Indias Cable Competition Gets Violent

Mumbai, India-As the local head of the ruling Shiv Sena political party, Bal Thackeray may be considered the most powerful politician in this city, but he's apparently having trouble managing a rift between two of his daughters-in-law.

According to local press reports, Madhavi and Smita Thackeray head rival cable-TV distributors in suburban Mumbai, home to the bulk of the metropolitan area's 10 million residents.

The enmity between the two apparently runs so deep that local newspaper reports have attributed the killings of four Shiv Sena party members who have become increasingly involved in the cable business to their commercial feud.

Madhavi, widow of Bal Thackeray's oldest son, is said to have joined the cable-distribution business following her husband's death three years ago. According to press reports here, she is the local distributor for InCable Net, the big Indian MSO that has 1.3 million subscribers in greater Mumbai and is owned by the country's Hindujas conglomerate.

Indian cable-TV distributors are pretty much independent resellers that market and manage cable operations in local areas and pay a percentage of their earnings to the MSO.

Despite the reports, in a television interview, Smita-a film producer who's expressed her desire to become Maharashtra's prime minister-declined to comment on any speculation that she's associated with cable operators. Her personal secretary, Allwyn Rodrigues, denied she was involved in the cable business.

Meanwhile, Ram Hingorani, CEO of InCable Net-owned channel IndusIndMedia and Communications, denied that either of the women are involved with his network. Shiv Sainik party members and independent cable operators in Mumbai have insisted that Smita is involved in the cable-distribution business.

But industry sources claim both women are running their own local headends. Madhavi monitors her system on a day-to-day basis, and Smita has appointed others to run the show, sources said.

Madhavi also declined to comment on her speculated involvement in the cable industry.

Shiv Sainiks, as Shif Sena party members are known, have a strong presence in local communities and can allegedly help an MSO to build a subscriber base by using strong-arm tactics. Reports are that members are increasingly dabbling in cable as other sources of income disappear. This has heightened conflict between the rival factions staking out their own turf.

Mahrashtra Deputy Chief Minister Chhagan Bhujbal-himself a former Shiv Sainik-said cable has attracted organized crime activity because it does not require a lot of up-front cash. Since the local distributors are basically resellers, they do not have to make big infrastructure investments.

"Cable requires little investment, but it provides one with a huge reach," Bhujbal said. "Since it provides a way to make quick money, all kinds of underworld elements have entered this trade, which is a dangerous trend. This present rivalry [between the two daughters-in-law] has been going on for some time."

Bhujwal said he believes the central government's failure to enact wider legislation governing the cable industry has encouraged alleged criminal groups to enter the business.

"Cable in India remains under the central-government directive, whereas it should be under the control of the state government," Bhujwal said. "Unless this situation changes, we will not be able to control this trend of criminalization."

Police, unhappy with the violence, blame the infighting on the cable business' relatively large profits.

"Operators are earning money from subscribers as well as from advertisers and sponsors without any government control. Obviously everyone in this trade is trying to make a fast buck," said Mumbai deputy commissioner of crime Pradip Sawant.