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Crossed Cables: The Maran Imbroglio

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Crossed cables: The Maran ImbroglioRecently, I was enjoying seeing Channel (V) at a friend’s house. As I watched the Hindi film promos, the programme featuring emerging rock bands, the general spoofs (loved a little film about how a baby got a cold on the first day after he was born and grew up to become Himesh Reshammiya!) I found my thoughts gently drifting to Dayanidhi Maran.

The young IT and Telecom minister, Dayanidhi Maran, is out of a ministerial job. The compulsions of family have led to the exit of one of India’s more visible and dynamic ministers in recent times – a man whose 60 watt grin was always adorning some poster or advertisement for an international tech event, and whose generous waivers of sundry telephone charges like STD tariffs and roaming fees earned him many supporters in the cellphone and talktime generation.

While it seems strange that a minister should be axed in this arbitrary manner just when India is set to become an economic power (indeed, normally the spectacle we see is of ministers hanging on to power under the most damning circumstances!), there were some things about the recent anti-Maran utterances by some that reminded me of my own passionate outbursts some years back.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t railing against Dayanidhi Maran, the suave and successful IT minister. In fact, I had no reason to. It was another Maran connection that had got me foaming at the mouth – the connection of Dayanidhi Maran via his family to the monopolistic control of the cable TV industry in Chennai. In a strangely inter-connected universe, it was this Maran connection that had deprived me of the opportunity to see Channel (V) almost four years ago.

Foxed? Don’t be. Conditional Access System or CAS was introduced in Chennai on September 1, 2003. Under this system, it became necessary to buy a set-top box or STB to view channels selectively, and pay for what one was viewing, instead of the whole caboodle. Since the whole of Chennai was serviced by 2 Multi-Service Operators or MSOs that controlled all the Cable Operators or COs, and the larger one of these was Sumangali Cable Vision, an MSO directly owned by the Maran family, one imagines that Dayanidhi and his brother were quite keen to find out how CAS affected their business. In any case, along with the introduction of CAS, they went ahead and stocked up on lakhs of STBs, which were being sold to consumers for almost Rs. 5000/- in the initial year.

So CAS began with some people in Chennai buying STBs and watching the channels of their choice, and the vast majority (like us) refusing to buy a STB and going ahead and watching just the free-to-air channels. When the government saw the resolute indifference with which Chennai viewers treated the whole CAS fiasco (after all, if we really wanted to watch any action on a specific channel, we just had to drive on past Tambaram, or to Pondicherry, where every roadside restaurant had a TV with all the satellite channels!) they withdrew CAS even from Chennai city pending further consideration. This backtracking on the part of the government was most welcome – and most of us were relieved, thinking we would get back the free-to-air freedom that people living in every other village, town and city of India enjoyed – except in Chennai.

But this is where we were wrong. Dismayed by the large number of STBs they had in storage, for which they had no takers, the MSOs and COs went to court against the government about turn on CAS. They insisted that if this about-turn was implemented, it would lead to losses of crores of rupees to them for the STBs they had bought which would become redundant. ‘Retain CAS in Chennai!’ they pleaded in court. And the court listened to their plea! A stay was granted by the Supreme Court on the government decision to remove CAS from Chennai. And so it was that while the rest of the country continued to watch everything they wanted for a monthly sum to their cable operator, Chennai became divided into the haves and have-nots – those with STBs and those without.

Since ours was one of those families who had avoided getting a STB on principle (even when prices were lowered to Rs. 3000/-), we stayed without our beloved Animal Planet and National Geographic, HBO and Star. Do you then wonder why I would grit my teeth and rail against the Marans, who, with their tremendous money power and political clout, and their complete monopoly of the MSO business, had managed to block the lifting of CAS from my city? As I saw it, they had the power to force me to watch all their own free to air channels like Sun, KTV, Udaya, Sun News, Sun Music and so on, while preventing the government from restoring my once-dear cable TV freedom to watch all channels.

Buddhists believe that the ‘Dhamma-chakra’ is always turning, that our thoughts, words and deeds will always bring us their corresponding results. In the fall of Dayanidhi Maran from power, some of those shattered souls who have been seeing a relentless ‘bouquet’ of Sun channels will see some evidence of this ‘Dhamma-chakra’.

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