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RUNNING AMOK

Power breeds insanity. State power breeds a state of insanity. This axiom is illustrated by the sudden flurry of unnecessary activity in the ministry of information and broadcasting. The activity is focussed on the conditional access system which television viewers in the four major metropolises will have to adopt from the middle of July. Having brought in the system in its own wisdom, the ministry is now concerned that it might involve an extra pay-out on the part of the consumers. With elections around the corner and with no other mode of electioneering save populism known to the ruling coalition, the information and broadcasting minister, Mr Ravi Shankar Prasad, is worried that the decision will alienate urban voters. The ministry has decided that it will slash customs duty on the set-top box from 50 per cent to 5 per cent. By doing this, the ministry hopes it will be able to look after consumer interests. As a further step, the ministry is keen to work out a mechanism that will cap cable rates at Rs 200 per subscription. All these moves have been rightly described as attempts at “sweet packaging” a decision which the ministry feels will be unpopular in the big cities. From such a premise, it has proceeded to subsidize the consumers — there can be no other way of describing the drastic lowering of customs duty. Moreover, it has decided to regulate the CAS business by putting a ceiling on price.

The ministry has thus transgressed into two zones which should lie outside the state’s activity. For one thing, it cannot be the state’s job to dictate to the broadcaster what price it should charge the consumer. The broadcaster should be free to charge whatever he feels his product deserves. If that price is too high, he will lose his consumers and the business will suffer and finally close down. The information and broadcasting ministry has chosen to keep broadcasters in business by suggesting a just price. Similarly, the government has decided to sacrifice revenue to ensure that consumers do not have to pay too much for the set-top box required for CAS. By this logic, the state should also subsidize television sets to make them cheaper. This can be only viewed as state power gone berserk. In a society claiming to be driven by market forces, the role of the state should be minimal. The era of liberalization in India has set market forces free in India. But the shadow of the state still looms large, Leviathan-like. The institution of an information and broadcasting ministry belongs to the Jurassic Park of the interventionist state. Its recent activities regarding CAS only underlines the anomaly and the ministry’s self-perpetuation of its own importance.

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