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Delhi is distant…

The Union Information & Broadcasting Ministry has several divisions that are supposed to take care of the interests of the media:  the Press Information Bureau to disseminate information on government’s plans; the Press Registrar for facilitating publications with registration, imports of machinery, newsprint, etc., the DAVP for a release of government’s advertisements... There is also the mandate to assist small newspapers to help them meet the unequal competition from the bigger ones.

 These divisions have grown into behemoths with a large retinue of officials spread across the country. Not long ago there used to be one principal information officer with the responsibility as the spokesperson for the Prime Minister with deputies assisting different departments. While we had one PIO for years, today we have a PIO cum Director General, assisted by a dozen Additional Directors General and more deputy and assistant DGs.  And there are officers at the regional/state level with little communication with the media for which they are supposed to exist. Regional offices used to take care of press releases, press tours, organising press conferences for ministers…

Delhi also used to organise several important conferences for editors and media persons and visits to projects. Today, the salaries and perks of staff demand so much that these services to media - persons suffer severe cuts! The Economic Editors’ Conference was one such launched by the then Prime Minister in 1966. The annual conference used to provide the opportunity for economic editors to interact with ministers and senior civil servants handling economic portfolios. Spread over three days it used to provide excellent background material for the working of the different departments. It also provided for interactions and the opportunity to apprise policymakers of the impact of economic policies, particularly fiscal, on the different regions from which the editors hailed.

I have had the opportunity to participate in EEC from 1973 for over 40 years. For several years, I used to be the sole representative from the South attending the conference. I presented specific issues concerning the southern states and several of these have been effective. eg. I submitted in 1973 on the Neyveli Lignite Corporation (NLC) requiring urgently additional mining machinery to reach its original target of mining 6.5 MT of lignite. Till then NLC could mine less than 3 MT p.a  plunging it to continuous losses. Mohan Kumarmangalam as the then Steel and Mines Minister, appreciated this and promised attention. Though he died soon after, the steps he initiated resulted in a handsome expansion of mining capacity. After completion of this in 1977, NLC, which was described by Finance Secretary Yardi in the 1973 EEC as a drag on the public sector, turned out to be among the most profitable of PSUs since!

The EEC has been particularly useful to editors from outside Delhi to meet and interact with policymakers. Particularly in the context of the very few policymakers from Delhi, especially the Finance Minister and his senior cabinet colleagues visiting state capitals and with such visits being crowded, regional editors have little access to policy makers.

Sadly, the NDA government seems to be less inclined to hold such interactive sessions. Dr Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram and Yashwant Sinha, who have had long tenures as finance ministers, allotted liberal time for the EEC. Jaswant Singh as finance minister skipped this. Arun Jaitley in NDA II would not provide time for this through 2014 and 2015. Maybe his lack of a finance background can be some reason for this. Neither his deputy Jayant Sinha nor officials of the finance ministry are often seen in Chennai or other state capitals.

It is, even more difficult to get any response from the Press Registrar or the DAVP for letters sent. Surely, the numbers and the stature of such divisions have expanded.

K P Geethakrishnan as Chairman of the Expenditure Reforms Commission delved deep into the working of the different departments. He pointed to the little  work done by many of these and recommended closure of quite a few. Arun Jaitley as then Minister of I&B seemed to have been impressed with the recommendation and was about to act. But with his shifting from I&B, a more kindly

Sushma Swaraj who succeeded him as the I&B Minister dropped the idea. Jaitley is I&B Minister again, assisted by another live wire minister of state. But they seem to be overwhelmed by the politics of administration and not much concerned with vital issues of administration as an essential tool for good governance.

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