They may not be evicted for, government does not want to "mess with the press"

The Madhya Pradesh government owes Rs. 18 crore in rent from journalists staying in government bungalows in the State capital.

One hundred and eighty-seven journalists, representing the biggest media houses in the country, are living as “unauthorised occupants” in government bungalows in the most posh areas of Bhopal — Arera Colony, Char Imli, Shivaji Nagar, The 45 Bungalows and The 74 Bungalows localities — otherwise home to Cabinet Ministers and top bureaucrats.

Public Works Department Minister Nagendra Singh admitted that the scribes owe around Rs. 18 crore in rent to the department.

According to the Directorate of Estates (DoE), the journalists collectively owe crores in rent and can be evicted immediately if the government gives the “green signal.”

The occupants include the biggest names in the business — correspondents and bureau chiefs of Press Trust of India, United News of India, Star News, Zee News, ETv, Sahara Samay, The Times of India, The Economic Times, The Week, Indian Express (former journalist), Hindustan Times, The Statesman, The Hitavada, India Tv, Dainik Bhaskar, Rajasthan Patrika, Hindustan, Dainik Jagran, Rashtriya Sahara, Jansatta, Nai Duniya, Swadesh, Lokmat, Deshbandhu and Navbharat Times — and a host of lesser known local media houses.

All of them are illegal occupants and owe enormous rent amounts to the State, the highest being Rs. 17,13,504, according to data provided by the DoE — the department responsible for allotment of and eviction from government bungalows.

“The houses are allotted for a year, with a maximum extension of two years. So, yes, they are all illegal occupants,” says Niyaz A. Khan, Joint Collector, DoE.

“There are over Rs.16 crore due in rent from these 187 occupants. We can immediately cause them to vacate provided we get the green signal from the government.”

However, the signal, says another official on condition of anonymity, may never come because the government does not want to “mess with the press.”

According to DoE data, two journalists are fighting out cases of eviction in the Commissioner's court, 11 journalists have obtained a stay order from the High Court against eviction, while 174 others continue to have “unauthorised possession” of the bungalows.

In 2006, the Supreme Court pulled up several State governments, including Madhya Pradesh, over allotment of bungalows to journalists and directed them to have the houses vacated.

Since then, there has been an official moratorium on such allotments in the State, but there has been no eviction either.

Apart from bungalows, there are several “cooperative housing societies,” meant for journalists from economically weaker backgrounds, which have come up in prime suburban localities of Bhopal.

“Most influential journalists get land allotted to them on Collectorate rates in these societies, build houses, rent them out and continue to stay in government bungalows. Now if this is not corruption, what is?” asks Ajay Dube, an RTI activist who heads the Bhopal chapter of Transparency International.

One such case was exposed by The Hindu in October 2009.