Wednesday, October 13 2021

Dive In


My idea is to maintain the belief in Saraswati so that the faith of people remains attached to it.

That’s Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar announcing a Rs 2.15 billion (215 crore) plan to construct a dam on Haryana’s border with Himachal Pradesh—to “revive” the ancient river Saraswati, which disappeared 6,000 years ago! This is part of the government’s Hindu revival agenda—positioning Haryana as “the cradle of Vedic culture.” Mongabay has more on why many environmentalists think this is a bad idea.


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PS: An early reminder that we will be taking Friday off for Dussehra/Navratri—and will see you again Monday morning!

Big Story

A coup to oust the king of television

The TLDR: Billionaire Subhash Chandra built Zee’s television empire from scratch. Now a US investor fund is trying to kick him and his family out. Here’s a quick introduction to the big fight that has engrossed Dalal Street and Bollywood alike.


First, remind me about Chandra…

About Chandra: The son of a grain merchant, he dropped out of college to pay off family debts. Chandra first made his money making laminated tubes. But his true claim to fame is his decision to start India’s first satellite television channel in 1992—Zee TV. Chandra also was the first to set up a satellite phone company in India and a private cricket league—long before IPL came along. Known for staying on the right side of power, his autobiography was released by none other than Prime Minister Modi in 2016—the same year he became a Rajya Sabha MP.


About Zee: Chandra is most often described as the father of Hindi television. At a time when others were selling out to foreign partners, he turned down Rupert Murdoch and built a formidable TV empire with 79 channels and a massive 1.3 billion global viewership. But it all started to go sour in 2019:


  • Chandra’s made a big bet on infrastructure—which went very wrong in 2018, when the big financier of the industry, IL&FS Group, went belly up. 
  • Zee’s parent company Essel Group owed a debt of Rs 130 billion (13,000 crore) and was staring at the prospect of defaulting on Rs 70 billion (7,000 crore) in loans.
  • In 2019, the global fund Invesco-Oppenheimer came to the rescue—picking up a 11% stake in Zee for Rs 42.24 billion (4,224 crore). 
  • Invesco’s share of Zee shot up to nearly 18%—making it the largest shareholder—while the Chandra family’s stake shrank from 41.6% to less than 5% within a single year.
  • Chandra exited his post as chairman of the Zee’s board, but his son Punit Goenka remained in charge as CEO as part of the deal. And everyone seemed happy at the time. 


Ok, so what went wrong...

Here’s how this battle royale unfolded:


The Covid effect: Zee’s stock price tumbled last year due to the collapse in advertiser revenue—triggered by the pandemic. The value of Invesco’s investment in Zee dropped by 68%—and the losses stood at 55% as of September 15.


First shots fired: All seemed quiet for a year until September 11 when Invesco shot off a letter to Zee demanding the removal of three directors—including CEO Punit Goenka—from the board. It suggested the appointment of six independent directors—and called for an “extraordinary general meeting” of shareholders to consider its demands. But it never laid out exactly why it was unhappy.


Here comes Sony: Within a week, Zee announced a merger with Sony, and the terms were astonishingly sweet. Sony Pictures Networks India would pay $1.6 billion (Rs 120.6 billion) for a 53% stake in the new entity. Goenka would stay on as CEO. And most wondrously, Chandra’s family would raise their stake to 20%—though the deal never specified exactly how this would happen. 


Chandra goes all nationalist: On October 1, the family rejected the demand for an extraordinary shareholder meeting—calling it “invalid and illegal.” While Invesco turned to the National Company of Law Tribunal to force Zee to call the meeting, Chandra went on a PR offensive. He accused Invesco of “trying to take over Zee in a clandestine manner”—comparing it to the East India Company trying to seize a network that is “a part of the lives of crores of Indians.” A sentiment that was echoed by Bollywood supporters, including producer Boney Kapoor who tweeted


​​”Zee which was first Indian channel promoted by Indian nationalist ... (is) now hounded by American and Chinese investors. Pray Zee Entertainment remains in original Indian entrepreneur's passionate hands.”


Actually a Japanese company’s “passionate hands,” but why quibble with details. Even an array of religious organisations like Sadhu Samaj came to Chandra’s defence.


Where we are now: The NCLT has given Zee until October 22 to respond to Invesco’s demand for a shareholder meeting. And even if such a meeting were to be held, it isn’t clear who the other 350-odd shareholders—who own 68% of the company—will back.


Point to note: According to Mint, Invesco’s decision to go to war was influenced by Yes Bank—a significant shareholder in the first family’s other big television holding, Dish TV. On September 6, the bank demanded the replacement of five directors—including managing director Jawahar Goel, the younger brother of Chandra. 


Why is Invesco so hell-bent against Chandra?


Headlines that matter

Blue Origin’s bro culture

The Washington Post did an investigative piece on Jeff Bezos’ space company—and uncovered “systemic” problems with its work culture. It included “lots of comments” on women’s “bodies and appearance”—and comments like this: “You’ve only been working here two weeks. You don’t have to get on your knees yet.” Also a problem: an “authoritarian” and “dysfunctional” leadership. The Post has more details.


A study of note

A US study has found synthetic chemicals called ‘phthalates’—found in everyday products like shampoo, food storage containers and toys—are linked to a large number of early deaths in people aged between 55 and 64. Why this matters: It adds to a growing body of evidence that prolonged exposure to plastic has serious consequences—including reproductive problems, childhood obesity, asthma, cardiovascular disease and even cancer. (CNN)

We’ve always loved our vices

One: The discovery of four charred seeds in a 12,300-year old fireplace reveals the first known use of tobacco. It suggests that humans were using intoxicants when they were just hunter gatherers—rather than thousands of years later when we discovered agriculture. (BBC News)

Two: Archaeologists have uncovered a 1,500-year-old Byzantine wine pressery in Israel—which was likely the largest in the world in its time: “The end product was known as Gaza and Ashkelon wine, after the ports through which it was exported to Europe, North Africa and Asia Minor.” Point to note: At the time, wine was “a major source of nutrition and this was a safe drink because the water was often contaminated." The image below gives you a sense of its size. (BBC News)


One thing to see

A company used Artificial Intelligence to uncover a magnificent nude hidden under one of Pablo Picasso’s most famous paintings, ‘The Blind Man’s Meal’—which looks like this:


Hiding beneath it was this nude—now titled ‘The Lonesome Crouching Nude’:


CNN explains how they did it.


In today’s edition

Sanity Break

  • A lovely collection of botanical art of Indian origin spanning a period of 300 years


A list of curious facts

  • A parasite that turns plants into zombies
  • The orcs in ‘Lord of the Rings’ are inspired by Harvey Weinstein
  • Lakmé was Pandit Nehru’s brainchild
  • The Japanese are trying to scare away bears with rock music

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