Essel to pump in Rs 1 billion into UNI over next 2 years

NEW DELHI: Essel Group chairman and media baron Subhash Chandra today challenged those criticising his buying of a 51 per cent equity in news agency United News of India (UNI) to put their money where their mouth is.

"If anybody else, including the government, feels that he can work towards revival and expansion of UNI, then I'll be happy. I will gladly give up majority shareholding too in that person's favour," Chandra told journalists here.
As an indication of his genuine interest in reviving the financially beleaguered news agency, Chandra gave an assurance that the Essel group would pump in Rs 1 billion over the next two years into UNI to upgrade infrastructure and acquire cutting edge technology.

"We have identified gaps (read shortcomings) in UNI and are trying to address them along with the other shareholders of the organisation," Chandra said.

Essel's picking up of 51 per cent shareholding in UNI by Mediavest India Pvt Ltd, an investment vehicle floated by Chandra, last month has been greeted by howls of protest from political parties, journalists and the UNI employees' union.
Chandra paid approximately Rs 320 million for a majority stake in the news agency. Other shareholders of the agency include media companies like The Times of India Group, Ananda Bazar Patrika, Hindustan Times, The Statesman, Dainik Bhaskar and Indian Express.

Chandra also assured some journalists from UNI present at the press conference and others in general that there would be "no forced retrenchment."

However, a proper human resources development department will be put in place to work out voluntary retirement schemes and other initiatives related to employee redeployment and employment.

"We have hired a techno commercial person today only to upgrade and strengthen the technology available to UNI employees," Chandra said, adding that the hunt was on for professionals in other departments of the news agency too.

According to him, "My interest in UNI is not to make money (the structure of UNI is such that all the revenue earned is to be ploughed back into the organisation itself), but to uphold the objectives of the founding fathers of UNI, which includes having plurality of information in the country from credible platforms."

Pointing out that his vision is to turn UNI into a global and competitive news agency providing a spectrum of services, Chandra said Essel Group (owners of Zee Telefilms amongst a host of other media and entertainment related companies) will "leverage" its global media contacts to work for the betterment of UNI.

Scotching rumours that Zee Telefilms and his other media companies would end up having a direct synergy with UNI, Chandra said, "In life there comes a time when a person looks beyond earning money and doing things for personal satisfaction. I'm doing that. If somebody feels he or she can do better than me, then such people are most welcome to take charge of UNI's revival."

Mediavest was amongst the three bidders for unsubscribed shares of UNI whose other shareholders agreed to bring on board the Essel Group in early September.

To a specific question whether Mediavest would mop up some remaining preferential shares in case other shareholders shy away, Chandra replied in the affirmative.

"If nobody else subscribes to those shares, then we'll pick them up," he said, adding that such a move would take Mediavest's holding in UNI up to approximately 58 per cent.

Chandra also made it clear that "mis-informed people" with vested interests are undertaking a "disinformation campaign" dubbing his company's arrival on the scene as a total sale of the news agency to one single entity.

"We have just joined the board of directors and are ready to discuss across the table any issue with anybody from UNI. But I cannot help it if some people continue to hallucinate," he said.

UNI was launched in March 1961. Today, it claims to be serving more than 1,000 subscribers in more than 100 locations in India and abroad. They include newspapers, radio and television networks, web sites, government offices and private and public sector corporations.

UNI has collaboration agreements with several foreign news agencies, including Reuters and DPA whose stories are distributed to media organisations in India through the Indian agency.

UNI's wire service is available in three languages, English, Hindi and Urdu. While the Hindi service Univarta was started in 1982, the Urdu service debuted in 1992.

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