TELEVISION the world over is said to be overlain with traumas: of violence, of unbridled sex, of triviality, of soap operas, of pinheadedness. But what is traumatic about Indian television is the lack of trauma. Even though it has to a large extent avoided the 'cultural imperialism' of the West (unlike Bangladesh, Thailand or the Philippines), India has a TV System that plays a very bland, low-key part in the national consciousness.
Up to a million sets parcelled out between four metropolises, some 3,000 other cities and 560,000 villages is very small beer. The ten million viewers for a national hook-up claimed by a recent Minister of Information and Broadcasting is tiny for a population of some 700 million.
But compared to what people in India can afford, even that would seem a respectable showing, A colour TV set costs $967 while the per capita income of an Indian is on average $120 a year. Still, those who can afford TV sets number more than the population of Sweden, Norway, Finland. Holland and Belgium put together.
What makes the Indian case unique is that. side by side with its grinding poverty and a seemingly stagnant countryside, India has about 120 universities and the largest stock of scientifically-trained manpower outside the USA and the Soviet Union; it can cobble up a satellite or explode a nuclear device, build aircraft and ships and, of course, fabricate its own television sets.
With all this comes the opportunity to use TV in the villages to educate and sharpen the skills of ordinary people and to give the process of development a hard shove. But how far has India got towards coming to grips with the challenge?
Its own satellite, INSAT 1 A, planned by Indian scientists, built by the Americans and launched by them in April 1982, gave India the promise of widespread TV coverage — through direct reception sets or via earth stations. In the event INSAT 1 A was a failure. Dogged by defects from the start, it stopped sending out signals after less than six months.
But had the satellite functioned or had there been a reasonable grid of terrestrial stations, would Indian TV have been able to leave a stamp on the political process, on education or development?
At the moment it has little or no impact. It doesn't affect the electoral game, the political parties or the public agencies, or public awareness in general.
There are current affairs programmes in which MPs. journalists and others take part. But they are all done in an ambience set by a bureaucracy dominated monopoly for whom few things could be more remote than a - right to know' and where broadcasting functionaries are obsequious government officials for whom obedience is religion and independent thought a frightening heresy.
The Janata Party came to power in 1979 with a pledge to 'free broadcasting'. They didn't do that, slipping easily into the mentality of their predecessors. But they did introduce party political broadcasts, Mrs Gandhi didn't reverse the decision but also didn't allow the use of broadcasting during India's Presidential election of July 1982. Though the official candidate was seen constantly on the screen, his opponent had a hard job getting even into the newsreels.
More and more the veil between the government and the party gets torn away. If Mrs. Gandhi makes a political speech in Kashmir in which she criticises the functioning of that state's Chief Minister (who doesn't belong to her party), it is put out in toto on television. Whether she speaks as head of a party or as Prime Minister is no longer questioned.
The character of Indian broadcasting is that it is not democratic and has no public accountability. If radio and TV pedestal Mrs Gandhi and her son Rajiv and their coterie there is no public channel through which to press for redress. On 4 October 1982 a very large rally against war was held in Delhi by opposition parties; by all accounts a mammoth gathering. The opposition complained that the broadcasters gave the rally very short shrift. Who is to judge newsworthiness and whose judgement will carry clout?
But could Indian TV even have a more purely educational role? This is a country with 314.6 million illiterates and schools where the dropout rate is as high as 70 per cent. Can TV help us reach development quicker? That certainly was the idea of a very bold experiment, SITE (Satellite Instructional Television Experiment), which brought television direct into 2,330 villages; villages which had never even seen the likes of television and into some of which not even a newspaper had found its way.
The telecasts lasted just one year from 1 August 1975. As management it was a triumph To have TV sets serviced in remote villages, to feed the satellite, and to arrange for sociological evaluation— all this indicated managerial ability of a high order- mainly to the credit of the Indian Space Research Organisation, The programmes( science programmes excluded) were the responsibility of Doordarshan, the government TV service.
The programmes were instructional only for 30 per cent of the time and in one year, if you took specific things like nutrition, health, agriculture, hygiene or family planning, the exposure (even if one watched with unfailing regularity) was a few hours in all. That can hardly change lifestyles or thought-styles.
That said, there were some positives: teacher-training by TV was accounted a success; there were some gains in health and nutrition innovation and awareness of animal husbandry showed a positive gain.
In the six years since SITE, however, the terrestrially, transmitted rural television has turned very nondescript. For most northern stations the programmes have been made in Delhi. many hundreds of miles away from the soil in which they are to be sown. Staff have been very reluctant to go and work in the outback.
But there has been one refreshing exception to all this. Besides the villages covered by SITE there were an extra 355 villages in Gujarat's Kheda districts served by a special rural transmitter. The Kheda effort was an offshoot of the Indian Space Research Organisation which, though nominally part of government, was yet so prestigious that it had to have lots of freedom and flexibility. And it reared a school of bright producers and researchers who showed much insight about making rural programmes in a society' mottled with caste prejudices and economic inequalities.
They looked upon TV as a two way medium and used portable video recorders to get the villagers to see themselves and to get thoroughly familiar with the medium. They also put a lot of emphasis on entertainment formats like traditional drama to get development messages across.
All these qualities and experiments are now in danger. Their TV unit has now been fully integrated into the official service and though there is now a twilight period, the dead hand of bureaucratic television will soon snuff out all flickers of life. Members of the staff have already left and those remaining are unsettled.
There never will be autonomy in Indian television because there never has been any culture of autonomy. After Independence Nehru went on record saying that the structure to aspire to was a corporation like the BBC. That was a pipe dream. Neither the politician, nor the party boss, nor the civil servant in India has any idea of the nature, value, power and unavoidability of the electronic media They only have an instinctive feeling that it could be a runaway horse unless harnessed, blinkered and led.
Mrs. Gandhi has never equivocated. In April 1982 she said that she did not favour giving autonomy to radio and TV 'just now'. She went revealingly further: 'There is need to build the people's self-confidence and where the Press do not co-operate it is necessary for radio and TV to step in and play the role of confidence builder'. Mrs Gandhi and her government don't have it in their political philosophy to concede any flexibility or freedom to broadcasting in India, to admit that it is a public responsibility, not a governmental privilege.