India tunes eye to color TV, discovers it's not a black and white issue

Nearly 23 years after television arrived here, India is debating whether to enliven its TV screens with color.

One of the few countries in the world yet to switch to color broadcasting, India has been gingerly examining the politically sensitive issue since its first study of the economics of color television in 1973.

Two ostensibly conflicting sets of statistics illustrate the multimillion dollar argument which has been raging in parliament, cabinet, and the press.

* With an annual per capita income of only $190, India is the world's fifteenth poorest country. Almost half its people cannot afford a minimum ration of daily bread. More than half its villages do not yet have electricity or potable water. Only 36 percent of its adults are literate.

To opponents, color television is too much icing on too small a cake - an illustration of misplaced priorities.

* At the same time India is among the world's ten largest industrial economies. It has exploded a nuclear device, launched experimental satellites, and welcomed its first research expedition back from the Antarctic. It has a flourishing export business in engineering goods and the world's third largest pool of scientific and technical manpower.

That means, according to color TV advocates, that India cannot afford to stay behind with black and white television while the rest of the world goes ahead with color.

''India cannot lag behind other countries in television technology,'' says Information and Broadcasting minister Vasant Sathe, a key advocate of color TV.

Sathe points out that India finds it increasingly difficult to exchange TV programs with other countries. It is also losing out on foreign exchange it could be earning from the manufacture and export of color sets, he says.

Another telling argument in status-conscious India is that even poor neighbor Bangladesh and arch-rival Pakistan already have color television.

Television has spread slowly in India. Thirteen years lapsed between the opening of the first station in Delhi in 1959 and the second in Bombay, India's commercial capital. Ten cities now have their own television stations, and others are linked by microwave relays. But less than 20 per cent of India's 684 million people -- and only six percent of its land mass -- are within television range.

One factor limiting television's spread is the high cost of locally made sets -- about $300 for black and white. The inexpensive sets available overseas are not an option, as Indians who bring them into the country face customs duties of more than 300 percent. Indian television manufacturers, eager to leap into the color TV void, say they can offer 20-inch screen color sets for $990, a sum which includes heavy government duties on imported parts and excise taxes.

For the high purchase price, Indian TV viewers get only a few hours' reception a day. Delhi viewers can watch television for 61/2 hours, including two hours of children's programming in the morning. Bangalore, India's fifth largest and fastest growing city, gets 141/2 hours of TV a week by relay from Bombay and Madras.

Although Bangalore has long been a major manufacturing center for television picture tubes, it acquired television reception just this past November.

Color TV opponents argue that the government, which controls all broadcasting , ought to be expanding the black and white system to reach India's masses rather than planning the costly switchover. Even a gradual switch over the next several years will cost half a billion dollars, according to India's planning commission.

Because of the high cost and controversy of the color TV, the government has yet to reach a decision. Signs are that it will duck the issue and allow color TV in through the back door - through the vehicle of the upcoming Asian Games in November.

Spurred by the desire to sell sports broadcasts to Asian neighbors -- to whom black and white are not acceptable - the government has agreed to purchase British color TV equipment for four mobile broadcasting vans. When the games end , the vans stay. That could be an irresistible lure to start color television in India.

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