I&B Minister Anurag Thakur on a sticky wicket

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Taking challenges have been his passion, and not shying away from taking risks to meet the challenge and achieve the goal, has been his strength.

Yes, India’s new Information and Broadcasting Minister Anurag Thakur has demonstrated these qualities whenever he was confronted with such circumstances.

Old timers in Himachal recall an incident wherein Anurag, then President of the Himachal State Cricket Association, unexpectedly padded up to open the innings for the Himachal team in a Ranji Trophy cricket match against J&K in year 2000.

This innings qualified Anurag to vie for a berth in the National list of selectors as this innings (in which he scored zero runs and took two wickets) made him a first class cricketer.

With cricketing experience of one first class match, Thakur served as a national junior selector for the next three years.

The grit and determination of Anurag Thakur only gravitated in subsequent years and as he gradually matured in electoral politics, he also side-by-side consolidated his position in the BCCI. Currently he is also serving as a Joint Secretary on the cricket board of the country.

Taking command of the Information and Broadcasting Ministry, at such a time when communication gap of the ministry to the masses has widened, particularly during the Covid-19 pandemic period, is really a challenging task for Mr Thakur.

The Ministry had no full time Minister or secretary since long.

 Prakash Javdekar who was given marching orders in the latest rejig of the union cabinet was assisted by a part time- Secretary in the ministry. Both, Secretary Amit Khare and Minister Prakash Javdekar, saw their primary roles set in other departments.

Javdekar was primarily looking after the Forest and Environment Ministry while Khare was transferred from I&B Ministry to the Higher education. So for both the Minister and the secretary I&B was a secondary platform. No wonder, under such circumstances, the ministry’s working was bound to take a nosedive. And it actually happened.

After Ajay Mittal was transferred, the post of Secretary in this ministry was never accorded a priority status and its affairs were run on an adhoc basis. Even the current Cabinet Secretary Rajiv Gauba discharged a duty as Secretary for over a month while posting as Urban Development Secretary.

The posting of Jharkhand cadre IAS Amit Khare, in May 2018 raised some hopes, but before he could streamline the affairs of the ministry, he was transferred to the Higher Education Ministry in December 2019 with additional charge of the I & B ministry. Khare had the big tag of a bold bureaucrat in his registering the first FIR in the infamous fodder scam against the then powerful Bihar CM Laloo Prasad Yadav. But he too proved a weak force.

In such a chaotic situation, the Ministry could not streamline its functions which had opened new challenges during the pandemic period. The situation in the Ministry reached to such an extent that neither the Minister nor the Secretary was sure about what was going on in the Ministry and how a group of corrupt officials had laid fight on the affairs of the Ministry.

The allied offices of the Ministry like BECIL, Bureau of Outreach and Communication and a few others became the hotbeds of corruption. To rob the government exchequer, the officials began exercising by bringing out fortnightly magazines without any pre-planning. Casual editors were appointed for these magazines which were published in 13 languages titled New India Samachar. The editors of these magazines were picked up by the BOC and Ministry officials from a list of their near and dear ones.

When the skeleton began tumbling out of the cupboard, BECIL, another unit of the ministry, published advertisement for regular appointments to the post of editor for the multi-lingual magazine but it has been just eyewash. As after a day-long test and interview only those were selected who were already working on the posts.

When many applicants tried to seek information through the RTI to unearth the policy behind the selection process, BECIL officials did not respond. It clearly showed everybody was hand in gloves with the ministry high ups. The publication of these magazines in thousands also involved huge expenditure on printing. There was no audit to certify that the requisite numbers of copies were delivered by the printer to the ministry, thereby arousing suspicion of financial irregularities.

What necessitated the ministry officials to launch this multilingual fortnightly  which is just a bundle of press releases issued by the Press Information Bureau of the ministry still remains a mystery; and of course a big challenge for the incumbent minister to crack the arithmetic behind the deal.

The senior officials belonging to Indian Information Service (ISS) and Group B officers deputed in the strategic units like All India Radio News Service Division or Doordarshan of the ministry made all efforts to communicate the message of the government to the larger masses through a number of innovative programmes apart from regular news bulletins amidst the critical period but they did not get encouragement from the high ups in the ministry or the Minister.

Many officers in the rank of ADG were still awaiting confirmation and empanelment as Joint Secretary in the government. The ministry did not take any serious step in this regard resulting in dampened spirit of such officials towards their duties.

The scene is also not different in newsroom operations of AIR and DD where contractual and casual editors and other employees working in production and back office operations were not given due promotion or economic stimulus in such a demanding situation. Even their contract period was extended in installments. A social media unit of the AIR which delivered more than expected was the worst victim of the apathy of the bosses in the Ministry and Prasar Bharti.

At least two editors in social media units were not even awarded the due annual increment; leave apart the promotion that was due to them. The honorarium for casual editors and other assignees also remained static at the 2012 level.

In fact a state of inertia gripped the Ministry and the Prasar Bharti .It is now expected from Mr Thakur to break this state and make the working vibrant and infuse renewed zeal in the employees to take the Prime Minister’s expectations from the Ministry beyond his Mann Ki Baat, to establish last mile connectivity with masses with reliable information and news about the government programmes and policies.

What is more surprising is the fact that the ministry and Prasar Bharti failed to fill the three important positions of special correspondent in Kathmandu, Colombo and Dubai which were lying vacant for long. If the Ministry did not have enough strength of IIS officers for filling such strategic vacancies, it could Have prepared a panel of journalists from mainstream media for posting them on contract at such locations. But no such initiative was taken at the Ministry level. Even some top vacancies in Prasar Bharti still remain vacant.

Will Anurag Thakur be able to break the jinx that has gripped the ministry and give a dynamic shape to it by oiling all its allied media wings and act against the corrupt officials is what the stakeholders will be watching on in the days to come.

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