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TV becomes nightly, but problematic, fare to many in India. Commercialism, censorship in new TV age worry critics

About 9 o'clock at night, Sundar Devi finishes the last of her work and switches on the television to relax. Since before sunup, Mrs. Devi and her husband have been washing clothes and linen by hand for only pennies apiece. Their family of nine resides in a poor section of New Delhi, crowded into two rooms that serve both as a laundry and living quarters.

A large black-and-white television set sits prominently in one room. Devi says proudly that the family now owns the TV - bought on credit some 10 years ago.

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``If you travel along this street, you would come across a TV at every step of the way,'' she said, settling down one evening to watch a favorite program. ``In the beginning, there was only a sprinkling of TVs.''

India, long known as a country of desperate poverty and backwardness, is caught up in a television boom. Today, according to government estimates, there are more than 5 million TV sets watched by some 50 million Indians - about 7 percent of the population. In five years, it is projected, those numbers will increase to 30 million TVs and 300 million viewers.

Satellites beam programs to rural areas, where three-quarters of India's people live. Many villages have bought community TV sets with government help. Two years ago, 25 percent of the population could pick up TV signals; today, programs are available to 70 percent. Television was introduced in the capital of New Delhi in 1959, but the real expansion came in the 1970s, when six urban centers received television facilities.

This growth has spawned a new television culture, much of it geared to India's burgeoning middle class. The government-owned and operated television network, known as Doordarshan (which can be translated as ``viewing from afar''), for long frowned on commercially sponsored programs. For years, viewers were subjected to a steady diet of official speeches and ribbon-cuttings.

Last year, in a bid to liven up programming, the government began accepting shows from sponsors touting everying from detergents to low-calorie foods. Suddenly soap operas and situation comedies were the rage on the main VHF channel which operates 10 hours a day. Only New Delhi and Bombay have a UHF channel.

Indians have religiously followed the drama of a wealthy family patterned after the American program ``Dynasty.'' And Doordarshan has launched a new morning show featuring music, news, and exercise led by India's version of Jane Fonda.

``When I go to villages, the people don't ask for a road, they don't ask for water, they don't ask for a bridge. They ask for a TV,'' observes V.N. Gadgil, a longtime government broadcasting minister.

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Television's surge is stirring up political controversy and dilemmas for India. Critics complain that Doordarshan remains a tedious stream of official ceremonies, despite new programs probing police scandals and government corruption and televised question-and-answer sessions with Cabinet ministers.

Political opponents of Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi charge that TV is the mouthpiece of his ruling Congress (I) Party. Public appearances by the youthful prime minister receive extensive coverage, while news that reflects badly on the government often is omitted from broadcasts. Even Mr. Gandhi has admitted that television news programming is ``a mess.''

``There is no dearth of instances of Doordarshan having surrendered professional ethics and discarded guidelines in favor of commands from bureaucrats and politicians,'' says N.L. Chowla, a mass-media critic and former Doordarshan director.

Fearful that TV could ignite the country's volatile sectarian feelings, the government often censors it.

Earlier this year, officials at the last minute canceled an award-winning movie that included graphic scenes of rioting between Hindus and Muslims. They feared the film would further inflame ethnic tensions already high because of a dispute over a religious shrine.

In a nation of 15 major languages and more than 150 dialects, language also is a contentious issue. Most television shows are in Hindi - spoken in some derivative by more than half the people. Officials in non-Hindi-speaking states want broadcast time to be turned over to the states to produce programs in the local tongue.

The growing commercialization of TV also worries the government. Consumerism underscores the yawning income gap between rich and poor and creates unrealistic expectations, critics say. Although commercials now account for only a small portion of broadcast time, some observers warn they could get out of hand.

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