Choice chest: what it packs for you
US emissary on unscheduled tour of twins
Surjeet mulls stepdown
Antulay twists knife
President nominee in PM court

 
 
CHOICE CHEST: WHAT IT PACKS FOR YOU 
 
 
FROM SUJAN DUTTA
 
New Delhi, May 11: 
Union information and broadcasting minister Sushma Swaraj is set to infuse some brains into your television next week in a change that promises to make television viewing in the country a whole new experience.

Several players in the television industry and outside are involved in bringing about the change. But the most important impact will be on viewers — an estimated 200 million of them at an average of five viewers for each of the 40 million cable sets.

A section of the broadcasters has urged a delay in introducing the legislation, but the government justifies its urgency by saying the demand is for now. From this month, operators in Delhi are asking for a monthly cable subscription of Rs 360 — a whopping hike of 200 per cent and more.

“There is a public outcry against arbitrary rates now. What is the sense in waiting? It is like asking the doctor to give medicine after six months to a patient suffering from fever today,” ministry sources said.

The amendment to the Cable Television Networks Act 1995 will be a provision to empower the government to mandate conditional access — use of set-top boxes that will help viewers to pick and choose the channels they want to view. Even if the Bill is passed right away, the minimum implementation time from its notification is six months.

In the immediate term, the television industry has been thrown into a tizzy. The stiffest resistance to the change comes from broadcasters. The Indian Broadcasting Foundation (IBF) has favoured a delay in its introduction but broadcasters are divided.

In the long-term, the conditional access system with the set-top box at its heart could well be the harbinger of digital interactive television into Indian homes.

Five major stake-holders have roles to play in the conditional access system. Broadcasters like STAR, Zee, TV Today and Sony who will beam the channels; Multiple System Operators (MSOs) like RPG Netcom and Siticable who will distribute the channels; cable operators who will relay the signals to television sets, subscribers — an estimated 200 million viewers — and Central and state governments who will mop up revenue through service and entertainment taxes.

For viewers, conditional access will vary from place to place. After the Bill is passed, the government will fix a ceiling rate for the basic tier of free-to-air channels. The rate will differ from place to place. In the first phase, conditional access will be implemented in the four metros. Even among the metros, the ceiling rate will differ. For instance, the rate for 30 free-to-air channels in New Delhi could be about Rs 100; it could be Rs 125 in Mumbai and/or Rs 80 in Calcutta. In Delhi, operators are actually asking for a rate of Rs 125 but efforts are on to whittle this down to Rs 65-70.

After the metros, conditional access will be expanded to 10 major towns and cities. Market demand will determine the rate to be levied by operators for pay channels. Right now, even if broadcasters beam digital signals that are relayed from the MSO to the operator, the operator converts them into analog signals that reach viewers.

After conditional access is introduced, it will be possible for a viewer to pay for and get digital signals. For example, in South Mumbai’s Cuffe Parade, which is among the most posh localities in the country, every subscriber could be willing to pay enough to the operator to receive digital signals on digital television sets. Digital sets would also mean the possibility of interactive television and Internet on television.

In Ranchi, on the other hand, subscribers could be content to pay and receive fewer pay channels — they may not, say, want to take channels in south Indian languages — in analog mode.

Inputs from the market available with the ministry say an analog set-top box could be available for Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,500 and a digital set-top box at Rs 3,500 to Rs 7,500. Pricing will be dependent on volumes i.e., the more the demand for set-top boxes, the lower will be the price. There is even an expectation that an analog set-top could be available for between Rs 600 and Rs 800.

At a meeting yesterday, the Indian Broadcasting Foundation pointed out that the government has to sort out the financing details of the conditional access system (CAS) before going ahead with it. The IBF has also issued a press release but clearly, not all its members are unanimous yet.

“I think the system will be beneficial to all,” said Mahesh Prasad of Sahara Television who is also on the foundation’s board. “I am not sure the IBF as a body has recommended a delay in the introduction of the CAS”.

Among broadcasters, pay channel-owners are particularly touchy about the system because it will affect them immediately. Last month, STAR’s Asia chief James Murdoch held a meeting with cable operators in New Delhi and offered to bring down the rates of pay channels if operators stopped under-reporting their subscriptions. Broadcasters have also raised questions on the feasibility of financing set-top boxes and on their production and availability.

Studies carried out in the run-up to the legislation have indicated that in six months, availability will be possible. Among the potential producers of set-top-boxes, the three biggest players are Samsung, which has said it can make 1 lakh boxes in three months; HFCL which has said it can touch 20,000 to 25,000 boxes in six months and MCBS which has claimed it can touch 1,50,000 indigenous sets per annum, besides importing 3 to 4 lakh sets.

