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As executive editor, I was part of the team that had just launched News Nation, a 24-hour Hindi-language news station in India. The channel had had a smooth launch and was slowly augmenting its distribution network and starting to get noticed for its content.
It took the team about nine months to launch the channel, with consults from across the world, dry runs for a month and a technical team that delivered as it had promised. It had a great senior management team and was a wonderful place to work.
It was shortly after the launch that I was first approached about a position at ANN7 by a journalist I had known for over a decade and a half.
Dinesh Sharma was a senior journalist at the Indian Zee News and had worked with Laxmi a few years before.
'Would you be interested in a project overseas?'
I had no reason to quit my current job, but I told him I was open to look at the offer. 'Laxmi ji wants to see you and has an offer. He is setting up an English news channel in South Africa with a prominent local company. I have recommended you, as I think you would be ideal to head the editorial operations,' Dinesh said.
The meeting was set up one April afternoon at Laxmi's office in central Delhi. This was the office of his main business venture, Suncity Projects, a real estate company. I was ushered into a plush waiting room and then into Laxmi's chamber. His room was a mix of teak, marble, glass and leather, typical of many Indian businessmen in the real estate sector. Laxmi was a short man in his late 50s. He was dressed in a suit but lacked the finesse and sophistication of new-age Indian businessmen. He spoke Hindi with a rustic accent but with a smattering of English words. He was warm and hospitable and came to the door to meet me.
He always had a string of visitors waiting for him and was in the habit of inviting the next visitor into his room before the last meeting finished. His twin sons darted in and out of his office too.
'I have heard a lot about you, but I think this is the first time we are meeting,' Laxmi said as we shook hands. He and his brothers had jointly set up the highly diversified Essel Group that has interests in broadcasting, publishing, real estate, commodities trading, retail, packaging, television distribution and much more. After a division of the family business assets among the brothers, Laxmi took charge of the real estate business and kept out of broadcasting.
He set up Essel Media, his own broadcasting empire, that would launch television stations in parts of the world where there was no conflict with the broadcast businesses of his brothers.
'I believe Dinesh has told you about the project. It is a joint venture between Essel Media and the Gupta family of South Africa. They are a very prominent business family with roots here in Saharanpur. We have a 35 per cent stake each. The remaining stake as per the law is with a black economic empowerment partner,' Laxmi told me in Hindi. 'The project will be located in Midrand, halfway between Johannesburg and Pretoria, and it will be equipped with the latest technology and should position itself as a world-class and leading broadcaster of Africa,' he continued. 'Editorial will be balanced, objective and unbiased, just like it was when I ran Zee News. Not like it is now under the new management. There will be no political or commercial interference in the editorial. You know Y P Singh, he has already started work on the project and is currently in South Africa.'
Y P was an engineer who had begun his career with India's public broadcaster a few decades before. After retiring from the state broadcaster, he helped Essel Group's Zee TV set up many regional channels across India. He was seen as someone who could work with a low budget to set up functional news channels. I had worked with him during a previous stint at Zee News from 1996 to 2003. He was a Laxmi Goel loyalist.
'I am considering you for the post of editor,' Laxmi continued. 'I am also talking to two other people. The criteria are simple: I want someone who has worked with an international media outlet and someone who has sound editorial knowledge and understanding of the latest broadcast technology and has been part of launch teams. You are an ideal candidate.'
'Laxmi ji, I am glad that you would consider me for such a wonderful project, but I need a few days to mull this over, if that is okay with you.'
'Well, Rajesh, it is a fantastic opportunity. Should you be selected, you can get out of the rat race here and set up a world-class news channel that will be run as per the highest standards of journalism. There is only one other English news channel currently in South Africa. Your experience working at NDTV, Al Jazeera and TV Today could be put to good use. We will have a largely local team, but you can take a small team of about ten people with you from here.
'We will give you a salary and a one-way ticket and nothing else. The staff from India will stay at a company guest house for three to four weeks. We will also provide contributory medical insurance,' he added.
After that first meeting, I spoke with my wife, Rashmi. She thought it would be good to have an international launch on my curriculum vitae (CV). 'But are you sure about the Essel Group? I mean, I heard there was a bit of trouble with their senior staff.'
'Laxmi Goel has assured me that the editor will have to focus only on editorial matters.'
