Dasari Narayana Rao’s Udayam, A Place of Freedom for Editors and Reporters

Dasari’s Udayam Newspaper Daily, which had a great stint for a decade, was reputed for exposing corruption and questioning the ills of the contemporary system.

Madabhshi Sridhar

It is generally criticized that freedom of press was confined to printing machines, if not for proprietors. But Dasari Narayana Rao was proven as an exception. He died on May 30, 2017.

Dasari was a legendary cine director, Darshaka Ratna in Telugu, besides being poet, story writer, journalist, actor, and a politician.

His Udayam Newspaper Daily, which had a great stint for a decade, was reputed for exposing corruption and questioning the ills of the contemporary system.

Unlike other cinema personalities, he was not a son of any cine celebrity. A common man indeed, Dasari established his own identity in Telugu Film Industry and rose beyond the imagination of those social groups that monopolized and made it their cottage industry run by their joint family.

Dasari walked barefoot, used cycle or rickshaw on Hyderabad and Chennai roads in search of a chance to pen a song or act in a scene or direct a movie. He worked hard and emerged as the most sought after film-maker with his creative stories and effective narration and powerful dialogues on social evils and family issues of poor and middle class people. His movies were box office hits. In his movies, story was the hero and director was king.  He created stars and superstars, and saved the shining of super-stars like NT Rama Rao and Akkineni Nageswara Rao.

In 1984, he started a Telugu Daily “Udayam” (=Sunrise) with two lakhs circulation on the first day, which made history again in print media. The Udayam facilitated enough freedom for editors and the reporters. The daily introduced roving correspondents for two or three districts, and encouraged investigative reporting. It is to the credit of Udayam team for launching district-wise editions and adding colours to every page every day.

Udayam carried a series of investigative reports about irregularities and corruption in various government departments, leading to criminal cases and suspensions. One of the series of reports was filed by me, along with D. Saibaba, about pre-qualified contractors in Tirumala Tirupathi Devastanams, of Balaji Temple in Andhra Pradesh, during 1985.  The then Chief Minister N T Rama Rao constituted a judicial inquiry into the exposure by Udayam, under the chairmanship of Justice P. Ramachandra Raju, former judge at AP High Court.

Dasari supported our team to represent, argue and establish the irregularities before the commission. We sought the inspection of TTD files, which was resisted by the executive officer saying, ‘the files belonged to them,’ and that they had no right to seek inspection. The commission agreed with Udayam contention that as a donor, every citizen is entitled to know the details of expenditure of their money through the trust board, and that the TTD was not the owner of the files, but held the papers in trust for the people.

On Commission’s direction, hundreds of files consisting bundles of sheets were placed on a big dining table for inspection. This author could make out a list of around 250 incriminating documents and sought their Photostat copies duly signed by the authority. It was also resisted, but the commission directed the sharing of those documents. It was a history. A journalist of a Telugu Newspaper has for the first time in India enforced his right to information, right to inspection, besides right to secure the certified copies of the key documents of contracts and expenditure in 1985-86, i.e., 20 years before the passing of Right to Information Act in 2005.

Such a right to inspection and copies of files held by the TTD is now available under RTI Act.

Though the judge conceded these requirements of the daily newspaper, and got convinced based on files that massive irregularities occurred in construction and purchase activities, it tried to bail out the top authorities. The report of the commission on TTD affairs was also leaked by Udayam, which revealed how unreasonably the EO and others were bailed out.  A set of analytical articles exposed the defects in the inquiry report. But an editorial decision needed to be taken to publish them. Being a busy director, Dasari asked me to come after 12 am in the night to his residence at Jubilee Hills. I told that I couldn’t commute by my two-wheeler through barking stray dogs in dead of the night.  Dasari directed the office to arrange a car.

MD, editor and Chairman Dasari were discussing the pros and cons of publication.  Dasari asked me about implications. Leaking out the Judicial inquiry report prior to presenting to Legislative Assembly would be a breach of privilege and publishing critical analysis of report might even lead to contempt proceedings as Commission of Inquiry Act 1952 does not allow ‘insulting’ remarks on the chairperson of the commission. The government might arrest the writers and editors on these charges.  I said we should be bold enough to publish the report. The MD commented, “You want Dasari to be arrested?”  Dasari looked for my response. I asked them to ponder over whether NTR Government would dare to arrest Dasari and his team?

Dasari smiled and agreed for the publication, and penned a signed editorial to introduce our investigation to readers. There were no arrests, though issue was seriously discussed in the cabinet. However, their vengeance reflected in prosecuting us for defamation, which went on for 11 years. The process itself was a punishment.

Because of the whole-hearted support of Dasari, editors- ABK, K Ramachandra Murthy and Patanjali – we could — me, Saibaba, VV Ramana Murthy and others — do some daring exposures, including interviewing the dreaded Naxalite Leader Kondapalli Seetharamaiah (by V V Ramanamurthy).

Udayam exposed several scandals during those days. The LIC agents induced Singareni Coal mine officers to manipulate the workers to continuously pay premium every month without delivering policy. The height of fraud was that every policy gets lapsed for non-payment of premium and new policy is made immediately next month. When Udayam exposed this scandals, bigwigs of LIC prevailed over management, threatened to withdraw advertisements and secured stoppage of exposing stories. Dasari came to know about it at a later stage. However, the officers of LIC were caught in their official annual press conference, where Udayam reporter (this humble author again) raised several questions about Singareni scandal. They admitted the irregularities and agreed to investigate. Dasari facilitated publication of the crusading questions and answers in the front page to repair the damage.

Dasari couldn’t have transferred the Udayam to others, had he got enough financial support during 1990s.  Udayam was his dream project, and he always wanted to revive it. But, before that sunrise, Dasari breathed his last breath.  If media students research into the volumes of Udayam and investigate the stories behind the stories, it would contribute to the future of independent and investigative journalism.

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