Media wheeling-dealing: Black as coal

It’s not just coal that generates power – news media does too. What connects Tehelka, Naveen Jindal and Focus TV? We join the dots for you.

ByArunabh Saikia
Media wheeling-dealing: Black as coal
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Three companies are registered at the same address. One has been named in a Central Bureau of Investigation First Information Report (FIR) pertaining to the coal scam for a dubious investment in a media company owned by an ex-Congress Minister of State. The second had invested in another media company whose financials are being currently scrutinised by the Central Board of Direct Taxes. The third extends a loan of Rs 150 crore to yet another media company, owned by an ex-Congress Union Minister presently caught up in an Enforcement Directorate investigation for his alleged role in the Saradha Chit Fund Scam. So do the three have more in common than just their postal address?

Is there a money trail connecting the three? Or are tightly-guarded ownership secrets connecting them? We may not have to speculate any more thanks to a Company Law Board order passed on May 8, 2014 which has been largely ignored by the media except Zee Group – currently engaged in a battle of its own with one of the names involved – Naveen Jindal.

In the 12th FIR filed by the CBI while investigating India’s infamous coal scam last year, a company called New Delhi Exims Private Limited was named. The other names included in the same FIR were Naveen Jindal, Dasari Narayana Rao, Gagan Sponge Iron Private Limited, Jindal Steel and Power Limited, Jindal Realty Private Limited and Sowbhagya Media Limited. Naveen Jindal was a Member of Parliament at the time. Dasari Narayana Rao was the Minister of State for Coal when the allegedly improper allocations of coal blocks took place.

According to the FIR (of which Newslaundry has a copy), Jindal Realty Private Limited had extended an unsecured loan of Rs 2.27 crore to New Delhi Exims Private Limited in 2008. The FIR mentions that New Delhi Exims then bought 2.5 lakh shares in Sowbhagya Media Limited. They paid Rs 100 per share, which amounts to Rs 2.5 crore. However, the market price of the shares at the time (when New Delhi Exims had bought them) was only Rs 28 per share. Why did they pay an inflated amount? We’ll get to that.

Rao, former Coal Minister in UPA 1 happens to own 60 per cent equity shares in Sowbhagya Media Limited (according to Registrar of Company records). The CBI has stated that this qualifies the transaction to be considered a bribe, and one which could have been used to take advantage of Rao’s official position as Minister of State for Coal.

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In another seemingly unrelated ruling by the Company Law Board (CLB) on May 8, 2014, the CLB declared yet another loan as “fraudulent and mischievous”. This was a loan of Rs 150 crore which was given by a company called Worship Impex Private Limited to Positiv Television Private Limited. The order (which is in Newslaundry’s possession) was in response to a petition filed by one Manoranjana Sinh against Positiv Television Pvt. Ltd, Matang Sinh and Navin Jindal among others. Manoranjana Sinh has been fighting a long battle against her estranged husband Matang Sinh (an-ex Congress Member of Rajya Sabha from Assam) over the ownership of PositivTelevision Private Limited. PositivTelevision owns six TV channels – Focus News, Focus Haryana, Focus Bangla, Focus Odisha, Focus NE, and Focus Hi Fi  – and two FM channels.

Importantly, this was Manoranjana Sinh’s second petition to the Company Law Board “seeking impleadment” of Navin Jindal in her cases against Positiv Television. The CLB had rejected her first petition as it found that prima facie there was no evidence that Naveen Jindal had breached any previous order of the CLB. The previous order that the CLB cited here refers to one passed by the CLB on May 29, 2009. This was in response to another of Manoranjana’s petitions (against Positiv Television Private Limited) that Matang Sinh had unlawfully reduced her share holding to 9 per cent from the original 50 per cent she used to hold when Matang Sinh and she had initially founded the company. As you can see, the honeymoon was well and truly over for Matang and Manoranjana.

The Company Law Board had ordered that status quo (Newslaundry has a copy of the order) be maintained on the shareholding pattern/fixed assets of the company. The order implied that Manoranjana legally still held 50 percent stake in Positiv Television.

When we spoke to her, Manoranjana explained the flow of events. “Matang Sinh and I had founded Positiv Television in 2003, with both of us holding 50 per cent shares each. We went on air with our first channel, NE TV on March 16, 2004”.

It was all hunky-dory till around 2008 – then their marriage started to sour. “I realised he was siphoning money from the company’s funds for his personal use. When I confronted him, he became abusive”, said Manoranjana.

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The Sinhs had taken huge loans from banks to set-up their company – these were yet to be paid back in entirety. As per our source who was working with NE TV  at this time, two of the banks – Vijaya and Canara – which had loaned money to the Sinhs approached the Banks Fraud Division. Matang Sinh approached Sudipto Sen – the prime accused in the Saradha Chit Fund Scam – to help him with funds. The Enforcement Directorate (ED) has kept a sharp eye on Matang Sinh ever since, and sources say he is likely to be accused of money laundering when the ED files its charge sheet by the end of July.

Matang Sinh did not respond to our many attempts to contact him and get his version of events.

Manoranjana Sinh had also reportedly received money from Sen in lieu of her shares in Positiv Television to start a new channel called Frontier TV after she fell out with Matang Sinh. The ED has also questioned Manoranjana Sinh, and believes the actual amount paid by Sen to her could be much more than what official papers suggest.

