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Subhash Chandra allays fears on UNI

October 14, 2006 15:01 IST
Essel group promoter Subhash Chandra is believed to have assured Prakash Karat, general secretary, CPI(M), against misuse of the real estate belonging to news agency United News of India as well as the retrenchment of workers.

Chandra has been at the centre of a controversy ever since he acquired a 60 per cent stake in the agency for Rs 32 crore (Rs 320 million) through his company Mediavest India Ltd.

Concerns were raised about the possible commercial use of the UNI's 9 acre plot on Rafi Marg in the capital - valued at Rs 350 crore (Rs 3.5 billion) roughly by real estate experts - manipulation of the editorial content, thereby hurting the freedom of press, as well as legality in buying a majority stake in a company that is run as a non-profit organisation and ploughing back all the profits.

In a communication to Karat, Chandra has addressed concerns on each of these issues, saying, "Since UNI is a Section-25 company, our buying of UNI shares, at best, can be termed as joining the existing shareholders rather than being termed as the beneficiary of the sale of UNI. I assure you that this is not mere jugglery of words, but what we fully believe in."

Rebutting the charge that a change in ownership at UNI will impair free and impartial news coverage, Chandra said, "The final decision, whether to print or not to print the news, is in the hands of the print media owners and editors, such as Anand Bazaar Patrika, Statesman, Hindustan Times, Times of India, Dainik Bhaskar and not in the hands of a news agency such as UNI."

Clearly stating that the law does not permit "any arbitrary retrenchment except VRS", Chandra stated that the issue of UNI retrenching its employees is ill founded.

On the much-touted real estate that has come to the Essel group fold and its possible misuse, Chandra said, "UNI requires an operating place... and therefore there is no question of misusing the real estate. The objective is to run UNI as a news agency and take it to its past-exalted status." He, however, declined to state in his letter if the land was allotted at a concessional rate or at market rates.

Refuting Karat's claim that UNI had a surplus of Rs 30 crore (Rs 300 million) in 1998, Chandra clarified that the highest-ever cash surplus available was Rs 23 crore (Rs 230 million) as on December 31, 2000, and since then, the agency kept going in the red incurring losses of approximately Rs 12 crore (Rs 120 million) till date.

"This entire loss of Rs 12 crore has been funded by creating additional liabilities in the company," he said in his letter.

There is no credible competition to the other national agency, Press Trust of India, contended Chandra, and with Mediavest's fund infusion in infrastructure, there would be more competition than less.

At present, UNI has over 1,000 subscribers in more than 100 locations in India and abroad. These include newspapers, radio and television networks, websites, government offices and private and public sector corporations. It has more than 325 staff journalists around the country and more than 250 stringers, covering news events from remote centres.

UNI's wire service is available in three languages - English, Hindi and Urdu.

Bipin Chandran & Bhuma Shrivastava in New Delhi