Angry about ads that promote government achievements and the leaders? Make yourself heard before the Supreme Court appointed committee for framing guidelines on publicly funded government ads like Bharat Nirman
In the first week of June, the ministry of information and broadcasting (I&B ministry) invited the public to offer suggestions on framing guidelines for publicly funded government advertising campaigns.
The basis of this is an important Supreme Court (SC) judgement of 23 April 2014 on a writ petition filed by two NGOs, viz., Common Cause and Centre for Public Interest Litigation. The petitioners had complained about the misuse of public funds by political parties for image building and media support. They also pointed out that “such advertisements become more blatant and assume alarming proportions just before the announcement of the general elections.”
The SC order has asked the government to distinguish between advertisements that are a part of “government messaging and daily business,” and “advertisement that are politically motivated and designed to patronise media organisations and get favourable media coverage.” A three-member committee has been appointed to suggest guidelines for public advertisements within three months, until the legislature enacts a law. You can email your views and suggestions to [email protected] at the I&B ministry.
The judgement comes at an interesting time. Although the litigation was filed almost a decade ago, the issue of misusing public funds came to the fore again during the 2014 elections. The Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP’s) aggressive social media followers have been vocal about the misuse of public funds, ‘paid news’ and the role of journalists, who Narendra Modi had dubbed ‘news traders’.
Their anger was aimed at the beneficiaries of government largesse at the cost of the exchequer. The SC judgement now puts the onus on a BJP-led government to implement the guidelines that will be framed by the three-member committee and take it forward by enacting appropriate legislation. This also means that there cannot be a repeat of the ‘India Shining’ type of blitzkrieg five years from now.
Concerned citizens must react to the committee’s request for suggestions from the public. In fact, this may be an opportunity to extend the discussion to other areas where politicians, government departments and bureaucrats use public money to cadge favours from the media. So where do we begin?
The SC noted that governments around the world, facing similar allegations, have resolved the issue by framing guidelines for advertising projects and policies. India, too, has such a framework under the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP), but it needs teeth to stop the mis-utilisation of funds evident in the run up to the elections.
An RTI query revealed that the UPA government spent a massive Rs418.95 crore in the past four years on the Bharat Nirman advertisement campaign. Of this, Rs187 crore was in the election year 2013-14 and Rs100.95 crore was in the year before that.
Various ministries, as well as public sector undertakings (PSUs) under their control, spent crores of rupees on advertisements to commemorate births and deaths of prime ministers of the Nehru-Gandhi family. When the 2104 election results indicated that people voted for development and growth, some states cashed in on the public mood with a multi-page advertising blitz that prominently featured their respective chief ministers.
Can all of this be stopped through a set of guidelines? We will have to wait and see. The SC order has listed key points on government spending that apply in Australia. But the SC-appointed committee needs to go far beyond it and also be more explicit.
From the Indian perspective, the biggest public concern is over the misuse of public money to commemorate birth and death anniversaries and leaders of a political party. The second area of concern is the publication of photographs of politicians and ministers in government advertisements as if to credit them personally with public works.
Anil Galgali, an RTI activist, found out that MMRDA (Mumbai Metropolitan Region Development Authority) spent a massive Rs15.82 lakh a month on public relations and image building exercise during the Lok Sabha elections. MMRDA operates directly under the chairmanship of the Maharashtra chief minister, so this big publicity budget is a matter of suspicion. The use of PSUs to issue expensive advertisements, or to gratify bureaucrats, politicians and the media, is well known and should be included in the recommendations on government spending.
The Australian code prescribes that, “Campaigns must comply with legal requirements and procurement policies and procedures.” The Indian guidelines need to be more explicit. The Bharat Nirman campaign brazenly lied when it depicted a functioning realty regulator and legalising of hawkers, complete with identity cards for street vendors. The two Bills had not even been cleared by parliament. Bharat Nirman advertisements about the Food Security Bill and the Land Acquisition Bill were not false, but were certainly misleading.
Had these advertisements been issued by the private sector, they would have fallen foul of the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI) code. However, ASCI, a self-regulatory body, keeps away from government and political advertisements, for obvious reasons. The SC committee, in addition to other issues, can recommend that government advertisements must also comply with the ASCI code. The Bharat Nirman advertisements were shocking, since they were issued by the I&B ministry.
In the financial world, a significant sum of investors’ money is commandeered by the government and various regulators through legislation. It started with the Investor Education & Protection Fund (IEPF) set up under Section 205C of the Companies Act, 1956, which put a whopping Rs1,000crore+ of unclaimed dividends, corporate fixed deposits and interest into the government’s hand.
The insurance and banking regulators have adopted similar rules in the name of investor education and protection. However, nobody wants to examine whether IEPF has succeeded in its mandate, or whether regulators are merely appropriating money that belongs to savers. Moneylife believes it is the latter.
