Why is Madhya Pradesh handing over upscale homes to journalists?

Only this month, the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government allotted bungalows to 10 mediapersons. But the policy has existed for long.

ByPrateek Goyal
Why is Madhya Pradesh handing over upscale homes to journalists?
Shambhavi Thakur
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If you drive around Bhopal, the capital of Madhya Pradesh, you will find a number of signboards indicating that the address belongs to a news outlet. Although the offices of all major Hindi and English newspaper in the city are located in the press complex at Maharana Pratap Nagar, you will likely spot offices of small newspapers and websites such as Vidur Ki Neeti, Yalgar, Bhadakti Chingari, or Bicchu at crossings and on small streets.

The reason for the proliferation of news outfits in Bhopal is the state’s generosity towards mediapersons. Whether led by the Congress or the BJP, successive governments in Madhya Pradesh have always sought to keep journalists happy by giving them bungalows and cars. Such is the extent of this generosity that even someone like Pyare Miyan, who was recently arrested for sexually assaulting minor girls, among other crimes, lived for years in a bungalow provided to him as a journalist by the state government.

As recently as December 4, Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s government allotted bungalows to 10 journalists, on rent for three years, under the Press Pool scheme. Some 200 mediapersons or news organisations already occupied properties under this scheme in Bhopal, many of them for over 20 years. In most cases, the occupants pay little or no rent. In 2010, the allottees together owed the state Rs 14 crore in unpaid rent, in spite of occupying prime real estate. The bungalows rented out to the journalists are mostly in “VIP colonies” such as Char Imli, Professors Colony, and Shivaji Nagar where ministers and top government officials also live. Shivaji Nagar, in fact, has so many of these bungalows that fellow journalists pejoratively call it the Dalal Street (Dalal means broker or pimp in Hindi). It’s likely that the money owed by the allottees has increased manifold over the last decade.

Mediapersons who were allotted houses on December 4 – Newslaundry obtained a copy of the order – are Jagdeep Singh of Naya India, Sharad Srivastav of News18, Rameshwar Dhakad of Agniban, Sunil Srivastava of IND 24, Sudhir Dandotiya of IBC 24, Ashwani Kumar Mishra of Digiyana, Santosh Chaudhary of People’s Samachar, Makrand Kale of TV9, Vivek Pattiyya of Zee News, Dhananjay Pratap Singh of Navdunia.

‘Illegal occupation’

In 2012, Sriprakash Dixit, former joint director of the state’s directorate of information and public relations, petitioned the Madhya Pradesh High Court alleging “illegal occupation” of government properties by media organisations and journalists. Alongwith his petition, Dixit submitted records obtained from the estates directorate under the RTI Act showing that 210 journalists and media outlets occupied government properties in Bhopal, and they together owed Rs 14 crore in rent until November 2010. Seasoned journalist Om Prakash Mehta owed around Rs 1.24 crore, Siddharth Khare Rs 1.10 crore, and Shiv Anurag Pateria Rs 26 lakh.

The petition pointed out that the state’s auditor and accounts general had found the occupation of the houses illegal and noted that the government was deliberately not seeking rent from the occupants. Yet, as many as 176 of the houses remained illegally occupied. Only 23 had been vacated, and the occupants of 11 houses had obtained stay on eviction from the high court.

The petition was heard in November 2012 by a bench led by SA Bobde, then chief justice of the Madhya Pradesh High Court and now the chief justice of India. In January 2014, a bench led by AM Khanwilkar disposed of the matter after ordering the state government to take appropriate action on the petitioner's complaint and inform him about it by April 30, 2014. The government informed Dixit the following month that 95 people were illegally occupying government properties and 71 had asked for extending the allotments. As many as 37 properties had been vacated.

This led Dixit to file a contempt of court petition against the government. The court in turn issued a notice to the government. The matter has been hanging fire since.

“Governments in Madhya Pradesh get properties occupied by public servants vacated in a flash, but are weak when it comes to journalists,” Dixit told Newslaundry. “If you look at this closely, you will see many of the people who have been given bungalows are not even journalists. They are people close to political parties and they have got bungalows from the journalist quota.” And both the Congress and the BJP “give government bungalows to their ‘own people’”, he added.

“Big media groups such as UNI, PTI, Hindustan Times, Zee, Nai Dunia, Lokmat were given properties under the journalist quota. They have been sitting on these properties for years. Organisations such as Hum Samvad, Vishwa Samvad Kendra that are close to BJP have been given bungalows under the journalist quota as well,” said Dixit.

Newslaundry indeed found cases of non-journalists receiving bungalows under the journalist quota. Lalit Srivastav of the Congress and Kailash Sarang of the BJP both occupied houses allotted under the journalist quota while they were alive. Youth Congress leader Bansilal Gandhi was given a bungalow in 1984 for one year. He refused to vacate it even after several years and obtained a stay on eviction from the high court. Another Congress leader, Mahendra Singh Chauhan, a confidante of the late Arjun Singh, lived in a house allotted under the journalist quota for nearly three decades, and got a stay from the high court when he was asked to vacate it.

According to the rules, only a journalist who has no property in their own or a family member’s name within Bhopal’s municipality is eligible to get a house under the Press Pool for three years. If the person quits journalism or leaves Bhopal they must vacate the property. Allottees are to be chosen from a shortlist prepared “on the basis of seniority” by a high-level committee, in consultation with the public relations department.

In reality the houses are allotted by the government at its discretion. As per the records obtained by Dixit, the allotment committee hasn’t been constituted, nor has a shortlist ever been prepared.

‘Love for journalists’

In Madhya Pradesh, successive governments have used the gift of upscale houses to tame mediapersons. The policy was started by the late chief minister Shyama Charan Shukla, who gave a government bungalow to the owner of a newspaper called Prachand. When Arjun Singh became the chief minister in the 1980s, he started giving mediapersons and their employers land and other state facilities apart from houses. And for even lavish bungalows in the city’s upscale locations, journalists were charged Rs 100-200 as rent.

Arjun Singh also set up a committee, led by Motilal Vohra, to hand out advertisements to newspapers. When Vohra became the chief minister, he continued the policy of allotting houses and land to journalists, giving not one but two bungalows to his brother Govind Lal Vohra, who was a journalist. Sundarlal Patwa and Uma Bharti of the BJP and Digvijaya Singh of the Congress followed suit when they took over the top job. For the last nearly 15 years, Shivraj Singh Chouhan has been handing out the goodies to mediapersons.

Chouhan’s allotments have landed him in controversy, most recently when he handed over a bungalow to Kirar Samaj, a caste group of Kirar Kshatriyas whose national president is the chief minister’s wife Sadhna Singh Chouhan. And in 2014, a journalist who had been given a house was evicted from it after he did a story critical of Sadhna Chouhan.

A version of this story was originally published on Newslaundry Hindi.

Translated by Shardool Katyayan.

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