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Uttarakhand’s dubious publishing boom

The Hoot (September 9, 2002)
Sevanti Ninan

Did you know that Dehradun was a major publishing centre? There are eleven daily newspapers and no less than 84 weeklies coming out of here. If you look closer though, you might find that many of these have a unique distinction. They could be among those newspapers and weeklies in the country which have very unique periodicity—they neither come out weekly nor daily, but on demand, whenever the government demands proof of their existence.

They have interesting names, these newspapers. There is The Hawk which comes out both in Hindi and English, and from both Dehradun and Haridwar. It has four pages, not a single ad in the copy I picked up from the information directorate, (where they have to be filed) and its text is in a point size so big and you can read it if you hold it two feet away. The paper is so thin that it rips with careless handling. It bungs in all manner of news, pell mell into those four pages.

Then there is the Valley Mail, a Hindi daily eveninger with an English name. It is published on coarse newsprint that is almost grey in colour, but manages eight small ads. This too is four pages, as is Uttaranchal ki Ore, which again has no advertising. The daily Shikhar Sandesh is again four pages, two ear panel ads on page one, and a single 2×3 inch ad on the back page. The Himachal Times is rather more ambitious, with editions in Himachal Pradesh and Delhi, but here too locals will tell you that its circulation is not anywhere near what it claims.

Altogether, Uttarakhand boasts 31 daily newspapers, out of Dehradun, Haridwar, Udhamsinghnagar, Tehri, Pauri Garhwal and Nainital. And 122 weeklies. The majority of both kinds of publications, are four pagers. Why they appear at all may seem a mystery to outsiders who encounter them but in the state everybody seems to understand the economics of this publishing industry only too well. There isn’t that much employment in this hill state, self-employment is the norm, and if you are not running a school or a coaching academy in Dehradun, you are likely to be running a newspaper.

What kind? A cheaply produced four pager, though there are honourable exceptions such as the Garhwal Post and Mussourie Times which have more pages and use good paper. They have unlikely names, many of them, such as the Kavita Express, the daily Apne Log from Haridwar, another daily Khabar Laye Hai from Dehradun, and the daily Seemanth Varta from Pauri Garhwal. The last is fourteen years old, owned by a former finance minister of UP, and is a pink paper to boot, though both its quality of newsprint as well its shade of pink would make Samir Jain, proprietor of the country’s first pink newspaper the Economic Times, blanch. In size this newspaper is neither a tabloid nor a broadsheet but something in between.

And yet this city’s other pink paper has a philosophy and a level of success that Samir Jain would whole heartedly approve of. Doon Classified, owned by a former municipal councillor Dinanath Saluja, is a publication devoted to ads, with a single column of text per page. It is a tabloid whose pages vary according to the season, going up from a minimum of 24 to 48 in summer when the advertising season is at its peak. It was conceived of as an ad supplement to be inserted into the English broadsheets that come from Delhi, and as the circulation of these-the Hindustan Times, The Indian Express, the Hindu and the Times of India—grows in the valley, so does the circulation of Doon Classifieds.

It currently sells 30,000 copies a week, and with the exception of Amar Ujala and Dainik Jagran is the only local paper about whose circulation figures there is no scepticism. Indeed because he can’t get a local press to handle this print order he has shifted its printing to a Delhi press, as the circulation has grown. Initially free, it now charges 50 paise per issue, and its ad rates are extremely affordable: Rs 5000 for a full page, and Rs 100 for a 24-word classified. Everybody advertises in it, and the local gentry find it a very useful. The biggest category of advertising is property sales and rentals, followed by vehicles, and admissions to schools, coaching classes, and new computer institutes.

A local journalist, Vipul Dhasmana has filed a case against it in the Press Council for lifting an exclusive interview he did for the Garhwal Post without his or the paper’s permission. But such pinpricks do not hurt Doon Classified whose success is now spawning pink imitations such as Bazaar Classified.

