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Bhopal: How land meant for newspapers became a commercial hotspot

Shirish Khare | Updated on: 11 February 2017, 7:51 IST

Two years ago, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government cancelled the allocation of about an acre of land to Navjeevan, the defunct Congress publication, in Bhopal. It claimed the land, allotted three decades previously, was being used for "commercial purposes" and threatened to take over the buildings constructed on this plot.

The plot is situated at Press Complex near Maharana Pratap Nagar, the city's commercial hub. It's, however, not an isolated case of the change of land use in this area. No less than three dozen media houses continue to flout their lease agreements, according to the state government.

About a decade ago, the Supreme Court had described the publication of a newspaper as a commercial activity and asked the government to issue tax notices to the allottees of the land. However, the state has failed to collect tax worth over Rs 500 crore from the newspaper owners. The plots were given on a lease of 30 years, a period that got over in 2012 in most cases.

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The press complex continues to remain a centre of commercial activity for the newspaper owners although the land was given to them on concessional rates exclusively for press activities. None of the owners has renewed the lease, causing a loss of crores of rupees in revenue to the exchequer every year. But far from cancelling the allotments, the government has failed to even levy tax on them.

Devious plot

It all began in the 1980s when the then Congress chief minister Arjun Singh reserved a 22-acre piece of land in Bhopal for a press complex. In all, 39 plots were allotted at Rs 2.30 per sq ft. The Bhopal Development Authority spent money from its own coffers for developing the area. The newspaper establishments were provided facilities like unhindered power supply.

The land was given to newspapers for Rs 2.30 per square foot. Now it goes for over Rs 15,000 per square foot

Before Madhya Pradesh was carved out as a separate state, the hub of all major newspapers in central India was Nagpur. Many newspapers shifted their base of operations to Bhopal when the state came into being in 1956. Arjun Singh, who became the chief minister in 1980, came up with the plan for a press complex purportedly to oblige the media houses.

It was spelled out in the lease agreements that newspaper owners would not use the allotted plots for any other commercial activity. But as the real estate sector boomed in the subsequent years, newspaper houses rushed to reap the benefits. Today, land in press complex goes for over Rs 15,000 per sq ft. This is why the press complex now houses more commercial establishments than media offices.

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The foundation stone for the press complex was laid in 1982 by the then prime minister Indira Gandhi. The first plot was allotted to Navjeevan. It's said the Arjun Singh regime used to distribute copies of this paper even in schools.

Navjeevan closed down in 1990 owing to financial constraints. Many of its employees are still fighting a legal battle for their unpaid dues. The building now houses showrooms of Vishal Megamart and Lotus Electronics.

Another Hindi newspaper that got a plot in 1982 was Navbharat, then one of the fastest growing newspapers in MP. It was so influential that its owner, the late Ramgopal Maheshwari, become the president of Maheshwari Samaj, while his son Praful Maheshwari went to the Rajya Sabha on a Congress ticket.

The heydeys of the newspaper are long over. The Navbharat Building now houses the offices of The Times of India and Videocon. Many publications like Navbharat owe tax dues ranging from Rs 3 crore to Rs 50 crore to the Bhopal Development Authority.

Flouting rules

In 2005, the issue took an interesting turn. Ruling on a petition, the Supreme Court deemed newspaper publication a commercial activity unlike schools and hospitals, and pulled up the state for providing land to media houses at subsidised rates.

There's irrefutable evidence of commercial activities in the name of newspaper publication: Jayant Malaiya

The apex court also ordered the state to collect commercial taxes from the media house from the date of the land allocation. The next year, the housing ministry conducted a survey. A copy of the survey report, accessed by Catch, reveals that most publishers have converted their plots into "commercial property" - some have sold it while others have constructed housing and business complexes and rented them out. Some have rented out space to corporate offices.

In 2006, the BDA served notices to all erring publications for changing the land use against the conditions of the lease agreements. The dues have since risen five times but none of the newspaper owners has paid the taxes.

The owners argue that had the government told them at the time of the allotment that it would charge market rates, they would have run their newspapers from some other place. Although none of them is willing to say so openly, most owners want an amicable solution to escape the government pressure just before the election.

Jayant Malaiya, the former housing minister, claims there is "irrefutable evidence of commercial activities in the name of newspaper publication". Although it was Malaiya who cancelled the leases, he too won't give a time frame for when action would be taken against the erring newspapers. The current housing minister Maya Singh says, "The government will soon take some action."

Several committees formed by the regimes of Digvijaya Singh and Uma Bharti to resolve the dispute have yielded no results. The row has become a fulcrum of power balance between the government and the newspapers. The newspaper owners are aware they are at fault but the government isn't taking decisive action against them lest it invite the media's fury.

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First published: 6 August 2016, 12:11 IST