The Rajasthan state government is reportedly in the process of hiring a private agency to manage its public relations (PR). This is the first time that the state will be engaging an agency for the purpose under the chief ministership of Ashok Gehlot.
The state government has a Department of Information and Public Relations (DIPR), with staff of over 400 spread across the state. The purpose of their existence is to inform people about the work of government.
With the buzz around the hiring of a private PR agency, some DIPR staffers are concerned that the Congress-led Gehlot government too is going the way of the previous Vasundhara Raje-led Bharatiya Janata Party government, sidelining government staff and handing out important functions to private agencies.
A report in the Times of India on Tuesday mentions that even interviews with chief minister and ministers would be arranged by the private firm. The contract is set to extend for two years, and the bid proposed is for Rs10 crore.
The newspaper reported that a pre-bid meeting was held on November 1, attended by Perfect Relations (which had been engaged by the BJP government in the state), APCO Worldwide, Concept Communication Limited and Adfactors PR.
The terms of eligibility include annual turnover of Rs 20 crore, a minimum of five years’ experience in public relations services and strength of at least 50 PR professionals. Only large — and rather expensive — firms will meet these criteria.
Vast sums were spent on publicity and event management during the term of Vasundhara Raje, who was also accused of hiring staff on contract using government resources to campaign for the BJP.
Under the guise of ‘popularising’ government schemes, workers were directed to campaign for the party. The eSakhi scheme and the Yuvak Prerak scheme were two examples. Full-time government staff of the DIPR had written letters then in protest when asked to cover the rally addressed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi ahead of the Assembly elections in Rajasthan last October.
One staffer, concerned by the Gehlot government’s move to hire private agencies, said, “We are government staff, we refused to carry out party work. But we are more than willing to do what we are paid for, which is work for the government.”
The staffer pointed out that resources of the government could be put to better use — the state has just declared drought in 1,388 villages in Barmer, Jaisalmer, Jodhpur and Hanumangarh districts; in Baran district, in predominantly tribal Sahariya areas, villagers have been demanding work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.
As per reports, the bid document explains that the monopoly role of government to reach people with information had undergone change, and there was thus need to engage private players who would handle the task professionally.
Meanwhile, RK Swami, a Communist Party of India (Marxist)leader from Kota, flayed the Gehlot government for this move as ‘wasteful’ as a time when public funds were facing a squeeze.
“Hiring contractors to do work that government staff can perform is wasteful. Ideally, the work of government should be handled by government staff. In these days of high unemployment and huge crunch of public resources, publicity work should ideally not be accorded priority. What we need is free media and good governance, not stage-managed publicity. But in these days of shackled media, dumbed down audiences and rampant privatisation, what can one say?”
It is pertinent to mention that the state also has Jan Soochna Portal a website that allows easy access to schemes of the state government, proactively disclosing information on rations, pensions and other entitlements. This is information can be accessed even over a smartphone. Just the first month after its launch, over three lakh people had accessed it.
Of late, several instances of corruption have come to light. On October 26, The Hindu newspaper detailed how the private Bhagwan Mahavir Hospital in Deogarh town of Rajsamand district was forced to cough up Rs19,600 to a widow who had got a tumour in the uterus removed. Although the woman was covered by the state government’s insurance scheme, the hospital had forced her to pay up and promised reimbursement later. The woman sold her flock of goats to meet the medical expenses but was denied reimbursement. Once Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sanghatan activist, Vineet Bhambu, discovered from the website that the hospital had indeed been paid by the government, he accompanied the widow to the hospital and managed to recover the sum.