Just before the Big B - Budget - BJP's Sushma Swaraj launched a vitriolic offensive against the Treasury benches on the price spike. It was a well researched speech, well spoken and well intoned. She had the Government at sixes and sevens as she assailed their ineptitude on price management. During the course of her speech, she mentioned a Headlines Today investigation, which tracked the reasons behind the inordinately high sugar price rise. It was a blistering attack and while the Government, read Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, tried his best to save his skin, it was to no avail. Good old fashioned reportage had once again worked for Headlines Today, which seems to be on a red hot streak lately.
Good, solid, purposeful reporting seems to be paying in spades for the channel. The laggard has transformed itself from merely being a pretender to a claimant for the English news throne. Given that the sweepstakes in the news business are enormously high, that is a creditable achievement. The sugar investigation set me thinking. For in the immediate past, Headlines Today has been on a roll, its news gathering and investigative skills acting as a differentiator. Two investigations on pulses and sacks full of sugar rotting in government warehouses have raised Cain across the board. Angering hoi polloi, who in any case are bearing the brunt of Government callousness. I must add that the Dal scam was arguably first broken by Outlook, while the sugar sacks lying inert in Kandla and Haldia ports was an original.
For the last seven years, India is a net importer of dals and edible oil. If Pawar has his way, we will soon become net importers of sugar as well. The Headlines Today investigation detailed that:
DAL SCAM: Thousands of tonnes of pulses are rotting in the country’s ports and warehouses even as the markets ran short of supplies and consumers paid through their noses. Prices have trebled. The expose showed how approximately 40,000-60,000 tonnes of pulses were lying unused at the Kolkata port. The colossal waste was captured on camera by an undercover team.
SUGAR ROT: What started during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival last year, has culminated into the hoi polloi venting their collective spleen on Government callousness, as mismanagement seems to be the order of the day as far as sugar is concerned. As the prices moved into the stratosphere, it was discovered that nearly 11 lakh tonnes of the daily sweetener has been lying at Kandla port for six months. So, why is the sugar lying unused when it can easily be released in the open market to cool flaring prices? While HT's basic premise behind the sugar, in both processed and raw form, lying at Kandla without being released into the market is wrong, the bottomline is that consumers have paid almost the twice the amount over the last six months. Again HT's claim that the perpetrators of this great injustice on consumers – Renuka Sugar, Bajaj Hindustan Sugar, Emmsons, Rana Sugar and Olem International – was misinformed; the reality is that the entire exercise smacks of wilful neglect and deliberate and malafide intent on the part of a section of the Government.
HT linked the sugar rot to millers in Uttar Pradesh, but one needs to look at Pawar's role in this sorry tale, which means going beyond the apparent. A Central Customs and Excise notification dating back to 2002 was amended on July 31, 2009, which effectively prevented sugar importing UP mills from getting the commodity processed by anyone other than themselves. I hope the UP millers were not hand in glove with this section of the Government.
Bottomline, as ET explained, this proviso could have been reversed much earlier through a new notification. But it didn't. Around the same time as the Central notification was put out, Pawar started talking up prices by saying that there was a sugar shortfall. The sugar sacks lying at Kandla and JNPT could have easily been lifted and processed by mills in Maharashtra instead. However, it chose not to. After much heat and dust, the Cabinet Committee on Prices on January 13 decided to reverse this crucial notification. Between July 31 and January 13, profiteers, blackmarketeers and hoarders had a field day. But ET explains this better: "The changes make it difficult for the sugar importing mill/ factory/ refiner to allow or facilitate any agency other than itself, even a sugar mill next door in the same state, to process the imported sugar. They had to give to give a hidebound, document-backed commitment to the customs and excise authorities that they were importing raw sugar for processing at their own factories."
Apathy or what? Aiding them all along was Food Minister Sharad Pawar – first, by his alarmist statements, and then, by cutting duty on sugar to zero, allowing these companies to import sugar at rock-bottom prices. The sugar then was allowed to pile up at the ports. The white processed sugar was released in small quantities, allowing prices to remain high. UP Chief Minister Mayawati didn't help by not allowing imported raw sugar to enter the state, since cane was still standing in the Uttar Pradesh fields. Anyway, during the debate on price rise, Leader of the Opposition Sushma Swaraj trained her guns at Sharad Pawar. “Sugar import and export are decided by the Government. No one but Sharad Pawar knows best about it. He is the owner of the sugar industry, he is the Sugar King of India,” Sushma thundered in the House.