Laxmi told me that when he headed Zee News there had been a division between the editorial and the business sides. But that changed after his brother took charge and decided that the editorial and business head would be the same person. Laxmi said he had nothing to do with that decision. But he assured me that there would be no such thing at ANN7. However, taking up the offer would mean leaving Rashmi and our two daughters, Ananya and Ahana, behind, at least for the initial few months. Ananya, who was five, and Ahana, three, had never been without me. I was not yet ready to make the decision.
I called a few of my former colleagues to seek their advice on whether I should take up the project and ask if they would want to be part of the team. I met up with Shantanu Chatterjee, a former colleague at the TV Today Network. He had vast experience as an output department head at various international channels, and I was looking at him to head the output team.
Shantanu said I should join and that he would be keen to as well.
Next was Umesh Vohra, an expert on the input function. Umesh had years of top quality production experience and was considered an expert in planning, managing newsgathering resources and world-wide reporter networks. Umesh said he would leave his secure job at the TV Today Network and move if I did. 'It is a leap of faith, Rajesh.'
I called my young colleague Varun Pandey. I had worked with him at NewsX and TV Today in the past. Setting up and running systems and processes on a television newsroom assignment desk was his core strength. He said he would resign if I made the decision to move.
The fourth person I called was my former colleague from New Delhi Television (NDTV), Revati Laul. She said it was a fantastic opportunity but was apprehensive of the Essel Group. She advised me to find out more about the South African partner before I took a decision.
Karun Shawney asked me to take a plunge and said he would join as well. He had decades of experience working as head of production for various leading Indian channels.
I Googled the Gupta family and discovered that they were influential and had interests across varied sectors. The newspaper they owned was seen as pro-government, but I had an assurance that the television channel would be independent.
I called my ex-boss at Al Jazeera, Nick Walshe, to find out what he thought about the project.
Nick had been a consultant with News Nation, and his help and guidance had proved invaluable to the smooth launch we had had there.
He told me to go ahead.
'And would you have time to be a consultant on this project?' 'I have commitments over the next few weeks, but do check with me closer to the launch, and I am sure I will be able to squeeze something in,' he said.
I had been part of the core team that set up many television stations in India, and this was a challenge I thought I just could not miss. I was assured we would get the very latest technology, and I had a great team willing to go with me.
Laxmi called me a few days later from South Africa to find out if I had made a decision.
I told him I thought the project was challenging and would consider if he made me an offer. He asked me to meet him in a couple of days to negotiate salary and terms. I met him again at the Suncity Projects office a few days later. We negotiated a salary, and I was offered the position of editor. I was told I would be issued a visa that would enable me to work in South Africa, a residence permit based on an 'intra-company' transfer.
I was introduced to Uday Kumar from HR, with whom I had worked before; he had been HR vice-president at Zee News for 17 years.
'So Rajesh, now you resign and apply for a temporary South African residence permit as soon as possible,' Laxmi said as he shook my hand. He assured me that it was a permanent position and that the two-year contract was only to satisfy the visa requirements. We would all be given permanent residence permits before our two-year contracts expired.
Leaving News Nation was one of the toughest decisions of my life. I had been part of the team that hired each of the over 250 employees, decided on the work flow, the technology to use, the design of the studio, trained the various teams across different editorial functions and seen the joyous moment of launch.
I handed in my resignation on 15 April and asked to be relieved on 30 April. I joined Infinity Media on 1 May and started working from the Suncity Projects office.
Arun Aggarwal had been hired as the head of business, and he joined a few days after I did. Arun had worked for many years at Zee News, based in Mumbai. Between Arun, Uday and me we hired the key people we were mandated to take from India. Shantanu was to head output, Umesh to head input, Varun to head the assignment desk, Raman Bhatia to be the chief graphic designer, Rahul Singh to head the tapeless video library, and Kalden Ongmu Lachungpa to head the website. Besides these, Laxmi had already hired Jayosh George as the technical head and Roger Joseph Kanjirathingal as junior engineer.
The core team had been identified and offers made. It would then take them a few weeks to be relieved from the organisations they had been working with. In the meanwhile all were asked to apply for visas.
The visa application process was straightforward, and no deviations were allowed. Each applicant was asked to fill out a form and attach a health fitness certificate and a chest X-ray report stating that he or she did not suffer from pulmonary tuberculosis. All were asked to also take a yellow fever shot and attach a copy of the certificate with the form. The applicants were also required to attach a police verification report, which was a character certificate from the local law enforcement.
Applicants were asked to submit the documents and their passports to Laxmi's personal assistant, Laly Thomas. She would scan and send the documents to Ashu Chawla in South Africa.
