Nagpur, MAHARASHTRA — On April 16, 2020, Vijay Darda, former Congress Rajya Sabha MP and chairman of the Lokmat Media Group, which publishes three newspapers including the largest selling Marathi daily Lokmat, wrote a letter to his roughly 3600 employees.
“Taking into account the family members of all our employees, around 30,000 people depend on Lokmat today,” Darda wrote in an emotional letter written in Marathi. “It is my responsibility to make sure no one is workless and exposed… Lokmat is a family… If there is one chapati, we will divide it amongst ourselves but we will remain under Lokmat’s roof together. I want to assure you again, take care but don’t worry.”
Two months later, Lokmat has laid off close to 700 of its employees, of which about 30% are journalists, from editions and newsrooms spread across Maharashtra, Delhi and areas bordering Madhya Pradesh, HuffPost India has learnt from interviews with reporters and a petition filed in the Nagpur bench of the Bombay High court by the Maharashtra Union of Working Journalists.
Lokmat isn’t the only language media group that is doing it. Sakal Media Group, headed by NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s nephew Abhijit Pawar, has shut down its English edition Sakal Times and Goa edition Gomantak Times and has also closed operations of the Marathi flagship paper in four districts- Akola, Jalgaon, Nanded, and Solapur. Sakal’s downsizing has rendered over 100 journalists jobless.
The recent layoffs of hundreds of journalists at The Hindu and the Hindustan Times has sparked understandable concern over the health of India’s news business, yet the large-scale decimation of non-English newsrooms has inspired little comment. While the English language press dominates the national conversation — particularly on social media — the non-English press is arguably more influential and reaches tens of thousands more readers. The discord in the Marathi news ecosystem is symptomatic of similar problems in language papers across the country. Many of these layoffs have been explained as a consequence of the novel coronavirus pandemic and the ensuing national lockdown and economic recession.
HuffPost India spoke to many of these journalists, who have lost their jobs and who are still working in these newspapers, and found that in most cases newspaper management pushed employees to resign, rather than enter a formal process of layoffs that involves a final settlement. This decision, employees say, was to make it cheaper for management to fire these journalists.
“Thirty-six people have been told to submit their resignations and these people have complied with it. As a settlement, only the current month’s salary is being given,” a Sakal journalist said, seeking anonymity as they feared reprisals from their management. “They are either giving journalists a letter and asking them to sign it or asking the journalists to resign themselves citing personal or health reasons and all this is without any notice.”
The journalist said that Sakal management had already enforced steep pay-cuts in April, the first month of the nation-wide lockdown.
“Around 40 percent of the overall staff is being laid off in the Sakal group. Our EPF contribution is down from 12 percent to 10 percent,” he said.
The Sakal group discontinued its Goan edition, Gomantak Times, on June 1.
“Our 50% salary was deducted in April and May month citing lockdown. Earlier this month, out of 13 people working in Gomantak Times, five who were on the contract were asked to resign and given June-July’s salary as a settlement,” informed a journalist of Gomantak Times. “Eight people, who were on the wage board, have been told that they will be contacted for further settlement.”
At Lokmat, which calls itself the Pride of Maharashtra, things are worse.
Several former and current employees of this newspaper told HuffPost India that the management of Lokmat Media Group had been employing unfair employment strategies for years.
“In the first week of June, the HR guy came and told me that I don’t need to come to office from the next day,” said a Lokmat ‘Operator’(sub-editor), who was working in an edition in Maharashtra. This sub-editor, who is also responsible for laying out pages, said she had been working for the Lokmat group for almost a decade but was never given a proper contract despite repeated requests over the years.
“The only proof I could give you that I was an employee of the Lokmat group is the bank statement which says that I received my monthly salary from them every month. That’s it. No contract, no id card, no EPF and I kept on doing my job because Lokmat is reputed and rich publication but I never thought they would dump me when I needed this job the most,” she said. At the time of her termination, she said, she was earning less than Rs 15,000 per month despite almost a decade at the organisation.
Another laid-off Lokmat journalist said even those who had signed proper contracts with the newspaper could do nothing.
“In the last two years, I received my contract in the name of some third company but service was to be rendered to the Lokmat media group,” the journalist said.
“My agreement would be from July 1 every year to June 30. On June 30 every year, they would ask me to resign. The contract would be renewed only after giving them a signed resignation letter every year.”
Journalists at Lokmat’s Delhi edition shared similar stories.
“I was on a year-long contract and the company retained the right to discontinue the contract. I received verbal orders from the management to resign. There was no written communication. I was told to come and finalize things,” another journalist informed. “One month’s salary was given as a settlement.”
“All of us are given 11 month’s contract. After every 11 months, they ask us to submit a letter in which we have to write that we need the job after which they give us a new 11 months contract,” the journalist working in one of Lokmat’s Vidarbha edition claimed. “This way they make sure they do not have to abide by any rules and regulations of the Working Journalists Act or even the Industrial Disputes Act.”
Those fortunate enough to still have a job with Lokmat say they have already endured pay cuts and fear further layoffs. The Lokmat group has also implemented salary cuts ranging from 10 percent to 30 percent for the next year, they said.
“Lokmat media group is a rich group and publishes some of the most widely circulated dailies. The chairman promised us that he would make sure no will lose his or her job,” said Lokmat operator (sub-editor) quoted earlier. “What happened to that promise?”
The Maharashtra Union of Working Journalists (MUWJ) and Nagpur Union of Working Journalists (NUWJ) recently moved to the Nagpur bench of Bombay high court over salary cuts, illegal sacking and intimidating tactics adopted by newspaper establishments to change the service conditions of media persons.
“The newspaper management citing losses hurriedly removed hundreds of employees in a totally illegal manner and also resorted to heavy salary cuts thereby violating all statutory provisions and guidelines issued by Centre and State,” the petitioners said in their submission before the court. “We urge the High Court to immediately restrain the management from continuing with their nefarious agenda of removing journalists from their jobs and reducing their salary to make them totally subservient, thereby hampering the freedom of speech and expression.”
If some of the Nagpur based journalists are to be believed, the press clubs and working unions of journalists moved to court only when some senior journalists who occupy top posts of these journalist’s groups were asked to shift from wage board to contract.
“Corona and lockdown are just an excuse,” said a Sakal group journalist. “Vernacular media always practiced unfair working and employment practices. Here your surname decides your salary. Caste-based discrimination is not glaring but silent in this industry dominated by Savarnas.”
Those from historically marginalised castes, the journalist said, were more likely to face difficult working environments
“Even after 15-20 years of services, we are getting a salary of Rs 20,000 to 25,000. We don’t have any health cover,” the journalist said. “Not only newsrooms but journalists’ unions and press clubs are dominated by Savarnas and they never cared about our working conditions”.
When HuffPost India tried to reach for his reaction, Sakal media group MD and NCP chief Sharad Pawar’s nephew Abhijit Pawar said that he doesn’t have time to give an interview or comment on the subject.
HuffPost India also tried to reach Vijay Darda through email, text message, and WhatsApp message. Replying on WhatsApp, Darda asked HuffPost India to contact to his HR head Balaji Muley for the details we were seeking. Muley and Darda are yet to respond to HuffPost India’s emailed questionnaire. This article will be updated when they reply.