Not long ago, when I was called to address the entrants to the All India Services and Central Services Group ‘A’ attending the Foundation Course at RCVP Noronha Academy of Administration in Bhopal, one of my co-speakers was Ramesh Chandra Agarwal, the chairman of Dainik Bhaskar Group. An Indian Railway Service officer, who had done a research project on newspapers and the issue of “paid news” during his training period at Lal Bahadur Shastri Academy of Administratio at Mussoorie, had asked Agarwal why newspapers had succumbed to the evil practice of “paid news”. The Dainik Bhaskar chief was quick to point out that a few newspapers were following this unethical practice. But the questioner had a very incisive take on this issue. He revealed that as part of his training programme at Mussoorie, he had done a country-wide survey and found out that the newspaper chain owned by my co-speaker was printing the maximum number of paid news items. The newspaper owner’s tongue-in-cheek reply to this was that printing newspapers is a costly business. When it is election time and the model code of conduct gets imposed, the flow of adverstisements dries up, he had said adding in such trying times, newspapers have no option but to generate revenue by accepting paid news as the order of the day.
Most tragically, this interaction which I had treated as an opportunity to share knowledge and expertise with young officers belonging to the All India services had turned out to be most embarrassing for me as I was least prepared, after having spent a lifetime following the highest standards of journalism, for the revelation on paid news by none other than the chairman of India’s largest language newspaper group.
Dainik Bhaskar was a small-time newspaper published from a congested lane in the old Bhopal area till the early ’80s. The rise of Dainik Bhaskar, a local Hindi newspaper, coincides with the tenure of Arjun Singh as Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister between 1980 and 1985. Under a state Government policy, approved and implemented in that period, many newspapers were allotted land at highly subsidised rates by the State Government to set up their offices and printing units in the sprawling press complex at Maharana Pratap Nagar in the new Bhopal area.
Those getting attracted by the startup “mantra” of the Narendra Modi regime, could take a few lessons by studying closely the modus operandi and the factors responsible for the rise of smaller newspapers in the central Indian State of Madhya Pradesh in the 80s.
It is an entirely a different matter how loans or funds had got channelised in the case of several newspaper organisations in Bhopal for constructing their huge buildings and how their loan repayment responsibility had been simplified by different lending agencies including the state Finance Corporation. In the past, different sections of the media have also exposed the massive loan scam linked with the Inter-corporate Deposit scheme of the State Industrial Development Corporation under the previous Congress Government in Madhya Pradesh led by Digvijay Singh in the decade of the ’90s and how some newspaper houses that had collected huge loans under this scheme and turned dafaulters had been bailed out by the BJP Government in Madhya Pradesh under a settlement proposal received from Dainik Bhaskar and a few other companies.
The idea is also not to analyse critically the Government policy of allotment of land at highly subsidised rates to the newspapers. The present investigation, as a test case, revolves around the allotment of land to Dainik Bhaskar and the lease deed for building purposes signed by the Chief Executive Officer of Bhopal Development Authority (BDA) and Ramesh Chandra Agarwal, in his capacity as a partner of Dainik Bhaskar on 25 June 1982.
Close investigation has revealed that on 18 April 1985, another lease deed was signed between the two parties, the CEO of BDA and Ramesh Agarwal, who was not acting this time as a partner of Dainik Bhaskar but in his capacity as Managing Director of Writers and Publishers Private Limited, the proprietor of M/s Dainik Bhaskar.
Inquiries point out that the second lease coincided with Ramesh Chandra Agarwal’s letter to the Chairman BDA informing him that the earlier lease deed for the plot allotted to them signed and formalised on 25 June 1982 could not be registered as they had “lost the original file”. In his letter, Agarwal had also stated that as the plot linked with the lost file had not been registered with the deputy registrar’s office, a new lease deed was being signed for the same plot by fixing fresh revenue stamps for Rs. 12,730. He had urged the BDA Chairman to treat the new lease deed as signed on 18 April 1985.
On close scrutiny of the two lease deeds, one comes across huge discrepencies. While the first lease had fixed 1 March 2012 as the date for renewal of the lease for a plot measuring 1 acre, the size of the plot had been enlarged to 51090 square feet (more than an acre) in the second lease deed. Strangely the date for renewal in the second lease deed was fixed as 1 March 2012.
On 1 April 1972, a partnership firm M/s Dwarka Prasad Agarwal and Brothers was formed with the following partners and shares – Dwarka Prasad Agarwal 25%, Bishambar Dayal Agarwal 30%, Mahesh Prasad Agarwal 30% and Ramesh Chandra Agarwal 15%. A partnership deed was also executed soon thereafter by the partners categorically stating that their firm will carry out three businesses. One of them was newspaper, printing and publishing under the name of Dainik Bhaskar from Bhopal.
It was on 13 March 1985 that the partnership firm, acting through Dwarka Prasad Agarwal, had sold its publishing business of Dainik Bhaskar from Bhopal and its property along with “goodwill” to Writers and Publishers Limited (WPL) for a consideration of Rs. 500,000 for a period of ten years.
There has been a prolonged legal wrangle to seek court’s declaration that M/s Dwarka Prasad Agarwal and Brothers is the owner of the daily Hindi newspaper Dainik Bhaskar with all its editions across India and that Writers and Publishers Limited and DB Corp Limited are not the owners of Dainik Bhaskar newspaper. It is learnt that an order of the High Court of Gujarat on 10 October 2006 had approved a scheme of demerger of Writers and Publishers Limited into DB Corp and there was another order on 22 December 2006 that modified the previous order recognising only the transfer of the publishing business of WPL to DB Corp.
In this backdrop, the sale of the publishing business of Dainik Bhaskar, Bhopal to Writers and Publishers in March 1985 and the creation of a new lease deed for the plot allotted to Dainik Bhaskar, in April 1985, does not appear to be a mere coincidence. Only a thorough investigation can reveal truth behind the two lease deeds for the plot allotted to Dainik Bhaskar in Bhopal.