When so many people are rushing to print newspapers booking a title calls for more than a little ingenuity. So you have the following: Doon Dwar, Doon Vani, Doon Darpan, Doon Mail, Doon Prasidhi, Doon Tarang, Doon Gagan, Doon Post, Doon Express, Doon Ashk, and Doon Prahari. Then you move on to Garhwal Kesari, Garhwal Express, Garhmau Mail, Garhwali Dhai, Garhwal Times, Garhwal Darshan, Garhwal Mail, Garhwal Post, and the Garh Darshan Mail. Given that we are talking of a minimum of 150 publications, one could go on.

So why is Dehradun so fond of publishing? Journalists such as Ashok Pande who heads Dainik Jagran here point out that this is not unusual for UP, the state has a thriving tradition of small newspapers, with towns like Kanpur publishing even more titles than Dehradun. He says Madhya Pradesh does not have such a tradition, but Bihar does. Avdash Kaushal, founder of the Rural Litigation and Entitlement Kendra in Dehradun and a leading social worker in the city puts it down to three reasons: for blackmail, for government and public sector ads and for newsprint quotas which they sell in the black.

The more charitable ascribe this phenomenon to the government’s advertising policy, which is intended to encourage the existence of small newspapers, but ends up propping up dud publications. Many of these publications are listed with the Directorate of Advertising and Visual Publicity. When required to furnish proof of their own existence, from time to time, the proprietors rush to print copies, with different datelines. To use a phrase which is very well understood in Dehradun, they print for the file.

Printing for the file means producing enough copies to prove to government that you exist. The number printed has no relation to claimed circulation. Or to the date it bears. Often a whole year’s weeklies may be rushed off the presses in a matter of days to fulfill the government requirement of proof of existence. Says an officer in the information directorate in Dehradun, “If we send them a notice to file a copy of their newspaper with us, then they print and send.”

But why should anyone want to do all this? The economics works like this: Though government policy dictates that newspapers should be patronised by rotation there are some days in the year when everybody gets advertising: Republic Day, Independence Day, Uttarakhand Raising Day, when a new government completes a hundred days in office, and so on. In Mayawati’s UP the list would include Ambedkar’s birthday. All of it put together adds up to some Rs 20,000 worth of advertising a year. If you own ten such publications, that is Rs 2 lakh of income, for doing precious little.

The state government is not the only patron of these publications. Public sector giants such as the Oil and Natural Gas Publication patronise publications such as the Garhwal Post and are rewarded with glowing articles about the corporation in the same issue.

Journalist J S Rawat who works for Uttar Ujala, says sarcastically, “To be a chaprasi in the state government you need to be a 10th class pass, to be a newspaper proprietor you need no qualifications at all.” Many of these papers are printed from the same press, you print a few copies of one masthead, change the masthead and print a few more, and so on. What these papers earn for the proprietor depends on how many he owns.

Since everybody knows about this racket, obviously the state government which patronises these papers knows too. And finds it convenient, for its own reasons to do nothing about it. Politicians are not just allied with the owners, they are among the owners, as in the case of Seemanth Varta mentioned above. The owners of these publications have been dubbed Dehradun’s newspaper mafia. And for obvious reasons there is a scramble among them to be on one of the two media committees of the state government: the accreditation committee, and the advertising committee.

State government’s tend to have annual advertising and publicity budgets of up to Rs 2 crores. Given how the money is used, it is a phenomenal waste of government funds. Rawat says it is a fraud upon the public in more ways than one, not only is the money spent on maintaining individuals rather than publications, the message of the advertising does not reach those it is meant for. State departments such as those for social welfare, health and education advertise, and the ads basically end up in the files.

The other kind of advertising that goes to such publications is government tenders. But how will these serve their purpose if they appear in publications which are scarcely distributed? “That’s the whole point,” says Subhash Gupta, special correspondent of the Amar Ujala. “What makes you think the government wants anybody to see it tender ads? If you publish them in a newspaper without circulation, few applicants will respond, including those whom you might tip off to respond. Then you can award the tender to whom you please.”

Many kinds of ingenuity then, sustain Dehradun’s publishing boom.