New Delhi, Aug 24: The attendance was A-list, the atmospherics protocol-perfect, the adjectives superlative, the applause generous and obliging.
It was an occasion deserving of nothing less. The government had just hatched a glittering Jurassic egg Rs 60 crore worth on prime acreage in the capital. It would have to count as a rare moment in this age to watch six tiers of mortar, grit, granite and glass pressed into the service of information when all of it can be devised, disseminated and received on baubles that fit the crook of a palm.
As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh paced the motions of opening and commending the marvel called National Media Centre (NMC) this morning, his communications adviser unwittingly laid bare the irony mocking the enterprise — Pankaj Pachauri broadcast his boss’ speech live to the world pushing Twitter tabs on his hand held from the front rows of the inaugural hall.
The exercise of an effort pretty much similar to Pachauri’s now lies endowed with a multi-faceted extravaganza across 1.95 acres of Lutyens’ Delhi: conference hall to seat 283, library, committee rooms, data and video and web feed facilities, internet stations. Extant technology is able to provide much of that over a quarter of a square foot, no more.
Truth to tell, agencies of government have turned spiritedly IT-friendly over recent years. Most departments of worth and public sector organisations administer updated websites, often loaded with more information than can be used. The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) uses web, tube and Twitter. The ministry of external affairs (MEA) offers probably the most modern net templates available from government, and recently uploaded a user-friendly tablet/android phone application.
There are some that remain baulked and awed by ever-shrinking information platforms, as UPA chairperson and co-opener of the NMC disarmingly confessed; she prefers newspapers she can hold. But the velocity of change in informatics is nothing she even pretended to put her face against, even as she green-flagged a facility of anachronistic proportions.
The Press Information Bureau (PIB), diligent mover and maker of the NMC, itself does a competent real-time job of e-wheeling information through its multi-media portal that is able to feed into a variety of devices. The bafflement remains why it continues to despatch the same information in bulky cyclostyled sheaves that arrive in newsrooms each evening and go straight to the trashcans carting along heavens only know how many pulped trees.
It also stirs bafflement that another conference hall has been added to the many that populate the capital’s prime square mile. The PIB has two in its Shastri Bhawan lair. The domed halls of Hyderabad House are regularly used for summit pageants and press interactions. The MEA has acquired a well-appointed multi-wing ops centre called Jawaharlal Nehru Bhawan a furlong round the bend from the NMC. There is also the old reliable Vigyan Bhawan, recently refurbished and waiting on proposals for a drastic makeover.
No less perplexing to some is the prospect of an information provider gather real estate girth and amplify overhead costs when the trend worldwide is headed in the reverse direction. The United States Information Service (USIS) was given a quiet burial sometime in the 1990s and, not long after, the British Information Service (BIS) ceased to be employed on Her Majesty’s Service. Neither move, their authors believed, would adversely impact propaganda or information outreach. “We have cut down on the frills but without compromising on information outflows,” a senior press desk officer at the British High Commission told The Telegraph, “The fact of our world is that information has expanded and resources have turned scarce. What we used to package in thousands of envelopes and courier out each day is now sent out at one tap of the keyboard. Fewer people are doing more and technology has ensured it is done much faster and from smaller spaces.”
The NMC could well make a case for being driven by impulses opposite to the economic imperatives of downsizing and streamlining. It is a consequence of loose-belt expansion. The one necessity it will fulfil in due course is to provide the PIB’s industrious paper-shufflers escape from the pigeon-hole warren of Shastri Bhawan into an airier work environment. And to accredited lounge lizards, roomier siesta berths.
Pre and post inaugural vignettes may also have touched off the requirement for an etiquette upgrade in PIB precincts. Tens of editors flown in as guests for this morning’s event squirmed through the mortification of being assured twice from the VVIP stage that their travel reimbursements will be handed out presently. Following the departure of the VVIPs — among them several UPA ministers, media barons and superannuated bureaucrats — the editors were led into an unseemly scrum of filling forms, photocopying proof of travel, stapling them to invitation cards and then jockeying for cash. “They made us look ridiculous,” one fumed, “They invited us to be guests and made us behave like we were grovelling for free money. Never again.”
Neither Washington nor London risk such ire for they simply do not lay out state-run media centres. London’s favoured media haunts are cash-and-chat pubs. Washington does have a press facility ordered by the State Department but its nodal media joint is the privately run National Press Club where Indira Gandhi made her iconic assertion of Indian self-reliance. Asked which way India leaned in the Cold War stakes, she said, “We lean neither Left nor Right, we stand upright.”
Delhi’s own non-state media dive stands a stone’s throw from where the NMC now looms. The Press Club of India (PCI) is ramshackle compared to the NMC’s sparkle but remains unremittingly popular among pliers of the trade. And not merely for the subsidised spirits its serves; as much information is traded on PCI’s tables as pints. Its president, Anand Sahay, a journalist of four decades’ standing, looked up a little intrigued at the arrival of a flash sibling in the neighbourhood. “I am a bit puzzled about what this is meant for,” he ventured, “In my experience while information sources have seemed to expand, actual access to people in decision-making quarters has shrunk. How is this centre going to correct that? All I can say is it seems an incongruous thing to me.” A western journalist stationed in Delhi was downright indifferent, if not dismissive. “Quite frankly, I only ever go to the PIB to get my work license renewed,” he said, invoking anonymity in the interest of protecting the very accreditation he visits the PIB for, “No information breaks there that is not already on my work station at home.” He did pop a question as an afterthought, though. “Is there going to be a bar there?”
Unlikely, under the puritanical aegis of government corridors, although the NMC does promise a cafeteria. For the drink, there’s always the PCI just down the road. Its rundown vibrancy could well be labelled Jurassic too, but it hatched cheap.