'Capital lies with a few, power with the masses'

Only one of the 350 newspapers started as a cooperative venture after Independence survived government's attempts to shut them down. The newspeper's editor Sheetla Singh spoke to Down To Earth about the struggle

By Anil Ashwani Sharma
Published: Friday 25 January 2019

Image: Tarique AzizSoon after Independence, a good 350 newspapers started as a cooperative venture. But only Janmorcha, published from Faizabad in Uttar Pradesh, managed to survive. Its editor Sheetla Singh fearlessly wages a battle against the government which has made five attempts to shut the newspaper down. Down To Earth interviewed the 87-year-old sentinel of cooperative journalism about the perils of newspaper publishing in the country. Excerpts: 

Why did you join journalism?

I entered journalism in 1958. The aim was to serve the masses and turn it into a vehicle of awareness and a means of protecting democracy.

How did you think of bringing out a newspaper as a cooperative? 

In 1954, the Press Commission published a report which pointed at the threat capitalism posed to journalism and freedom of expression. It stated that cooperative newspapers could be the only solution. I was greatly influenced by it and started working in that direction.

Janmorcha will soon turn 60, but are there other newspapers that run on the cooperative model?

A survey was conducted in 1985 which found 247 newspapers in the country operating as cooperative. Sadly, none managed to survive. Other mediums are trying to use cooperative a profit-making tool. Janmorcha has never taken money from the government, nor has any of its member taken shares worth more than Rs 10,000. Journalists of this institution have the sole aim of working for the country. We have spread our reach to Bareilly, Prayagraj, Lucknow and Faizabad.

What is the biggest challenge for cooperative newspapers?

There are three reasons why other newspapers could not survive—lack of resources, lack of willpower and lack of entrepreneurial acumen. Those who have the resources work as the biggest hindrance. They sell newspapers at a price much lower than the cost price. People like us are unable to compete because we cannot bear the losses and eventually perish. 

So is capital the biggest threat?

In these times of globalisation, capital is a big deciding factor. Therefore, we are not in a position to do away with social disparities. But this does not mean that the situation will not change. People will get fed up of these disparities and root for change. The supremacy of capital does not scare me. While capital is accumulated with a handful of people, the masses have unlimited power. We must never forget this fact.

What is the biggest resource for a cooperative newspaper?

Credibility is our biggest capital. What one writes, speaks or thinks does not matter till one forcefully stands by them. This is paramount to the spirit of cooperation and imparts credibility to our movement. 

The first Press Commission on journalism had set a few benchmarks. Were these adhered to?

The Press Commission had stated that not more than one-third of a newspaper should comprise advertisements, else it would turn into an advertisement-paper. Newspapers did not adhere to it. The prices are also not uniform and sell for Rs 2, Rs 3 and even for Rs 4. A newspaper should be sold at the cost of its production. So newspapers with fewer resources battle for survival.

Is the Cooperative Societies Act, 1912 lacking in any way?

The Act gives unlimited powers to the registrar. This helped the government make attempts to take over my newspaper not once, but on five occasions. We emerged victorious every time owing to our firm conviction. We did have to move the high court and the Supreme Court for this. Questions were raised in Parliament as well. We want the registrar who is a judge in some court.

How did the government try to take over your newspaper?

We were working as per the rules. But the government suddenly changed the election term from five to two years and said we had not conducted elections. We expressed our inability to comply owing to the sudden change. If a change was to be made, we should have been informed in advance. 

Does the government do nothing to promote cooperative societies?

According to the Cooperative Act, promotion of cooperatives is government’s duty. But not a single newspaper has benefited from this. 

Who would you credit for this 60-year battle for cooperative journalism?

The credit definitely goes to my colleagues. Their belief in me has enabled me to keep working to this day. The newspaper is now ready to install its second printing machine. At present, we have capital wealth of Rs 5 crore.

Has GST affected cooperative news-papers?

Yes, we had to pay Rs 3 lakhs as GST. The legalities are not really in our favour. There are newspapers which indulge in private businesses using private capital. They have vested interests and should be banned. They harm cooperative journalism. There should be a system to check that people who publish newspapers do not indulge in any other business. We should not forget that journalism is a public service. 

Should media be guided by ideologies?

Journalists should never support ideologies. They should place facts and opinions in an unbiased way.

Has your journalism been influenced by the Leftist ideals?

Never. After I joined journalism, I devoted myself to it.

(This article was first published in Down To Earth's 16-31 January, 2019, edition)

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