I was told Ashu was a senior member of the Gupta family's management team. I found out more about him later.
He would send a few documents from South Africa through email to be attached to the applications. Laly would also add a few documents and a bank cheque for the visa processing fee. Ashu would tell Laly what time and date the applicants should go to the South African High Commission to submit their application documents.
All applicants were instructed to meet a person known only as Mr Shakeel and give him Ashu's reference. Only on being told that the applicant was 'sent from Ashu Chawla's office' did Shakeel, High Commission employee, accept applications and give a receipt.
Within days, Laly would get a call from Ashu or someone from his office asking that she send someone to Shakeel at the High Commission to pick up the passports with the stamped visas.
'Getting a visa is not a problem at all. Such a visa could take months to get if you went through the prescribed process. But this Ashu Chawla has brilliant contacts with the president's office and is able to get the work done for us in no time,' Laly told me at the Suncity Projects office during one of our meetings.
'I am told by Laxmi ji that it is nothing illegal,' I said.
'I am sure Laxmi ji knows best, but our joint-venture partners believe they have the South African government in their pockets.'
I ignored the last sentence then, although it did worry me. Laly was an executive assistant, so she must have known what she was talking about.
When the day came for me to go to the High Commission to submit my application I was travelling out of Delhi. I told Uday to submit the application on my behalf.
'You had not filled out a column on the form, and Shakeel pointed it out to us. I thought he would ask us to go back after it was completed by the applicant. But he knew we had come through Ashu Chawla, so he asked me to fill the column you had left blank,' Uday told me later.
Like Laly said, all of us got our intra-company transfer temporary residence permits in a matter of days. I had expected an interview or a few questions from the visa officer. There was nothing. A two-year visa was stamped and delivered.
Laxmi assured me that my visa was perfectly legal. But things did not quite add up.
While some of the core group members served their notice period with previous employers or waited for their visas, Arun, Uday, Karun Shawney – head of production – and I left for Johannesburg on 2 June 2013 and arrived on the 3rd.
We were received at O R Tambo airport by Siddharth Rutiya, an accounts manager with Infinity Media. I was surprised to find out that he was barely 24 years old. He was a chartered accountant and the son of a close business associate of Laxmi. This was his second job, and he seemed a little nervous when he met us at the airport.
Our luggage was put into the back of a Toyota Innova and another sedan with The New Age printed on it.
Arun and I were to stay at the Infinity Media guest house at Erand Gardens and Karun at the Sahara Computers guest house in Vorna Valley. The guest house at Erand Gardens was where Y P had been staying and the only one that was rented by Essel Media at that time. Uday had already decided to move into the apartment that Siddharth, Jayosh and Roger had rented recently near the Cotswold mall.
The guest house was a sparse apartment in a dull neighbourhood. Krishna Prasad, the skinny Nepalese housekeeper, came to help us carry the luggage up to the second-floor apartment.
The guest house was a mess. The living room had washing lines strung across it with an assortment of towels, underwear and shirts hanging to dry. The first things you saw upon entering were the kitchen counter, the stove and oven.
The living room had two beds, a worn-down couch that could seat three and a fat television set with a satellite television decoder.
'This is depressing,' Arun whispered into my ear as soon as we got in.
'Is this where we will stay, Siddharth?' I asked.
'Yes, sir, your room is to the right here, and Arun ji will stay in the room just next to the living room,' Siddharth said, pointing to the rooms.
Arun and I went to inspect the rooms. They were tiny without any wardrobes or tables, just one small bed each.
'You will have to share this bathroom,' Siddharth said.
I went to inspect the bathroom and was shocked by what I saw. The bathtub was full of unwashed clothes; a bucket stood in the middle of the bathroom with more clothes soaking in soapy water.
There was a wash basin and a dirty mirror.
We were working on a 166-million rand project. Arun and I were shocked at where the head of business and the editor were being made to stay.
While we sat in the living room, Krishna made some tea and pakodas for us.
'So, how long have you been here, Krishna?' Arun asked.
'I have been here for three months, and my visa is due for renewal. I am here on a tourist visa, so I have to get it extended every few months. Can't you please issue me a work permit that will make things easier for me? Atul ji told me I will get a two-year work permit, but I have not even been asked to apply for one.' The fellow sounded desperate.
'We will talk about it later,' Arun said.
'Krishna is the cook at the guest house,' Siddharth said.
Excerpted from "Indentured"
Copyright © 2018 Rajesh Sundaram.
Excerpted by permission of Jacana Media (Pty) Ltd.
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