One estimate says that of the 40 million cable TV subscribers, even if 20 per cent opt for CAS, there will be a demand for 8 lakh boxes — a potential market of Rs 3,000 crore.

“Financing should not be a problem once CAS is mandated,” says Roop Sharma of the Cable Operators’ Federation of India. “Any number of options could be available. If banks can finance TV sets, they can also finance set-top boxes; they could be available on hire-purchase basis and/or they can be pushed through with part financing by the broadcaster, the operator and the subscriber.”

Conditional access — also called “addressability” — is already in vogue in the West. In the US, too, the cable regulation specifically lays down that there will be a basic tier and also genre-wise segregation (meaning, groups of channels such as news, entertainment, sports, environment and so forth).

It is another matter that after conditional access, television viewing will not be the same in Bharat as it will be for India.

   

 
 
US EMISSARY ON UNSCHEDULED TOUR OF TWINS 
 
 
FROM PRANAY SHARMA
 
New Delhi, May 11: 
US assistant secretary of state Christina Rocca is coming on an unscheduled visit to India and Pakistan early next week in the wake of reports and speculation that tension could escalate between the neighbours.

Rocca was here in April and her sudden revisit in less than a month indicates the level of concern Washington attaches to the standoff on the border, where the rival armies are locked in eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation.

South Block tried to play down Rocca’s visit, which begins on Monday, as “usual contact” between Washington and Delhi to review bilateral and other regional issues. It also suggested that her main focus was Pakistan, particularly the security situation following the recent bomb blast in Karachi that killed several French nationals.

But indications from across the border suggest that the US official will make a security assessment following reports that the two South Asian rivals may go to war.

Pakistan has been citing the troop deployment along the Indian border as a reason for not being able to effectively seal its boundary with Afghanistan and prevent Taliban and al Qaida members from getting in.

The US state department has now started calling the tension in South Asia as “the other crisis” to bracket it with the one in West Asia. There are indications that US secretary of state Colin Powell is likely to caution Indian and Pakistani leaders against any “miscalculation” that may lead to another war.

A report in today’s Washington Post said India’s external intelligence agency, RAW, had been asked to file a report on Pakistan’s progress on the two Indian demands, namely handing over criminals and terrorists whose names figure in Delhi’s list of 20 and stopping cross-border terrorism. The report is expected to say Pakistan has done nothing on either front. This will strengthen the hands of hawks in the Indian establishment who are then likely to urge military action against Pakistan.

Pakistani interior minister Moinuddin Haidar, who was in Washington to discuss the security scenario with US officials, returned home a day early, lending credence to speculation that something unusual was happening in South Asia. The view gained currency when leading American strategist Michael Krepon said the current standoff between India and Pakistan could not last forever and Delhi’s patience is bound to run out.

In an interview with a Pakistani daily, Rocca said she would try to persuade the Indian leadership to return to the talks table. “We are endeavouring to make both nations agree for resolving their disputes through negotiations,” she said.

Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Pakistan President Pervez Musharraf are scheduled to share a common platform at the Asian security summit in the Kazakh city of Almaty early next month. Though both leaders are planning to attend the summit, there is nothing to suggest that a Vajpayee-Musharaf meeting on the sidelines is on the cards.

Indian officials said there was no question of resuming dialogue with Pakistan until it gave assurance and substantial evidence to prove it had stopped cross-border terrorism. Contrary to the US belief, infiltration across the Line of Control in Kashmir has been on the rise.

South Block officials claim that a large number of Taliban and al Qaida members, who were allowed into Pakistan, are now positioned in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir, are waiting to sneak into India.

Since there has been no change in the ground situation, the Indian establishment says it will neither relax diplomatic pressure on Pakistan nor the military build-up on the border.

   

 
 
SURJEET MULLS STEPDOWN 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, May 11: 
CPM general secretary Harkishen Singh Surjeet may quit before his three-year term ends in 2005.

According to sources, the party’s assessment at its recent Hyderabad congress was that Surjeet should continue as general secretary till the “present political crisis” is over but that he need not complete the full three-year term.

The 86-year-old Marxist leader, despite his outward agility, is not in the best of health. “He would have quit his post at the Hyderabad party congress but we felt that he could make an important contribution in these turbulent times,” said a senior Left leader. Surjeet, too, had then ruled out quitting office. His party, then, was anticipating that Gujarat would catalyse the Vajpayee government’s doom and in case the NDA government fell, it would be time for negotiations to notch up the numbers against the BJP.