Two other terror related investigations this year also need to be pointed out:
HAFIZ SAEED TAPES: On tape, wanted and dreaded terror network leader Hafiz Saeed threatens India with jihad. Headlines Today accesses Saeed's speech at a ‘Kashmir solidarity’ rally in Lahore on February 5, where he is shown spewing venom against India. This wasn't a clandestine underground meet, but one on the city's Mall Road. It was held in broad daylight and attended by over 10,000 people, some of whom brandished automatic weapons. Saeed's sudden appearance came just days before talks between India and Pakistan resumed. In his speech, Saeed said that the jihadis were willing to go all out to liberate Kashmir. He drew parallels with the Soviet Union's defeat and US reverses in Afghanistan and told the gathering that India would meet the same fate in Kashmir.
The Government moved with alacrity, seeking the Jamaat-ud-Daawa chief's tapes just two days before foreign secretary-level talks were to begin with Pakistan. Subsequently, the tapes were discussed in the meeting of the Foreign Secretaries of India and Pakistan.
SHAHZAD AHMED PILOT BOMBER: Earlier this year, the biggest story broken yet by HT was the Shahzad Ahmad pilot bomber story, which detailed how the Indian Mujahideen was planning a 9/11-type attack. The Headlines Today story went like this: A 9/11-type terror attack using hijacked aeroplanes stares India in the face with an Indian Mujahideen terrorist having acquired pilot training and waiting to strike, according to intelligence agencies. Intelligence Bureau (IB) sources say Shahzad Ahmed alias Pappu, one of the key accused in the September 2008 Delhi blasts case, learnt to fly planes in Bangalore and could now be planning to execute an airborne terror strike.
"A dozen other trained Indian Mujahideen terrorists are also at large, and together with Shahzad, pose a big security threat. In his early twenties and hailing from Uttar Pradesh's Azamgarh district, Shahzad gave Delhi Police the slip during the 2008 Batla House encounter in the city. He was the one who opened fire on slain Delhi Police officer Mohan Chand Sharma during the encounter. Shahzad underwent pilot training just before the Delhi blasts and has been absconding since the Batla House encounter. Headlines Today accessed Shahzad's Orkut and email accounts, which revealed his terror plot. Photos of Shahzad in the cockpit, displaying flying skills, sending radio signals or posing with other trainee pilots have alarmed the police.
"Close to a month later, UP Police lauded Headlines Today after the arrest of Shahzad Ahmed from Azamgarh. ADGP Brij Lal said the channel covered the story extensively, which helped them arrest Shahzad. UP police, in fact, described the sequence of events that led to this dreaded IM militant’s capture. He was alerted by his family after the story was telecast. Shahzad then contacted his source in Pakistan to help him across the border. Unfortunately for him, his phone was under surveillance. He was quickly traced and arrested from Azamgarh."
It only tells you that if the bulwark of a news channel remains news, then this long and arduous road of perseverance will pay off. Headlines Today was a punt that Aroon Purie took some years ago to build on the edifice of Aaj Tak. It was a punt which seemed to be meandering aimlessly, till it all came together when he bet on youth over experience. The process of distillation has been slow and capital intensive, but one can safely say that it is bearing fruition finally. Only because it believed in the relevance of news.
(Sandeep Bamzai is a well-known journalist, who started his career as a stringer with The Statesman in Kolkata in 1984. He has held senior editorial positions in some of the biggest media houses in three different cities - Kolkata, Mumbai and New Delhi. In late 2008, he joined three old friends to launch a start-up – Sportzpower Network – which combines his two passions of business and sport. Familiar with all four media – print, television, Internet and radio, Bamzai is the author of three different books on cricket and Kashmir.
The views expressed here are of the writer’s and not those of the editors and publisher of exchange4media.com.)