Satellites Over South Asia (Courtesy: BookReview)

Broadcasting Culture and the Public Interest, David Page and William Crawley, Sage Publications, New Delhi, 2000, pp. 455, Rs.250.00 India’s Communications Revolution: From Bullock Carts to Cyber Marts, Arvind Singhal and Everett M Rogers, Sage Publications, New Delhi 2000, pp 297, Rs.250.00.

Today, reality and virtual reality are forming a chequerboard of light and shadows, making it difficult to distinguish between the real and the imagined. Increasingly, sound bytes and images are taking over the public space, relegating the world of people to a mere backdrop. The two books above seek to address the issues arising out of India’s entry into this glitzy world of tomorrow: the world of communications and information technology.

In their incisive account of the spread of satellite television in South Asia, David Page William Crawley show that even though we have a large number of channels, the fundamental question regarding public interest and broadcasting still remains. Market and competition do not automatically serve public interest; more choices may merely mean more of the same and can even reduce heterogeneity. Theirs is not a wide-eyed account of the technological marvels, a set of “wows” with a suspension of all critical faculties. In an age where the market is the mantra, Page and Crawley’s willingness to look at such heresies is a refreshing change.

Satellites Over South Asia takes us back to the beginnings of broadcasting in India. It resurrects the question of regionalisation that is as valid today as it was then. Should broadcasting only be with the centre or should it also be with the sate governments? The authors show that initially radio was treated as a devolved provincial subject and the Central Government played little or no role. Even the 1935 Act treated it as a provincial subject with the Central Government retaining control only of its technical development. It was the realisation that the provincial Governments under nationalist leadership could use this medium even against imperial interests that led to the creation of a centralised All India Radio (AIR). No Central Government would henceforth relinquish this monopoly.

While imperial interest was the proximate cause of the development of radio, it was not devoid of romance. Those were the heady days when radio was seen as a wonderful opportunity to bring culture, science and education to the people. It was the first truly mass medium. The print medium is restricted to those who are literate; the radio has no such limitation. In India, there was also the added question of what constitutes a mass language. AIR propagated hybrid Hindustani as the lingua franca, for much the same reasons that Gandhi also suggested Hindustani. This was a battle that ultimately was won by the purists; after independence; both India and Pakistan abandoned Hindustani for its more Sanskritised Hindi and Persianised Urdu versions.

 The book also brings out an interesting chapter in the history of broadcasting in South Asia: that of commercialism and Radio Ceylon in the mid-fifties. Though AIR finally won the battle against Radio Ceylon, thanks to a number of high-powered transmitters it installed and a better coverage, it could only do so after producing its own Radio Ceylon copycat, the Vividh Bharati.
Page and Crawley show that India’s reaction to globalisation — the western invasion of its airwaves — is mirrored by the reaction of other South Asian countries to India. Only Nepal and Sri Lanka have responded to globalisation with some form of community projects, particularly for radio. India seems to be extremely reluctant to allow any form of community broadcasting and has embraced the cause of commercial broadcasting with the fervour of the new convert.

It is difficult to cover the large sweep that Page and Crawley traverse. Their book gives a comprehensive account of the history of broadcasting – initially radio and subsequently television in South Asia. There are a number of interesting vignettes. It is interesting to know that Pakistan TV’s strength in teleplays came from a conscious decision not to let this medium be dominated by the films, unlike Door Darshan (DD) in India.
The central issue of the book is how to meet the challenge of a globalised and a completely commercialised media confronting the nation states today. The response of the centralised state broadcasters has been to mimic the private satellite stations. The struggle for a mass audience leads to the state television becoming satellite television clones, a trajectory that all the state broadcasters seem to be following in South Asia. The options such as regional TV broadcasting and community radio are not on the agenda. Though regional language channels have been launched in India, they are still operating within Door Darshan’s centralised framework. While autonomy of the broadcaster was an important issue during the days of state monopoly, Page and Crawley show this is not enough for surviving in the competitive world of today. The authors are also aware that public interest broadcasting cannot be ghettoised to obscure corners of mainstream media. For such a powerful medium as television, if its mainstream vision were propagating only Nike and Coca Cola, it would be a tragedy indeed. Satellites Over South Asia is indispensable reading for any serious analyst of the media.

It is not that Arvind Singhal and Everett Rogers do not grapple with many of the above issues. After all, it is difficult to write a book on India’s communication revolution and not address the impact of commercialisation of television. There is a wealth of material that they bring together in their book including interesting community projects and development programs such as the SITE project and the Kheda and Jhabua Development Communication Project. While the communities did not control these projects, these are sufficiently interactive to be signally different from the top-down approach to communications of either DD or AIR. The problem with Singhal and Rogers is that while all these examples are used to present alternatives, the contradiction that exists between commercial and public interest broadcasting is somehow glossed over.

Singhal and Rogers let their senses be overwhelmed by the on-going digital revolution. The uncomfortable social reality of poverty and unemployment recedes from view, the focus being stories of untold riches available for the taking in the brave, new digital world of tomorrow. Anecdotes after anecdote of Indians in Cyberia – in Silicon Valley or here — raking in the moolah, become the message of the book, even if this perhaps was not the intention of the authors.

Much of the material on technopolises – cities with a high-tech concentration and informatization, whatever that might mean, attempts profound insights on a thin database. The argument that the new economy has no boundaries and has “increasing returns” in contrast to the real economy, which has diminishing returns, has collapsed after bursting of the bubble. The new “pundits” have been preaching that growth in cyberspace is not limited by the amount of goods produced in the “old” economy. The truth is that the virtual world of cyberspace does not add any value; it only facilitates transactions that must be accompanied by transfer of goods from the producers to the users. Thus, the limits to cyber growth come from the limits in the real world. If the economy is not growing in real terms, the virtual world will reflect this, sooner rather than later. The infotech stocks, the darling of the global stock markets, are now falling rapidly. The law of gravity — whatever goes up must come down — is finally catching up even with the cyber world.

Singhal and Rogers do not distinguish between virtual wealth and real wealth. The stock market has created a very large number of paper millionaires. The e-economy creates an autistic world where these millions appear to be divorced from the real world of assets. The problem lies in that the e-world, at best, reduces transaction costs in the real economy. There are limits therefore to the value that can be squeezed out for the new economy. That is why, unlike the brick and mortar economy, the e-brick and e-mortar economy, has a much lower impact on other sectors of the economy. Not even Microsoft is amongst the top 100 companies of the world in terms of total revenue, even though it is the largest in terms of market capitalization.

Much of this book repeats uncritically the hype about Information Technology (IT). Chandrababu Naidu is lauded for kick-starting the IT revolution in Andhra without checking out whether administration there has actually improved or if the peoples’ incomes have seen a significant increase. A perusal of the growth rates of various states shows that Andhra has been a poor performer, well behind states such as Gujarat, West Bengal and Kerala. Incidentally, while Andhra’s use of computers in administration gets a prominent place, the far more interesting example of Kerala, where an information network has been dovetailed into decentralised planning, finds only a token mention.

Scholarship should be to go beyond appearances and delve into matters that are not obvious. Singhal and Rogers, even though they have collected interesting and valuable information, sadly fail this test.