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Guest Column<br>Retrofit: Of land, power and an about-face

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Guest Column<br>Retrofit:  Of land, power and an about-face

We are plumbing new depths in news telly journalism. While several of the Hindi news channels try desperately to out do one another with the strangest and weirdest stories, new vistas are now being explored by English news telly as well. Not exactly the ‘Ichadari Saanp’ variety, but close. On Sunday night, while channel surfing, I stopped to witness one of the most bizarre programmes on news telly in recent times. The programme titled ‘Power vs People’ tried its level best to highlight the plight of farmers, who had ‘allowed’ their land to be grabbed by the power hungry Anil Ambani-led Reliance Energy for the Dadri power plant. The plant is yet to take off because the gas allocated to it by RIL for 17 years at $2.34 is under litigation. Not many of you would have missed the ongoing gas opera. It is all over the papers and telly every single day. The case, as we know, is currently in the Supreme Court. So, it is sub judice, but of course nobody seems to give a damn about that.

Two PYTs – Ratna Rathore and Shweta Bajaj – were mouthing inanities, obviously scripted by someone else. But more than that, they seemed embarrassed at reading out the lines from the nearest teleprompter for they too realised the futility of the exercise for what it was. It was a crude and crass attempt to turn Dadri into Singur and Nandigram. Propaganda? Bah, no! This was downright lowest denominator. Catch a NDTV or CNN-IBN or a Times Now or for that matter Headlines Today doing such a crassly incompetent and blatant show.

But the bigger import of what I was watching began to reverberate in the corridors of my mind with uncanny ease. My mind’s eye was switched on rewind to sometime late last year, when the Singur debacle had the Tatas pulling out. And the world’s media transfixed on the frenetic developments. I appreciate Ratan Tata’s point of view that nobody can hold a gun to his temple and ask him to carry on with his business. I respect Mr Tata’s decision because I believe that only he, amongst the community of Indian industrialists would have had the gall to pull out lock, stock and barrel. But that is because he has done it earlier as well – the Devanhalli airport project near Bangalore – is another well documented instance. Here again, once Tata had it up to his ears with successive civil aviation ministers and the procrastination of the State Government, he opted out. His business acumen has been proved time and again in these last few years, though the panoply of acquisitions in recent times may have been overdone.

But that is not the issue, during one such discussion on the Singur problem, one Jehangir Pocha, who I later discovered was the Editor of Businessworld for a short while was on a panel with me. My stance was clear that the farmer has an emotional attachment with his land, but wait, forget that. Everyone has an emotional attachment with his land or property, acquired or inherited. Only as a matter of last resort is it sold, unless it is transacted for speculative purposes. I was vehement in my view that acquisition of land went against the very underlying ethos with which West Bengal, which had seen a transformation amongst the bargadars (sharecroppers) due to the far sighted CPM policy of Operation Barga in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which gave tracts of land back to those who did not have land to till. And I know this because I lived in Bengal during those years.

For the uninitiated, Operation Barga was a land reforms movement throughout rural Bengal for recording the names of sharecroppers (bargadars) while avoiding the time consuming method of recording through settlement machinery. It bestowed on the bargadars the legal protection against eviction by landlords and entitled them to due share of the produce. The ultimate aim of these far reaching reforms was to facilitate the conversion of these bargadars into land owners, in line with the Directive Principles of the Indian Constitution Article 34. There is empirical evidence to support the fact that these land reforms improved productivity in West Bengal, and more than anything else, formed the strong rural bastion for the Left cadres in the last 30-odd years. A reason why the Left managed to win consecutive elections.

Against this backdrop, do you honestly believe that anyone in Bengal will give up his land so easily? And more importantly, if Mamata di is anti-industrialisation, why did the people – rural and urban – vote for her in the general elections? Obviously, there was some politics at work, I cannot, for a second, be blind to that idea. Mr Pocha’s response was that I was being facetious. My argument was too simplistic, he concurred. Land and its emotive appeal to the farmer is facetious and simplistic. Dang, I said to myself – this is the last time I am going to appear on this channel. For, I was hardly being jocular discussing such a serious and emotive issue in which people were losing their lives, forget jobs. The same Mr Pocha had to be interrupted by anchor Arup Ghosh when he started asking questions of the Trinamool spokesperson on live telly. Mr Pocha was there in his capacity as Editor of Businessworld, if my memory serves me right and not speaking on behalf of the Tatas. Finally, Ghosh told Mr Pocha that the TMC spokesperson should be allowed to say his piece and should not be interrupted consistently.

Anyway, that was that. Now fast forward to Sunday night. Displacement of farmers in Dadri to build a power plant years after the land has been acquired and the power plant cannot be set up because it awaits gas from fuel linkage company Reliance Natural Resources Ltd. Which, in turn, cannot get the gas because RIL refuses to comply with the contract signed under the scheme of demerger of the company itself – Reliance Industries Ltd. No other fault, I presume. The question that begs an answer is whether one man’s meat is another man’s poison. Now, the same Mr Pocha, who described my comments as facetious, is heading the same NewsX and probably was the author of the script read out by ladies – Rathore & Bajaj. ‘Power vs People’ is what the legend on Sunday said, only this time, Mr Pocha was on my side of the divide, haranguing over the displacement of farmers for a power project. It was a motivated story done with malafide intent and lacking finesse. No question about that Sir?

Which sent my thought process train running in another direction. When NewX was conceived, Vir Sanghvi, who was the boss of the news part of the network, which was to be rigged up, told me in categorical terms that among the investors in the network was RIL’s Mukesh Ambani. He later wrote about this in his HT blog, long after quitting the channel because of differences with co-promoters Peter and Indrani Mukerjea. But this was never officially confirmed. When Peter and Indrani Mukerjea were booted out and Webdunia/Nai Duniya or whatchmacallit became the new promoters with the exit of Temasek, New Silk Route and probably SREI Capital, the same Mr Pocha became the editorial head of the channel. Arup Ghosh, Shireen and company didn’t last very long in the new dispensation. Several purges thereafter have seen innumerable exits. Isn’t it facetious now Mr Pocha, that you take up the rights of displaced farmers in UP, when you found the notion joclular when I raised it over Singur’s farmers?

NewsX had close to 400 employees at its peak, now they are probably down to less than 200. So many journalists and technical staff have been displaced. On January 9 this year, Mr Pocha and Mr Vinay Chhajlani, promoters of IndiMedia, were introduced to the news room by Ghosh as the new team that was inheriting the channel with the X quotient. When we take a stand, let us be consistent for the colour of the land and the farmer remains the same. Only this time, Dadri seems to have happily replaced Singur on NewsX. The pot cannot call the kettle black just because the prism from which you are viewing events are different or you serve different masters. There was a people’s agitation in Singur, which turned into armed rebellion. I haven’t noticed anything similar in Dadri yet. Though during the course of the ‘People vs Power’, or was it ‘Power vs People’ show, some self-styled leader was shown displaying his displeasure at the state of Dadri. I wonder how many supporters he had outside the studio. People in Singur versus Power in Dadri. Wow, some climactic tussle! Laughable to compare the two, isn’t it?

Let us be objective in our role as mediapersons and not allow programming to degenerate into a farce for its next logical corollary is loss of credibility. Meanwhile, what will the X quotient give way to? I and M 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


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