Colombo, Media and Communications

Beyond ‘Babu SAARC’: Liberating airwaves for South Asians

Watching the current SAARC jamboree unfold over television news, my young daughter asked why none of the officials were smiling. The SAARC Secretary General, Dr. Sheel Khant Sharma, was always scowling. Others didn’t have smiles on their faces either, even insincere ones. They all looked stressed out, wearing glum, miserable faces.

I could only hazard a guess. Perhaps the assorted babus have too much to worry about, as they get through their very serious and grim business of fostering regional cooperation. On the other hand, after all these years of endless meetings and declarations, they might have forgotten the simple joys of smiling and enjoying each other’s company.

Make no mistake: SAARC is a good idea hijacked by unimaginative and pompous, unsmiling babus of South Asia and run to the ground. The self-congratulatory rhetoric of the inter-governmental merry-go-round is once again deafening us as the 15th SAARC takes place in Colombo. In reality, SAARC at 23 has the mental development of a 3-year-old (if that). There isn’t, in fact, much to smile about.

The proof of the SAARC pudding is not in over-hyped Summits or crusty declarations, but in the free flow of people, ideas, creativity and culture across the political boundaries jealously guarded by governments and their militaries. Most SAARC initiatives miserably fail this test. Typical of this arrested development is the SAARC Audio-Visual Exchange, SAVE.

Announced in 1986 and established a year later, SAVE was to be “a South Asian broadcasting programme covering both radio and television”. Its mandate was “increasing the awareness of each other among the peoples of the region through disseminating information on the socio-cultural, economic and technical aspects”.

SAVE connected South Asia’s state-owned, government controlled radio and TV stations to share selected content for broadcasting in each other’s countries. Some joint productions were also to be undertaken. The original plan was to air something, anything SAARCy on the 1st and 15th of each month.

Whether or not every participant station kept to this original schedule, over the years some content swapping has indeed taken place. And in true SAARC style, the SAVE Committee has met over a two dozen times in the past 20 years. All this hard work apparently pleased their masters. According to the SAARC website, “The successive SAARC Summits had lauded the smooth functioning of SAVE programme as being a useful medium for promoting a South Asian consciousness among the people in the region.”


Babus in a parallel universe?

So what was produced by these Himalayan labours, and where has it all gone? SAVEs founders chose relatively ‘safe’ topics for coverage — such as environment, disabled persons, youth, literacy, clean water and mountains. Without a close analysis of SAVE-distributed content over the years, we can safely bet that nothing remotely critical of governments or militaries would ever have come out of this official process. These government mouthpieces diligently avoid critical issues such as the rise of religious fundamentalism and ultra-nationalism, saffronisation of politics, militarisation of whole societies and uncritical cheerleading of market economics.

Indeed, South Asia as covered by state TV and radio is so detached from reality that it could just as well be in a parallel universe. For example, the democracy struggles in Karachi, Kathmandu or Male are reported only as civic disturbances or anti-governmental mayhem. Everyone who does not completely agree with the ruling oligarchs is branded either as a traitor or terrorist.

Who would consume such perversions on the air? As it turns out, fewer people every passing year. When SAVE began, most Asian viewers had access to an average of 2.4 TV channels, all state owned. This has changed dramatically — first with the advent of satellite television over Asia in 1991, and then through the gradual (albeit partial) broadcast liberalisation during the 1990s. South Asian audiences, at last freed from the unimaginative, propaganda-laden state channels, exercised their new-found choice and quickly migrated to privately owned, commercially operated channels. Soon, Babu TVs found themselves with ever-shrinking audiences and declining revenue. For the past decade, most have survived only because governments infused them with massive amounts of tax payer money. Their public service remit is long forgotten.

A similar transformation has taken place in radio. Government channels — amplifiers of their masters’ voice — have been sidelined by a cacophony of FM channels. Meanwhile, pioneered by Nepal and belatedly followed by India and Bangladesh, community channels are carving out a further slice of what used to be Babu Radio’s monopoly on the air.

The spread of Internet and mobile telephones has further diversified South Asians’ sources of information and entertainment. While broadband internet penetration was a mere 3 per cent in 2007, this is set to expand rapidly in the coming decade, bringing online video and webcasting within the reach of millions. India alone targets 100 million broadband users by 2015.


Enter TV Southasia

Despite being pushed into complete irrelevance by this nuanced, complex media reality, SAVE has plodded on for 21 years.

But the need for a truly pan South Asian TV channel is greater than ever. This could balance not only the stereotypical coverage of South Asian affairs by global TV networks (for many of whom this dynamic region is India and Pakistan plus debris), but also counter the excessive nationalism of some private channels pandering essentially to their home audiences. Tribalism titillates and sells.

Against this backdrop, the April 2008 launch of TV Southasia (TVSA), co-anchored from Dhaka and Kolkata, is indeed welcome news. It is a collaborative venture of five commercial broadcasters who have joined hands to produce and share content across borders. Mercifully, there is nothing official about it: no governments are involved and certainly none of the Babu TV dinosaurs.

And if they get it right, TVSA founders – Rtv of Bangladesh, Tara Newz of India, Image Channel of Nepal, Aaj TV of Pakistan and News 1st of Sri Lanka – can tap into an enviably large combined audience: 1.5 billion people, most with access to TV.

TVSA founders are taking one step at a time, perhaps knowing very well that cross-border ventures in South Asia need to be nursed slowly and incrementally, while dealing with historical hang-ups and tonnes of red tape. They launched the channel after having produced a collaborative weekly magazine show for over a year. TVSA is beamed down from the ThaiCom5 satellite, and locally distributed by cable operators. Its medium is English, the only language understood by all countries of South Asia.

TVSA is concentrating on talk shows, interviews, lifestyle, music, short films, sports, cuisine and quiz — genres already available on existing channels. But TVSA aims for a trans-boundary, pan South Asian outlook that others don’t usually offer. The challenge is to celebrate unity among diversity.

On its website, TVSA has spelt out its agenda. It seeks to promote values like liberalism, scientific temperament, education, heritage and cultural diversity. Significantly, it also declares what it opposes, including superstition, fundamentalism, corruption, violence, cultural hegemony and communalism – the assorted evils South Asia.

We just have to wait and see if fledgling TVSA will live up to these lofty ideals, but one thing is clear. Neither SAVE nor its parental Babu TVs could ever aspire to these heights even in their wildest dreams.

So here’s something good that the unsmiling SAARC babus can do in Colombo: finally pull the plug on SAVE, and give it an unceremonious burial. Few would notice or lament its demise.


Nalaka Gunawardene is a Colombo-anchored South Asian who blogs on media, society and development at

A shorter version of this essay appears in August 2008 issue of Himal Southasian.