Mumbai: Congress President Sonia Gandhi has suggested a slew of austerity measures to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to tide over the economic distress that the country will continue to be plunged in even when the lockdown is lifted. The first of her five concrete suggestions were a blanket ban on media advertisements.

Her note specifically said: ‘First, impose a complete ban on media advertisements – television, print and online – by the Government and Public Sectors Undertakings('PSUs'), for a period of two years.

The only exceptions should be advisories for Covid-19 or for issues relating to public health. Given that the Central Government currently spends an average of Rs 1,250 crore per year on media advertisements (not including an equal or greater amount spent by PSUs and Government companies), this will free up a substantial amount to alleviate the economic and social impacts of Covid-19.’ However, her appeal met with a lot of criticism from many quarters, especially the Indian Newspaper Society(INS).

The fact that advertisements in media publications took precedence over everything else, as a means to reinvigorate the economy with renewed cash flow, was received with much surprise. INS President Shailesh Gupta condemned the appeal outright.

A statement issued by the newspaper body said, "It is a very small amount as far as government spending is concerned, but it is a huge amount for the newspaper industry, which is essential for any vibrant democracy and is struggling to survive.

"Print is the only industry which has a wage board and the government decides how much the employees should be paid. This being the only industry where market forces don't decide salaries, the government has a responsibility towards the industry," the INS statement added.

The new austerity measures are also projected in the backdrop of the 30% cut that the MPs have taken in their own salaries. However, the reality that is not so masked is the fact that the Lok Sabha and the Rajya Sabha secretariats on Tuesday, gazetted new rates of allowances, at Rs 1.03 lakh per month each, for the members of Parliament (MPs), making an abject mockery of the Cabinet decision for a 30% pay cut (amounting to a paltryRs 15,000 per month), taken just a day earlier.

The government spends Rs 2.7 lakh per month on an MP, by way of salary and allowances, which includes a constituency allowance now raised to Rs 49,000 per month and an allowance for office expenses, now raised to Rs 54,000 (inclusive of Rs 14,000 per month for stationery and postage).

Both these revised allowances shall be effective for one year from April 1, 2020 to March 31, 2021, according to the gazette notifications issued on January 7 as per the decision of the Joint Committee of Houses of Parliament.

This is notwithstanding the many independent surveys, which have time and again illustrated the fact that most of our lawmakers are already crorepatis. The print industry in India has withstood many political and social storms in the country’s history.

However, a financial storm will break its back. Establishment costs of running a newspaper are rising by the day. The cost of newsprint and machinery adds to the overall costs. Newspapers must support talent and pay salaries.

The emergence of new and digital media has meant that there are more mouths vying for a piece of the advertisement pie, which, on its part, has not expanded substantially at all. The ongoing CoVID-19 crisis will first impact advertising revenue, as private players will shrink their ad spends substantially.

An extended lockdown will only make things go from bad to worse. Recent news reports spoke of the growing chorus of media voices demanding immediate clearance of advertising dues by the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity (DAVP)and other state-owned bodies, to help companies tide over cash flow problems and avert possible job losses.

An office-bearer of the Advertising Agencies Association of India had requested the government to clear the long-pending dues of departments, ministries and PSUs of print, TV, OOH and the event industry on an urgent basis. Conclusively, mere platitudes and sobriquets, like calling the media the fourth estate, aren’t going to help its sustenance and operations.

The media performs the all-important task of disseminating information, which also includes awareness of government programmes and schemes to the teeming millions who only have access to a broadsheet.

Importantly, this task cannot happen in a vacuum. For the lawmakers supporting yearly hikes for themselves, the media shouldn’t be a soft target. The economy is in a perilous state. However, austerity should begin at home, read House. There are many headers under which the government indulges in wasteful experiences.

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