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Good morning, Mumbai

The news agency is a very interesting one. And one of the most interesting news agents in Mumbai is Raviraj from Saki Naka who uses a computer to help him keep track of his many customers.

Like most people I used to believe that newspapers were something that the doorknob sprouted during the night. That was before I began to distribute this magazine through the newspaper agents and realised how fascinating the business is and how poorly documented.

The news agent's day begins around 4.15 am. This is the time the Indian Express is delivered at various junctions -- J.B. Nagar, Marol Naka, Chakala, Vijay Nagar and Chakala. The Times of India delivery truck is not punctual. It can come as early as 4.30 a.m. and as late as 6.00 am. If the latter, it can play havoc with news agents' schedules, because the Times has at least one supplement and often more, and these have to be physically inserted into the main paper, no joke when the number of papers runs into several hundreds or thousands. Just before Diwali news agents had a harrowing time because for a whole week the Times had two or three supplements to celebrate the anniversary of Bombay Times.

But no agent can really complain about the Times because that paper is the one which brings him his bread and butter. The Express's circulation is barely one-sixth to one-seventh that of the Times (if the area around Andheri is representative of the rest of Mumbai), and in fact has fallen during the past year and a half that I have been distributing this magazine. This is rather sad because editorially the Express has improved considerably during this period. At Marol Naka and Vijay Nagar put together only about 400 copies of the Express are delivered whereas the figure for the Times is more than 2,500. The Express comes in one neat bundle, whereas the delivery truck of the Times piles bundle upon bundle until there is a small mountain on the ground.

Like most papers the Times pays a commission of 25% to news agents, which means they earn 50 paise per paper. So an agent who sells 1,000 copies can earn Rs 500 per day. Of course this does not go straight to his pocket and does not represent the earnings of a single person. Often an entire family is involved in the work. Take, for instance, the Desais who handle distribution in parts of Vijay Nagar and Bhawani Nagar. The father, the mother and three sons besides schoolchildren hired for the purpose pitch in to ensure that the papers reach the customer in time.

If an agent has 300 customers, he buys about 250 copies directly from the Times and the rest from one of the three main news agents in the area. The reason is simple. During holidays many people go away from Mumbai. An agent can adjust for this by continuing to buy the usual quantity directly from the Times and reducing the quantity he buys from agents at Chakala or Andheri, otherwise he would have many unsold copies on his hands. Newspapers have to be paid for in advance at the offices of various publishers, all of which are located near V.T. station. Depending on how well off the agent is, he pays the money a week or three days in advance.

For the greater part of the year the newspaper distribution work is tolerable although difficult. But during the rains it can be quite a pain. This is because the work of inserting the supplements and sorting the newspapers according to routes (or "lines" as they are called) is done under makeshift shelters such as the awnings in front of shops. If the rains are heavy, doing this work is nearly impossible.

Nevertheless, news agents are more than happy to do it because it brings in quite some money for just a few hours of work. For most of them this is only a supplementary activity. Once the distribution is over, they go on to do a regular day's work. The exceptions are those who handle several thousand papers a day, like Sanjay at Chakala, the two Gaekwad families at J.B. Nagar and Mukund Nagar, and Ravichandra Shankar Kute at Saki Naka. We'll write in detail about Ravichandra or Raviraj as he is more popularly called because his story is typical of most news agents, except for one fascinating detail already mentioned in the intro.

Kute started out by helping another agent deliver newspapers. This was in 1972 just after he had finished his SSC and was looking out for employment. After learning the ropes he began distributing papers around his own home and managed to get a couple of hundred customers.

He then began to buy out newspaper "lines" from other agents. At that time the going rate was Rs 5 per customer. Readers will be surprised to know that the current going rate for a single customer can be as much as Rs 400. This rate is for upmarket areas partly because it is easier to collect dues in such areas and because customers often order more than one newspaper.

So if an agent with 100 customers sells out, he stands to gain as much as Rs 40,000. Of course, few agents opt to sell because the business is very profitable; one indication is that some families have been in the business for 20 or more years.

Initially, Saki Naka was not a lucrative area, but as industry grew and more residences were constructed the number of customers steadily went up. In the beginning, Kute used to handle all lines on his own. But as the number became unmanageable, he began to subcontract to other agents. Today, he handles 3,000 newspapers through 18 news agents. For this, he gets 5% of the cover price and the agents keep 20%. As it became a chore trying to keep track of which agent was to get which paper, Kute invested in a computer in 1992. In those days computers were very expensive. Kute paid Rs 80,000 for his (including a printer) and had a program written especially for himself. The program cost Rs 25,000 and he also paid Rs 5,000 for entering the data of all his customers.

The typical entry consists of a customer code for each customer, his address, the names of the newspapers he buys with an extra column for special requests (e.g. an additional newspaper on Sundays). The investment was high but seems to have been worthwhile. Each morning, each agent who works with Kute gets a computer printout listing the papers he receives.

Kute's efforts have been noted by the Times which mentioned him on two occasions in a house publication. Kute on his part is all praise for the group. He observes that a circulation officer of the Times group comes along every morning to make sure that everything is proceeding smoothly. The other group which is fastidious in these matters is Navbharat. That partly explains why the Times is way ahead of the competition and why Navbharat is so rapidly making inroads here.