|Mamata at the news conference at Writers’|
Calcutta, May 23: Mamata Banerjee today announced that her government would run Saradha-owned channels Tara Music and Tara Newz till an investor offered to take them over, raising questions of administrative propriety and stepping into tricky legal terrain.
Saradha chief Sudipta Sen had served closure notices on the two channels on April 15.
“We are set to run two channels, Tara Newz and Tara Music, for the time being in the public interest. To do that, we have to enact legislation under the provisions of Article 31A(b) of the Constitution. The modalities will be spelt out in the legislation,” Mamata said at Writers’ Buildings this afternoon.
She said Rs 26 lakh would be released from the chief minister’s relief fund to provide an ex gratia of Rs 16,000 each to these two channels’ 168 employees (the actual sum would be Rs 26.88 lakh). The fund is generally used to assist people struck by calamity.
No precedent could be found of a state government running a TV channel though many political parties do so to reach out to supporters. The DMK runs Kalaignar TV in Tamil Nadu; the Telugu Desam owns Studio N in Andhra Pradesh and Kerala has two CPM-backed channels.
Besides, a senior official in Delhi said that telecom regulator Trai had recently restrained state governments from running TV channels after several states applied to the information and broadcasting ministry for permission to do so.
“If the bill (allowing the Bengal government to run these two channels) goes to Delhi for presidential assent, the issue (Trai order) is sure to come up,” the official said.
Although running a channel “for the time being” does not amount to a direct takeover —which involves becoming the owner and bearing the financial liabilities —– the decision has raised questions that neither the chief minister nor any senior official has answered so far:
Why did Mamata zero in on these two channels though several other Saradha Group media outfits — Channel 10 and the newspapers Bengal Post and Sakalbela — were closed after the group went bust?
“Is it the government’s responsibility to run news and music channels?” asked a senior IAS officer, questioning the government’s priorities.
While the decision may be seen as a humanitarian gesture to save jobs, can it be more than a one-off affair?
“Can it be done as a matter of principle?” leader of the Opposition Surjya Kanta Mishra asked. “If several such organisations close down, what will the government’s stand be?”
This isn’t the first time such queries have come up over the Mamata government’s decisions. When the chief minister on May 8 announced a decision to run deposit schemes to protect people from sham companies, many had suggested this was an area best left to the private sector.
Aides said Mamata had been moved by Tara employees’ plight after watching their tearful last programme on April 15. Since it’s a decision by the chief minister, no Trinamul leader wanted to be quoted on the subject.
One party leader said Mamata had done the right thing as the channels can be “utilised subtly” during the election season to reach out to voters.
“Besides, the way the government is planning its association with the channels, there won’t be any major financial liabilities,” he added.
Mamata has clarified that as the government would run the channels for a “specific but short period”, it would not shoulder their past liabilities.
“The Bengal government had earlier run the Great Eastern Hotel for a particular period in 1975 without taking any past liability,” the chief minister said.
She did not say anything about salaries (apart from the ex gratia) or operational costs. Nor did she explain by when her government can start running the channels.
According to an internal note prepared by the department of information and cultural affairs, the government’s decision can be implemented only after the Assembly passes a bill and the President gives assent — usually a time-consuming process.
Some Writers’ sources said the state government could have skirted these problems had it decided to restrict its role to facilitating a staff association’s quest for an investor to take over these channels. Calcutta High Court had allowed the Tara TV Employees Welfare Association to run the two channels after Sen’s closure notice.
There’s an earlier instance too of the Bengal government trying to help an ailing media outfit. In 1974, Siddhartha Shankar Ray’s Congress government had taken over Basumati, a Bengali newspaper that was struggling to survive.
Although the Left Front government carried on supporting Basumati, the newspaper failed to stand up to competition and stopped publishing in the mid-1990s. Government support has kept its press alive but its operations are restricted to printing government documents.
“It (government help) didn’t serve any purpose.… Despite government support, it died a natural death,” a senior Congress leader said.