New Delhi, July 6: The virtual monopoly of AH Wheeler & Co — the bookstall chain that’s been synonymous with the railway through a century-old association — is now under threat.
The railway is formulating a new bookstall policy under which it plans to offer 25 per cent reservation for allotment of bookstalls to minority groups, war widows and physically challenged persons.
“Wheeler, Wheeler, Wheeler! Why do we have a Wheeler bookstall everywhere,” Laloo Prasad Yadav said, breaking away from his prepared speech. “The English have left this country long back.”
Wheeler, which racks up sales of Rs 30 crore a year, is putting on a brave face.
“We won’t be affected,” said Amit Banerjee, director of the Allahabad-based, closely-held book-selling company that began operations 117 years ago. The company said it contributes 80 per cent of all the revenue that the railway earns from book sales.
Banerjee was a little miffed with the minister’s outburst. AH Wheeler & Co is an entirely Indian company and a family-run business for the last 53 years.
It was established in 1887 by Frenchman Emile Moreau and T.K. Banerjee, along with three others (of which two were British). In 1950, Banerjee took over the company. At present, Wheeler operates in 258 stations in the 14 railway zones across the country.
The new bookstall policy provides for 25 per cent reservation to war widows and minority and weaker sections in B, C and D stations. In addition, unemployed graduates and their associations as well as philanthropic organisations will get allotment on B, C and D class stations. At A class stations — the railway has about 150 of them — a two-packet tender system has been introduced.
The new policy has done away with the system of the sole selling rights and provides for a uniform tenure of five years.
“The new policy will not prove detrimental or have any negative impact on our business. But as more and more players will come in, we will prepare ourselves for competition,” Banerjee told The Telegraph over phone from Allahabad.
“We don’t consider that we have any market monopoly. Of all the bookstalls on stations, we have only a 35 per cent share. Our main strength lies in our experience in the business which dates back over a 100 years,” he added.
Wheeler sells publications of about 600 publishers spanning fiction and non-fiction, newspapers, vernacular books and magazines.
Banerjee said he knew nothing about the two-part tender system or the classification of stations. “As per our knowledge, there exists no class for identifying the stations. At least we didn’t hear about it over the years that we have been operating. So, it is a little confusing.”
He said the sole criterion for allotment of stations until now depended on total sales and the amount of royalty the company was able to pay the railway ministry. Last year, Wheeler had sales of approximately Rs 30 crore and earned a profit of Rs 30 lakh.