Newsagents knocked off their bikes in India's own price war

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The Independent Online
INDIA has a newspaper war to rival Britain's, with the Times of India emulating its namesake by cutting its price sharply. The outcome, however, has been rather more violent, with vendors brawling in the streets and thousands of people failing to get their papers in the morning.

The Indian equivalent of Rupert Murdoch, who fired the opening salvo in Britain by cutting the prices of the Times and the Sun, is Samir Jain, who recently told his executives that marketing newspapers was no different from selling soap. Mr Jain is managing director of Bennett Coleman, which publishes the Times of India and four other dailies.

Mr Murdoch may have slashed the price of the Times from 45p to 20p, but he still has some way to go to match Mr Jain. After two price cuts, beginning three months ago, the Times of India costs 1.5 rupees, or just over 3p. This has boosted circulation by 30,000 to 170,000, according to Bennett Coleman.

As in Britain, there have been complaints that the big publishing combines are trying to squeeze competitors out of the market. New Delhi has 26 daily newspapers, all under pressure from India's satellite television boom. Here the Office of Fair Trading is investigating allegations of predatory pricing. The Monopoly Restrictive Trade Practices Commission is doing the same in India.

Where Mr Murdoch and Mr Jain part company is in their dealings with the people who sell their newspapers. British wholesalers have been promised that they will not earn less, but Bennett Coleman continues to pay its vendors 25 per cent of the reduced cover price. After putting up with this for three months, the Delhi Newspaper Distributors' Association, representing most of the 6,000 newsagents delivering to 1.4 million homes, began boycotting the company's papers last week. The war turned ugly when vendors who defied the ban were attacked. Some suffered broken bones, others had their bicycles damaged.

So far the Times of India's rivals, including the Telegraph in Calcutta and the Independent in Bombay, are all holding their prices. If Mr Jain is the sub-continent's Rupert Murdoch, no Indian Conrad Black has yet joined the fray.