Indian Minister Puts Tough Issues on Fast Track

1/10/1999 7:00 PM Eastern

New Delhi, India -- Some of India's thorniest
proposals for new regulations could receive a quick resolution -- and a positive one, at
that -- if the country's recently installed minister of information and broadcasting
has his way.

The minister, Pramod Mahajan, said he wants to quickly
remove all of the regulatory stumbling blocks that have prevented the launch of
direct-to-home platforms, as well as general media investment and growth over the past two

"We are contemplating removing the ban on DTH
television services within the next two-and-a-half months," he said. "We cannot
keep important issues pending until such time as the Broadcast Bill is enacted by law,
especially since the bill is at a conceptual stage, and there are many technical
developments that it does not touch at all."

Mahajan has only been in his current post for about one
month, and this is his first governmental posting focused on the communications business.
Most recently, he was a special advisor in the office of Prime Minister Atal Behari
Vajapayee, and prior to that, he served as minister of defense in an earlier Vajapayee
administration that lasted only 13 days.

While his predecessor as minister of information and
broadcasting, Sushma Swaraj, had advocated a foreign-equity cap of 20 percent on program
channels, Mahajan indicated that he is taking a more lenient position, although he
hasn't disclosed any specific figures. The issue of foreign equity is particularly
complex because different government departments have permitted different amounts of
investment. The Cable Television Networks (Regulation) Act of 1995 allowed 49 percent
foreign investment in cable channels, while the Department of Telecommunications permitted
74 percent and the Information and Broadcasting Ministry permitted 20 percent.

Mahajan said the problem of varying equity amounts is one
of the key issues to be addressed by the National Agenda for Governance, and it would
require interministerial consultation before a final decision on one cap amount is

Mahajan is also prioritizing the issue of uplinking from
within the country. Until last year, the only networks that could uplink from within India
were the state-owned channels.

But now, "six Indian networks are already uplinking
from within India. We are now entering the second stage, where private networks with
foreign equity holding will be allowed to uplink. And in the final stage, foreign networks
will be provided the same [uplinking] facility," he said.

The second stage includes locally based players such as Zee
TV, while the next stage includes foreign-based networks such as CNN International, TNT
& Cartoon Network and Discovery Channel, among others.

He refused to make a commitment as to when the second stage
would occur, explaining that he is in the "kindergarten stage" of assessing the
situation. But he admitted that private Indian networks are putting pressure on him to set
up their own earth stations, so that they do not necessarily have to use the facilities of
state-owned telecommunications network Videsh Sanchar Nigam Ltd.

Mahajan also promised to address the issue of program
content. "There is a pressing need to enact a common broadcast code that would be
applicable for both domestic and foreign networks," he said.

Mahajan is known to enjoy the confidence of the prime
minister, and sources in the broadcasting industry believe that he will act in a decisive

Want to read more stories like this?
Get our Free Newsletter Here!