seem to be revisiting the same questions over and over again? Is there some deeper phenomenon that the BJP-Congress system seems two sides of the same coin to so many, even on this issue? The point is not about the political equivalence of two political parties. People will make up their own minds. But is there something about the way we have conceptualised the problem of majority and minority, trapped in compulsory identities, that makes communalism the inevitable result?”

It is this inevitability of communal diatribe, of the lowest common denominators in politics that Indian politics need to rise above. This is being done, one comment at a time, as long as the Election Commission is watching. The bigger challenge lies beyond the results of 16 May, 2014.

This article was posted on 22 April 2014 at

Controversy surrounds India’s biometric database


(Image: Sergey Nivens/Shutterstock)

Established in 2009 by executive order, the Unique Identification Number Authority of India (UIDAI) has taken on the monumental challenge of issuing each resident of the country with a Unique Identification Number (UID), more commonly known as the Aadhaar card. The driving idea behind the card was to ensure that residents could have a singular identification card that can eliminate duplicate and fake identities and also can be verified in a cost effective manner. Biometrics are the primary method for identification, while other details such as addresses, family, and even bank accounts are linked to the card.

Recently, the UIDAI was in the news as it challenged an order by the Goa High Court to share biometric details of all enrolled Goa residents with India’s Central Bureau of Investigation in order to solve an investigation. The Supreme Court of India ruled that UIDAI did not need to share its data with any agency of the government without the consent of those in its database. In his blog, the former Chairman of UIDAI (and currently running for a seat in India’s hotly contested national elections) Nandan Nilekani wrote: “We have always stated that the data collected from residents would remain private, and not be shared with other agencies.”

An audible sigh of relief was heard in the media from privacy activists who were concerned that the data collected by the UIDAI would be easily accessed by any government agency once it was in the system. This concern for privacy and data protection isn’t completely unfounded. Indian media has reported on grave gaps in the data collection process. In March 2013, a Mumbai paper reported that data collected from residents in 2011 was still lying around in cupboards in a suburb, despite the area residents repeatedly reminding the authorities to take away the information.  The same state had, in 2013,  “admitted the loss of personal data of about 3 lakh [100,000] applicants for Aadhaar card”, an error that sparked concerns over possible misuse of the data, not to mention the trouble of having to register personal data all over again. According to the report, the data had been lost while uploading from the state information technology department to the UIDAI central server in Bangalore, Karnataka. Government officials tried to assure the public that the data was highly encrypted and could not be misused. However, this incident wasn’t unprecedented. Just the year before, veteran journalist P. Sainath of the Hindu had highlighted this issue in a talk, saying that: “You can buy that data on the streets of Mumbai. It’s already made its way there. What sort of national security will you have when your biometric data is up for grabs all around the planet? You outsourced it to subcontractors who have subcontracted it to further people. It’s now available on the streets of Mumbai, biometric data.”

Given that the government has spent Rs 3800 crore (around $600 million) on the project already, it is interesting to note that India has not yet passed a privacy law, a comprehensive data protection law and nor did the parliament pass the National Identification Authority of India Bill, which was rejected by a parliamentary standing committee on finance in 2011. As was reported at the time, the standing committee rejected the report on the grounds that the scheme had “no clarity of purpose and leaving many things to be sorted out during the course of its implementation; and is being implemented in a directionless way with a lot of confusion”. It also went on to raise concerns about privacy, identity theft, misuse, security of data and duplication during the implementation of the UID scheme, and cited global examples of similar schemes that were rejected.

However, it is useful to see the guiding principles behind the implementation of the scheme that made it so attractive to the Congress-led UPA II government. The spirit of UID seems to lie in two guiding principles; using Public-Private Partnerships (PPPs) to make government more effective, and entering the data game. In a recent interview to the Economic Times, Shrikant Nadhamuni, who headed technology for UIDAI is quoted as saying: “We wanted to move the ID game—from a state where some people had no ID and others had paper ID to something beyond even what Singapore had, in the form of smart cards, to online. Like biometric. Which is the future.”

The basis of the design of what was to become the UID was also laid out in the Report of the Technology Advisory Group for Unique Projects, submitted to the Ministry of Finance in 2011, headed by Nandan Nilekani, a respected figure in Indian business and later to become CEO of UIDAI. Others involved with the report were the chairman of the Security and Exchange Bureau of India (SEBI), the secretary, Department of Telecommunications of the Government of India, the chairman of the privately owned IFMR trust which seeks to ensure that every individual and enterprise has access to financial services, and a few other experts on the subject. Many government officers constituted the secretariat. The report put out some revolutionary ideas about how to integrate private expertise into the public sector. It deduces that “the most important lesson that needs to be acted upon is that business change’ should drive the design and implementation of these projects”.

This was to be done by implementing a National Information Utility (NIU), which would be private companies with a public purpose: profit-making, not-profit maximising. The NIU would be flexible in its functioning, and the government would keep strategic control over the project. Private ownership of the project should be at least 51% and the government’s share at least 26%. Once the NIU is to become steady, the government would become a paying customer and would be free to take its business elsewhere. However, the report also admits that given the massive investments in building the NIUs, they would essentially be set up to be natural monopolies. At the time, the report had looked at the following schemes of the Indian government: Goods and Services Tax (GST), Tax Information Network (TIN), Expenditure Information Network (EIN), National Treasury Management Agency (NTMA) and New Pension System (NPS). The first Unique Project to take off, however, was the UIDAI.

This strategy raised red flags as well. Usha Ramanathan, an academic activist, wrote in Moneylife that: “In this set-up, we are witnessing the emergence of an information infrastructure, which the government helps — by financing and facilitating the ‘start-up’, and by the use of coercion to get people on to the database — which it will then hand over to corporate interests when it reaches a ‘steady state’.” She continues in the same piece that: “The NIU was not explained to parliament, and no one seems to have raised any questions about what it is. This, then, is the story of how the ownership of governmental data by private entities is silently slipping into the system.”

Controversies surround the Aadhar project. Nilekani, who was appointed Chairperson of UIDAI in 2009 by the current UPA government, and simultaneously given the rank of a cabinet minister, is increasingly in the news because rumours are swirling in India that a new government might choose to shelve the project. The card, that was envisioned to become an almost one-stop-shop in the future years regarding the delivery of welfare schemes and subsidies, is no longer mandatory to avail some of these, according to India’s Supreme Court. This is a setback to the government that considered the Aadhar card a method to plug “leaks” in the government delivery systems.  Despite this, reports of data leakage, and even stories of fake Aadhar cards making their way into the news, the current establishment seems hopeful. The deputy chairman of India’s Planning Commission, Montek Ahluwalia, made a statement that the card did not require a legal basis to be used for transferring benefits to citizens, much in the same way citizens are not legally required to hold degrees to gain jobs.

The UIDAI project remains complex – a herculean task. The UK government shelved its identity card project because it was untested and the technology not secure, and because of the risks to the safety and security of citizens. With India in the midst of an election, it remains to be seen what will happen when a new government is formed, and whether the country can succeed in this task.

This article was published on April 10, 2014 at