There are more than 83,000 registered newspapers in this nation. With that figure, it would seem that all is well for the Indian newspaper industry, despite the threat Print faces from Television and the recent phenomenon of Social. So, it becomes a little disconcerting when the massive medium of Print faces an impending threat, not from its counterparts, but the greatest institution of law-making in the nation, the Supreme Court. Its upholding of the Majithia Wage Board’s advice will definitely result in a lot of “paying up”.
The Wage Board typically functions as a government body that decides on wages and hikes for players in both the private and public sector to protect employees. However, these are not capitalistic times and with the advent of various forms of media and numerous communication channels, the relevance of a wage board is arguably lost. It was in 1955 when the first wage board was formed. The Government-owned All India Radio (AIR) was the only mass medium. Private media barons had just begun to foray into mainstream Print, and it was justly feared that this might result in exploitation of journalists. Cut to 2014, when we have an explosion of media - Print, electronic, online, mobile, etc., and the number of journalists and non-journalists working across these industries is not just a handful anymore. Is it therefore not bizarre that in the private sector, it is only in the newspaper industry that the government, and not the employers, decide on pay hikes and wages?
Let us, for a moment, consider all the implications of such a verdict. It was in December 2010 when the Wage Board headed by Justice G R Majithia submitted its report of recommendations to the Government. As per the report, the board recommended 35% variable pay for journalists and non-journalists working in four top categories of newspapers and 20% for others with effect from July 1, 2010. They also proposed an increase in the retirement age by five years - 60 to 65 years. Additionally, they suggested 100% neutralization of increase in the cost of living index in dearness allowance. The allowance is recommended to be revised twice a year as against the current practice of varying rates of neutralization for different categories of establishments and quarterly revision. The new basic pay was thus arrived at, by merging the existing basic pay, dearness allowance and 30% interim relief granted earlier. Though the Union Cabinet approved of it in October 2011, these recommendations were challenged by newspaper owners and other institutions including Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd, ABP Pvt. Ltd and the Indian Newspaper Society (INS), in November 2011.
It took almost three years for the Supreme Court to arrive at any decision against the challenges made by the petitioners when on February 8, 2014 the bench of Chief Justice P Sathasivam and Justices Ranjan Gogoi and S K Singh finally rejected the challenges and stated that all the newspapers and news agencies have to pay wage arrears in four equal instalments within one year and continue to pay revised wages with effect from April, 2014.
Needless to say, a lot has changed in these last three years. The way news functions and the very identity of ‘Print’ is blurring in recent times. Print might not be shrinking completely, but its presence and importance has been jolted by the advent of electronic and online media, none of which are to follow the Wage Board’s recommendations. As times are evolving, news is mostly consumed through social media platforms and on mobile. Print is already suffering the wrath of technology. At this juncture, the recommendations by the Wage Board might prove to be catastrophic.
The full scale implementation of these recommendations might result in 80-100% hike of wages and the effect of this on small and medium scale newspapers is going to be abysmal. A small newspaper with a handful of journalists and other nonjournalists can never afford to function and operate in such a situation. And remember, we are talking of over 83,000 registered newspapers. This situation would escalate when non-journalists (from a driver, to clerk to peon) receive a pay much higher than the average pay of their counterparts in any other sector. According to industry watchers, the repercussions of this ruling on the Print industry may even have major players incurring heavy losses and shutting business.
The news industry today is an urbancentric body that functions in a private, organized manner. The onus of the bonus in all fairness should depend on supply and demand, and rest on the employers. When the Print news body of the largest democracy of the world comes under the Government for its pay, the dynamics of news and reportage invariably change. Just like any other blue collar company, the owner of an established news agency should be vested with the rights to decide what’s best for its employees. Sceptics say an imposed wage hike will not only encourage non-proficiency and belligerence but also create a huge divide amongst employees. If the Government is under the impression that such a step is going to ensure equality, they can kiss the illusion goodbye.
The way to ensure equality is by inculcating a sense of healthy competition among media moghuls so that Print media are not left to feel desolate and there is a drive amongst employees to excel. A wage hike of this nature amounts to fiddling with usual business. The job of a journalist is definitely not the same as that of a peon, or that of a scanner operator. And the decision on pay is best left to the employer in a scenario like this.
Income and outgo in the newspaper industry, as elsewhere, are completely dictated by market forces. Costs and finance pertaining to newsprint, cover price, distributor and hawker commission, advertisement rates and others are all decided by market dynamics and are independent of any employer’s consolidated control. Government interference is not only undesired, but disruptive in such a setting. It is likely to be a disturbing interlude in the seamless business of delivering news.