While the drama (on the surface of it) comes across as an incident of marital discord, a dissection of the CLB order of May 9, 2014 leads to a whole trail of inexplicable transactions. A trail that could connect  to the notorious coal block allocation scam that came to light in 2012.

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Worship Impex Private Limited set up in 2008 loaned Rs 150 crore to Positiv Television which has six channels named Focus (Newslaundry has documentary proof of the transaction). According to its Memorandum of Association, the directors at the time were Santosh Singhal and Poonam Sharma, each holding 5000 equity shares. According to their balance sheet filed with RoC (the last time the company filed its records) on March 31, 2012, their revenue from the operation was nil. Additionally, the balance sheet states a bank balance of Rs 10, 000 as well as Rs. 2347 in cash.

On January 30, 2013, Worship Impex and Positiv Television signed an agreement according to which the former was to loan the latter Rs 26 crore. On February 8, 2013, both parties agreed upon an addendum of another Rs 50 crore loan.  Finally, another agreement for an additional loan of Rs 74 crore (bringing the total amount to Rs 150 crore) was signed on March 29, 2013.

In another set of developments over February and March of the same year, the two founding directors of Worship Impex resigned to make way for two new directors, Amit Kumar Jha and Shekhar Kumar Sharda.  Both Jha and Sharda were formerly employed with the Jindal group (confirmed by the counsels appearing for the Jindals, in their response to Manoranjana Sinh’s petition).

Even if one dismisses the new directors’ history with Naveen Jindal as coincidence, Worship Impex’s listed address (when the transactions happened) is too conspicuous to ignore. The loan agreements clearly mention Worship Impex’s address as E-4/77, Sector -7, Rohini, New Delhi. Which incidentally happens to be New Delhi Exims Private Limited’s address too.  Not only do Worship Impex and New Delhi Exims Private Limited share the same address, they also share the same founding directors – Santosh Singhal and Poonam Sharma. Coincidence?

Worship Impex has now changed its address to Mezzanine Floor, 1/D, Naurang House, Kasturba Gandhi Marg, Connaught Place, New Delhi. Newslaundry has a copy of the form that Worship Impex filed with the Ministry of Corporate Affairs to change its address. This was done after the transactions took place.

When Newslaundry visited the new address of the company, we discovered that Worship Impex – which had loaned an amount of Rs 150 crore only last year – shared its 10*8 office with three other companies. Obviously investing in real estate isn’t as high a priority as in media channels.

The only person who was in the shared premises when we visited, claimed that he was not employed with Worship Impex Private Limited. When we requested for a meeting with the new directors of the company, we were told that the “only other lady” who worked in the office was on sick leave.

This curious saga of one address and multiple offices doesn’t just end here. According to an Indian Express report filed on December 13, 2013, the registered address of another company, Weldon Polymers Private Ltd is E-4/77, Sector -7, Rohini.  Weldon Polymers’ RoC records reveal that it had invested Rs 11.60 crore in Anant Media – the holding company that publishes Tehelka ­– in 2008. Anant Media’s financials are currently being examined by various government bodies, including the Central Board of Direct Taxes in the Ministry of Finance. Interestingly, Suresh Singhal who used to be the director of Weldon Polymers until the IE report surfaced, is Santosh Singhal’s husband. Santosh Singhal one of the founding directors of both New Delhi Exims Private Limited and Worship Impex Private Limited. The IE also mentions a two-page report which Tehelka had published in December 2007. The story headlined “Friendly Deception”, alleged that Congress MP from Karnal, Arvind Sharma, had made a “desperate attempt to swindle Congress MP Naveen Jindal of his land and to malign him”. Weldon Polymers Private Limited has also changed its directors and address since.

Naveen Jindal and the spokespersons of Jindal Steel Private Limited (JSPL) have, so far, staunchly denied any investments in Positiv Television Private Limited and any connections with any of these.  Newslaundry had mailed JSPL with the following questions:

1. Does Jindal Steel and Power Ltd/any other Jindal group company have any investments in Positiv Television Private Limited?

2.  Is M/S Worship Impex Private Limited associated with the Jindal Group?

3. Is New Delhi EXIM Private Limited associated with the Jindal Group?

4. Were Shekhar Kumar Sharda and Amit Kumar Jha – who happen to be directors of Worship Impex Private Limited – employed with the Jindal group at any point of time?

A spokesperson for JSPL mailed us the following response:

 “We categorically deny that there is any association between Jindal Steel and Power Ltd. and the mentioned Positiv TV, Worship Impex Pvt. Ltd. and New Delhi Exim Pvt. Ltd. Since the matter is sub-judice and pending consideration before the Hon’ble High Court and before the Company Law Board, we do not wish to make any further comments.”

The coal scam seems to have slowly disappeared from public memory with very few people being actually held accountable – this the CBI blames on “lack of evidence”. Clearly, the evidence exists. It’s only about joining the dots – if anyone cared to do so. Or is the media simply protecting its own by turning a blind eye?

It is clearly not just coal that generates power, but news media too, considering the keenness and generosity with which businesses are investing in it.

Shahshank Pandey contributed reporting.  He can be contacted on Twitter @shashankhgunjan.

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