A Brief Biography Of A Cable Operator; Lokesh
"In our city activities not regulated by the law have a perpetual fear of being branded illegal. It is possible that the whole cable industry could be declared illegal tomorrow since there has been no legislation in this field. In a similar way our jhuggies (slums) were also declared illegal, my kabari (scrap dealer's) shop is also functioning, but on the basis of a secret deal with the law. The law needs to be bribed to allow illegal dealings." - Shrikant Cable wala alias Shrikant Kabari wala, alias Shrikant Lala.
Shrikant's testimony not only reflects the reality of the cable industry today, but also makes one acutely aware of the insecurity endemic to urban legal regulations. His career indicates something of the dynamic of trades in Delhi. Presently Shrikant stays in Sangam Vihar, but when he arrived in Delhi in 1980 he used to stay in Shiv Basti near Khyber Pass. He started a kabari business, which still survives, and subsequently started a grocery shop outside his own jhuggie. In 1994 Shrikant got a cable connection for his house.
Due to a lack of laws and government intervention, the field offered a lot of opportunities to an enterprising newcomer. But in 1994 Zee TV and Star TV started a company called Siti Cable to ensure that their channels reach the maximum number of houses. Siti Cable started wiring localities. With the coming of pay channels customers had to pay the broadcasters a certain amount. Thus 1994 was a new phase for the cable industry.
During 1995-96 the cable operator in Shrikant's basti started removing the connections because he suffered losses. Shrikant gathered some courage and bought it off him, despite the fact that his business was doing well and he did not know much about the cable business. When asked for a reason he said, ' ... future planning prompted me into this business. Death is a reality and so is the removal of the jhuggies'. This kind of volatile experience made the cable business attractive. Shrikant used to do the cable business only part time upto the moment the jhuggies were demolished.
In mid-90s, many people got into the business of cable operation.By 1996, every block had a cable operator. Siti Cable became a major player in the market. The network now runs about 70 % of the cable industry in the city. On the other hand, the local cable operators also started asserting their control. The field became competitive and all both fair and unfair means, including force, were used in this struggle amongst operators. Operators like Major Yadav came up whose market was spread over more than one area. A game of poaching on others' territories started, and with it increased gundagardi, (thuggish behaviour) money and mind games. A race was on to show a new release first, or, if an operator charged 100/- for a connection the other offered it at 75/-. They also started some special schemes. For instance when Major Yadav gave his business over to Shrikant he told him to show it free for a couple of months, and then to start paying him 3000/- a month. In the Jahangirpuri area, the operators showed it free for a month, then charged 50/- and 100/- a little later. This led to a brouhaha amongst the operators. Cable wires were snapped in the middle of the night, and there were violent encounters amongst the operators.
In the meantime, IN company, owned by the Hindujas, came up. In 1999 Star TV dissociated itself from the Siti Cable and invested in the shares of Hathway Company. By 2000 another company called Win came in. While companies like IN, Win, Siti and other small companies came into the field, people like the Major kept on challenging their monopoly. The Cable industry saw competition at a cutthroat scale.
By around 2000, when the bastis were demolished the Metro Rail, Shrikant started working full time and moved his cable work from the jhuggies to the nearby B D Estate and other places. This area of Timarpur is mainly a middleclass and a lower middleclass area, with mostly government servants. At a short distance is the B D Estate which is an upper class area. There were four big cable operators in the area, before Shrikant. Shrikant could not match their resources in terms of man and money power. But he ignored the threats of the bigger players. His amicable behaviour coupled with the lower prices he offered won him clients in these areas. And soon Shrikant shot from 0 to more than 200 connections. He became a major irritant to his competitors. According to Shrikant there were many confrontations, some of which ended in the thana. The final showdown took place in the Win cable office. Shrikant, who at the time was operating for Win, was asked to sell his territory to his competitor. He refused, and one night his connection wires were snapped. He switched to In.
By 2001 the number of pay channels increased and so did the rates and competition. You needed bigger capital now. Shrikant's competitors were all well off, so they could decrease their prices and increased rates minimally. Shrikant says that the other operators troubled him a lot. They would either put a pin in his wire so that the reception would become unclear, or superimpose an amplifier over his, or amplify their signals to make reception unclear in his territory.
During this time there were many changes which altered the internal functions of the industry. There was a big entente between the three big distribution companies and the head-end operators in the month of April-May 2002. The Companies divided territories amongst themselves and agreed not to put any up any new operators. No operator could now abandon an old connection, and there were to be no new private headends. This led to a major change in the business. The Companies now exercise a monopoly over their respective territories, and have effectively prevented the entry of newcomers. Consumers too have been constrained, as they have no alternative to the designated operator for the area.
Since Shrikant got in the way of the cable monopolists, they tried to remove him. Shrikant has ultimately compromised with the companies, withdrawing his operations on the assurance that he would receive a guaranteed monthly sum. He was confident that the company would not cheat him. When asked why he came to a compromise, he said, rather allusively: ' The deal took place at the distributors' office, you see.' According to Shrikant if he keeps getting that sum he would at least be saved from the regular operational tensions and hazards. But the matter was not that simple. In Shrikant's own words, 'They were saying that do not kill the hen that lays the golden eggs, just take the egg and use it. ' The hen laying golden eggs was Shrikant's rival who could go on making a profit if he got a monopolistic hold over the area, and this would only be possible if Shrikant was removed from the area. This would mean profit for the monopoly operators, the distributors' commission would increase and the company would also get a bigger collection. Only the average cable user suffered, as they have to pay more. And Shrikant himself only gets a fixed sum per month, rather than a share in a burgeoning trade. Now one needs to wait and watch whether Shrikant sacrifices the hen that lays the golden eggs or gets sacrificed by it in turn. Does Shrikant get the gold or an egg (a zero/zilch)?
Shrikant's story has significant implications. There would be many Shrikants and Major Yadavs in Delhi. A research into their regular dealings opens up new possibilities and provides precious information on the complex functioning of the cable industry in the city.