Surjeet has always played a crucial part in negotiations. His access to 10, Janpath as well as his proximity to Samajwadi Party chief Mulayam Singh Yadav makes him virtually indispensable in times of political turbulence. But the crisis that was on the point of explosion seems to have blown over for the time being.

Belying the the CPM’s optimism, NDA allies have chosen a soft option of somehow balancing their tricky position as supporters of a government that is loath to remove Narendra Modi, the man blamed for the Gujarat carnage. This minimises the damage to their minority votebank.

The CPM was hopeful that their former ally, Telugu Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu, would throw up his hands at the Vajpayee government’s refusal to sack Narendra Modi and withdraw support.

On the contrary, the BJP emerged more confident than ever after it wangled the support of Mayavati’s Bahujan Samaj Party and Jayalalithaa’s ADMK.

For the time being, the Vajpayee government seems to have pulled through the crisis. After his initial optimism, the CPM general secretary seems to have realised that an alternative to the NDA government is far from the making. Surjeet has also kept a surprisingly low profile throughout the crisis.

   

 
 
ANTULAY TWISTS KNIFE 
 
 
FROM RASHEED KIDWAI
 
New Delhi, May 11: 
A.R. Antulay, chairman of the All India Congress Committee’s minorities department, has tendered his resignation, blaming the leadership for its alleged apathy towards minorities’ causes.

However, some in the Congress feel the resignation has more to do with Sonia Gandhi’s apathy towards him while choosing nominees for Rajya Sabha berths from Maharashtra.

The former Maharashtra chief minister had not attended work at the AICC headquarters since March. Though he is tight-lipped about what prompted him to step down, his supporters said Antulay was upset with the leadership bypassing the minorities panel during ticket-distribution.

For some unknown reason, Sonia had kept Antulay’s resignation a secret. She executed a massive overhaul in the party last month, but decided to continue with Antulay as the chairman of the minorities department though he declined to review his decision to quit.

Some feel Sonia decided to sit on his resignation in the wake of the Gujarat crisis. Sonia, who took the lead to champion the cause of minorities in Gujarat, was reportedly keen to avoid a row involving the party’s minorities panel chief alleging apathy towards minorities within the party.

Antulay’s list of grudges is long. First, from the beginning, he was uncomfortable about heading the minorities panel as he felt the office was too small for a person of his political standing. After all, when the Congress split in 1978, he was the lone senior leader from Maharashtra who sided with the party. As general secretary of the Congress (Indira), Antulay was instrumental in the selection of party MPs, MLAs and even chief ministers during Indira Gandhi’s era.

   

 
 
PRESIDENT NOMINEE IN PM COURT 
 
 
FROM OUR SPECIAL CORRESPONDENT
 
New Delhi, May 11: 
The National Democratic Alliance today authorised Atal Bihari Vajpayee to take a decision on who the next President would be and whether he will be the unanimous choice or elected.

The decision paves the way for the Prime Minister to begin one-to-one consultations with allies and, if necessary, with the Opposition.

The NDA co-ordination committee met at Vajpayee’s residence this morning and adopted a resolution. “The NDA authorises the honourable Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to take a decision about ensuring (the) presidential election,” the resolution said.

“The NDA requests the Prime Minister to discuss the issue with the NDA partners and thereafter with parties like the Telugu Desam Party and (the) Bahujan Samaj Party who are supporting the NDA from outside followed by consultations with the Opposition parties before coming to a final decision.”

Defence minister and alliance convener George Fernandes, who briefed reporters after the one-hour meeting, said no names were mentioned. No strategy was discussed either, apart from adopting the resolution, he added.

Sources close to Vajpayee said he asked the allies to forward their preferences directly to him or convey it through another source. BJP sources, however, said the party is determined to push through its own candidate and is not too keen on a consensus nominee where the Opposition would also have a say.

“With the Desam and the BSP we have a majority and we don’t want to fritter away the advantage of numbers by caving in to the Opposition’s choice,” said a BJP leader.

Keeping in mind the numerical importance of the Desam and the BSP, BJP leaders in Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh have been told not to say or do anything that might annoy the two allies until the presidential polls are over. This is one reason why the resolution made it a point to mention the two parties.

Desam chief Chandrababu Naidu, however, declined to spell out his stand. “I will do it at the appropriate time,” he told reporters.

Naidu is believed to be keen on Vice-President Krishan Kant, a former Andhra Governor, but NDA sources said he would go along with the BJP to repair his relations with its leaders after the acrimony over Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi.

The BJP has floated the name of Maharashtra Governor P.C. Alexander as its first choice in the hope that the Congress would eventually accept him.

Alexander, sources said, also has the backing of Maharashtra parties like the Nationalist Congress Party and the Republican Party of India.

   
 

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