The SC committee ought to look into such funds, since big chunks of it are spent on advertising. As a member of the IEPF, I had pointed out that an investor protection message couldn’t carry the photograph of the then minister of corporate affairs since it was not paid out of government funds. My intervention was met with complete silence and I was out of the committee soon thereafter. In fact, the MCA, under Sachin Pilot, cancelled the accreditation of all NGOs working for investor protection and allowed business and professional associations to appropriate investors’ unclaimed money.
It is the same with ‘professionally-run’ stock exchanges which also act as first-line regulators. The two national bourses have several hundred crores of rupees earmarked for investor protection. These are doled out to favoured media or entities, without any clear rules or guidelines.
Stock exchanges have escaped public scrutiny for a decade by refusing to be covered by the Right to Information Act. Both, the National Stock Exchange (NSE) and the Bombay Stock Exchange (BSE), have challenged an order of the Central Information Commission, which said that they are a public institution (as first-line regulators) and ought to be subject to RTI. In this, they have had tacit support from the Securities & Exchange Board of India (SEBI) which is all but hostile to RTI queries.
Finally, the SC-appointed committee needs to question whether the age-old practice of issuing advertisements, including tenders in national dailies, makes any sense at all? Internet-based advertising is far more cost effective, provides clear metrics of reach and views, to ensure that they reach the target audience. The committee must examine whether dated rules for statutory advertisements can also be revised and updated.
Call for bids, contracts and government tenders can be posted on websites of ministries, PSUs or municipal corporations. Those interested can subscribe to automated information mailers to remain updated.
We hear that the babus on Raisina Hill are scurrying to ensure cleanliness of corridors when the PM is expected to do his rounds. Prime minister Narendra Modi can ensure a more fundamental clean-up of surrogate funding of the political agenda by merely signalling to the I&B ministry that he wants positive, long-term change.
Sucheta Dalal is the managing editor of Moneylife. She was awarded the Padma Shri in 2006 for her outstanding contribution to journalism. She can be reached at [email protected]
There is no valid definition of this term. But, yes, stocks will go up a lot from here
President Mukherjee said, people have voted for a united, strong and modern India, “Ek Bharat-Shreshta Bharat’’, and the Modi government will work to fulfil these aspirations
President Pranab Mukherjee on Monday said that, the Modi government at the Centre will work for development in a resurgent India in which corruption will have no place.
He said, “They (people of India) have voted for a united, strong and modern India —'Ek Bharat-Shreshta Bharat’ — My government will work to fulfil these aspirations, with the involvement of all the 125 crore people of this great country”.
The President was addressing the first joint sitting of Parliament, as required under the Constitution, after general elections that brought in the Narendra Modi Government last month.
In a word of assurance to minorities, the address said that the new government is committed to making all minorities equal partners in India’s progress.
The address is the political, economic and foreign policy roadmap of the Narendra Modi Government voted to power and covers virtually all the crucial areas, including the need to address the difficult economic situation in which inflation has to be reined in and growth reignited.
Mukherjee noted that the just-concluded election has been an election of hope.
“The surge in aspirations and the belief that these could be realised through democratic processes, have been amply reflected in the record 66.4% participation by voters and a clear verdict in favour of a single political party after a gap of nearly 30 years”, the President said.
“The electorate transcended the boundaries of caste, creed, region and religion, to come together and vote decisively in favour of ‘Development through Good Governance’,” he said.
Newly-elected Lok Sabha members and those belonging to the Rajya Sabha, Prime Minister Modi, his cabinet colleagues, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, Congress President Sonia Gandhi and other Opposition leaders heard the 50-minute speech with rapt attention, interspersed by occasional thumping of desks.
The President said putting the economy back on track is paramount. "The government will put it back into a high growth path, rein in inflation, reignite the investment, accelerate job creation and restore the confidence of the domestic and international community."
“My government will create a policy environment which is predictable, transparent and fair. It will embark on rationalisation and simplification of the tax regime to make it non-adversarial and conductive to investment, enterprise and growth.
“My government will make every effort to introduce the Goods and Services Tax (GST) while addressing the concerns of states. Reforms will be undertaken to enhance the ease of doing business. My government will follow a policy of encouraging investments, including through FDI, which will be allowed in sectors that help create jobs and assets,” President Mukherjee said.
On the foreign policy front, the President said that while the government was committed to work towards building a peaceful, stable and economically inter-linked neighbourhood, “we will never shy away from raising issues of concern to us at a bilateral level.
“We emphasise that the future of shared prosperity can only be built on the foundation of stability in the region, which requires sensitivity to security concerns and an end to export of terrorism to neighbours.”