Kolkata: Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd—or BCCL, which publishes The Times of India and The Economic Times newspapers—launched its Bengali daily Ei Samay (Times Now) on Monday amid a battle of nerves between it and its key rival in West Bengal, ABP Pvt. Ltd, over whether to shut their publications for four days during the Durga Puja (21-24 October).
Backed by the Centre for Indian Trade Unions (Citu) and the Indian National Trinamool Trade Union Congress (INTTUC), vendors have decided that they will not distribute newspapers during the Puja this year, which means news organizations such as BCCL and ABP—the publisher of Anandabazaar Patrika and The Telegraph newspapers—may be forced to shut shop for four days.
That was the norm until the early 1990s when Pratidin, a Bengali daily, was launched. Its management, now close to the Trinamool Congress party, decided to keep its offices open during the Puja, forcing others to follow suit. With time, the Puja break for journalists shrunk and, until last year, newspapers headquartered in Kolkata were closed only on the last day of the Puja, or Dashami, which coincided with Dussehra—a festival celebrated across India.
This year, the state’s 9,000-odd newspaper vendors have the support of chief minister Mamata Banerjee, according to Dola Sen, president, INTTUC. Their demand for a four-day break during the Puja is at least two-decades-old, Sen said, but it is only the first time that the state government has thrown its weight behind them. If news organizations do not agree to keep their offices shut, the state government could issue an order forcing them to do so, she added.
In a related development, the state government last week announced that its offices will remain shut for 10 days starting 20 October to celebrate Eid and the Puja. Banerjee has declared Friday, 26 October, as a holiday to extend the break of state government employees and to connect it with a weekend though no major festival is to be celebrated on that day.
Though most other newspapers in Kolkata, including Pratidin, have agreed to suspend publishing for four days during Puja, BCCL and ABP are dragging their feet on a decision. And understandably enough, they are keeping their cards close their chests.
A month ago, ABP launched a Bengali tabloid, E-bela (This Moment), declaring a price war on BCCL’s Ei Samay, which is being sold for less than Rs.1 a copy under a six-month promotional offer. Though sales of both dailies are currently driven largely by subscription, they don’t want these young dailies to be out of readers’ minds for too long, according to editors at ABP, who don’t want to be identified.
“You could say four days isn’t too long really and that it’s kind of unreasonable to think this way,” one of them said. “But that’s what competition does—ABP cannot afford to be out of the market if newspapers from the Times group are in circulation.” It is understandably the same for BCCL.
For years, Citu has been demanding that newspapers shut their offices in West Bengal during Puja, he said, adding that the management would typically ask the editorial bosses to negotiate with the trade union leaders to find a solution. Almost every year, some incentives would be offered and the vendors, albeit reluctantly, would agree in the end to distribute newspapers during Puja.
However, Citu, which until recently was the dominant trade union among newspaper vendors, denies its demand for higher commission was ever met. Citu would ask newspapers to pay vendors an additional 10% commission on their cover price during Puja, according to Debanjan Chakrabarty, a Citu leader, but they didn’t oblige. He admitted the state , too, didn’t pressure news organizations to loosen their purse strings though some such as ABP paid its permanent employees an ex-gratia amount for working during the four-day festival.
There was a time when advertisement revenues weren’t strong during Puja, said the head of one of India’s oldest advertising firms, asking not to be named. But that has changed: over the last five or six years, the advertisement volume in Kolkata’s newspapers has remained more or less same on all days during the festive season till Diwali, according to this person.
“Advertisers believe the buying propensity remains high till Diwali,” he said, “so they keep up the momentum.” It may be different for the weaker newspapers though—for them, it could be unprofitable to be circulation during Puja because the cost of operation escalates, but for news organizations such as BCCL and ABP, it is “absolutely meaningless” to keep their offices shut during Puja, he added.
Suman Chattopadhyay, editor of Ei Samay, was not available for comment.
Caught amid the political grandstanding on holidays, even Ganashakti, the Bengali mouthpiece of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), has decided to keep its offices shut if others follow suit, according to a spokesperson for the party.
It is a significant break from its tradition of not shutting its offices to celebrate religious festivals. For Ganashakti, 7 November is a routine holiday, marking the seizure of the Winter Palace by the Russian Bolsheviks in 1917, not the Puja. Yet, such is the situation that Ganashkti must now show solidarity with its trade union Citu, which is increasingly getting marginalized among newspaper vendors.
Some products of HT Media Ltd, Mint’s publisher, compete with those of BCCL and ABP in some markets.