For the second time in less than a month, The Hindu and the Times of India find themselves on the same side of an issue. While in January it was a common grievance against the Indian Readership Survey, this time it’s a Supreme Court ruling that has brought the duo together. The ruling has also unified newspaper/news agency proprietors and editors across the country – cutting across style, leaning and anything they’d squabble over usually.
On January 7, 2014, a Supreme Court bench consisting of Chief Justice P Sathasivam and Justices Ranjan Gogoi and S K Singh rejected various challenges by “management of various newspapers” to the Justice Majithia Wage Board recommendations. In its judgment, the bench ruled “the wages as revised/determined shall be payable from 11.11.2011 when the Government of India notified the recommendations of the Majithia Wage Boards. All the arrears up to March, 2014 shall be paid to all eligible persons in four equal installments within a period of one year from today and continue to pay the revised wages from April, 2014 onwards”.
The judgment, however, is only the culmination of an episode that’s stretched over two years now. To comprehend the repercussions of it, it is important to understand the backdrop and the idea of a “wage board”. Under the Working Journalists and Other Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1955, the government has the power to form wage boards to review and revise salaries of journalists and non-journalists. The constitution of a wage board, according to the Act, has to adhere to the following rules:
(a) Three persons representing employers in relation to Newspaper Establishments.
(b) Three persons representing working journalists for Wage Board under Section 9 and three persons representing non- journalist Newspaper Employees for Wage Board under Section 13C of the Act.
(c) Four independent persons, one of whom shall be a person who is, or has been a Judge of the High Court or the Supreme Court, and who shall be appointed by the Government as the Chairman thereof.
Prior to the Majithia Wage Board, six Wage Boards had been constituted for working journalists and four Wage Boards for non-journalist newspaper employees. The Majithia Wage Board was formed in May 2007 and given three years to submit its recommendations. However, due to a variety of reasons – including the death of one of the board members – the board overshot its deadline and submitted its recommendations a good six months after it was supposed to.
The Majithia Wage Board – which based its recommendations on the 6th Pay Commission – submitted an extensive report. It categorised newspapers into eight categories according to their revenues and suggested seven groupings of employees according to designation and seniority. Similarly, the board divided news agencies into four sets on the basis of their annual revenues. The Cabinet took another year to “study” the recommendations before finally accepting them on the palindromic day of November 11, 2011. By this time, multiple editorials and sharp columns decrying the recommendations had already started appearing in print.
TOI led the onslaught – some of it came even before the government accepted the report – with brusquely worded opinion pieces with headlines such as “Muzzling the Media” and “Future of Media at Stake”. Kasturi and Sons Ltd, the publisher of The Hindu and The Hindu Business Line, in an article in Mint, analysed that following the recommendations would add approximately Rs100 crore to the company’s annual wage bill. The Indian Newspaper Society (INS) – an umbrella organisation of Indian newspapers – accused the government of buying the loyalty of journalists through an “arbitrary and undemocratic institution called the wage board”. Meanwhile, a petition opposing the wage board’s recommendations were filed by ABP Private Limited (which publishes Anandabazar Patrika and The Telegraph), The Times of India publisher Bennett, Coleman and Co. Ltd (BCCL), and news agency United News of India (UNI), with many other organisations following suit soon. The newspapers were represented by two of India’s most well-reputed lawyers – Fali Nariman and K K Venugopal – while advocate Colin Gonsalves appeared for the five federations representing journalists and non-journalists.
The petition filed by Nariman and Venugopal contested the validity of the Working Journalists and Other Newspaper Employees (Conditions of Service) and Miscellaneous Provisions Act, 1955. It stated that it was “ultra vires as it infringes the fundamental rights guaranteed under Articles 14, 19(1)(a) and 19(1)(g) of the Constitution of India”.
Article 14 protects freedom irrespective of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth while Articles 19 (1) (a) and (b) uphold freedom of speech and the right to practise any profession, or to carry on any occupation, trade or business respectively. The petition also questioned the constitution of the board and the procedure adopted by the board to arrive at the conclusion it did. The last ground of opposition was that the Majithia Wage Boards “overlooked the relevant aspects and considered extraneous factors while drafting the recommendations”.
One and a half years after the first petition had been filed, the bench finally delivered what is being touted as a landmark judgment on February 7, 2014. During which 13 more petitions had been filed, including one for contempt.
Reactions and the Current Scenario
To the surprise of almost no one, editors and owners of most newspaper and news agencies haven’t quite warmed up to the ruling. N Ravi, Editor-in-Chief of The Hindu was quoted by Mint to have said that “it would cripple most newspapers and drive them out of business. The media space will shrink as print media will be hit hard”. The Times of India didn’t mince words either. In a lengthy article published under the banner of Times View it noted, “Print is no longer the sole purveyor of information; there is television, there is internet, and increasingly, there is mobile, all of which are threatening to eat into print’s market share. But none of these established or emerging mediums are covered by the wage board — which creates an uneven playing field and puts print at a huge financial disadvantage”. The penultimate paragraph which concluded that “a driver’s salary will jump from Rs 36,000 to almost Rs 62,000 per month, a clerk’s from Rs 39,000 to over Rs 62,000, a peon’s from about Rs 33,000 to about Rs 58,000, a stenographer’s from Rs 40,000 to almost Rs 71,000, and a rotary machineman’s from Rs 40,000 to over Rs 76,000” belittled what were well-drawn arguments for most part with absurd figures.
An editor with a national daily who didn’t wish to be quoted said, “Frankly, I think wage board awards are a bit of an anachronism in as they are imposed by the government on the private sector, I think it is going to be very difficult for media companies to adhere to the order in full”. The coverage of the judgment has been expectedly been scant and one-sided. None of the “mainstream” dailies, barring Mint and DNA, have even bothered to take the viewpoint of the unions, choosing instead to publish opinion pieces criticising the ruling.
Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, columnist and media commentator, told Newslaundry that “both parties have a point…It’s understandable that the owners are not too happy as the industry is going through a particularly tough time. Advertisement revenues have dried up”. On the query of whether journalists’ rights warrant special protections, he said that “bona fide journalists” should be given legal protection. However, he conceded that it’s difficult to decide on who could be considered as bona fide. Thakurta also advocated including broadcast journalists in the purview of the wage board.
The unions, though, are elated about the Supreme Court ruling. The Confederation of Newspaper and News Agency Employees – which has under its wings at least five journalists’ unions – organised a meeting on Tuesday, February 18, 2014. While the meeting understandably was high on triumphant emotions, attendees also discussed the fine print of the judgment with Colin Gonsalves. Speaking on the occasion, MS Yadav of the confederation attributed the victory over the “crony-capitalists with wallets” to Gonsalves. “They had the best lawyers of the country but it is us who had the final laugh, for what we lacked in terms of resources, we made up by having the right documents”, said Yadav to a thunderous applause of the gathered crowd.
Newslaundry also examined a few employee contracts at various publications opposed to the Majithia Wage Board. An entry-level contract for a journalist at The Times of India carries a clause which categorically protects the management against any legal action on not following directives of a wage board. The general informal discourse in most other newsrooms also suggests that newspapers will find a way to work around the ruling but we are told to keep it “off record”. When we pointed that out to Gonsalves, he admitted that the battle is only half-won. “Getting the organisations to implement will be the real test”.
A report published by UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation) in 2013 observes that the “Government of India (as one side in the tripartite wage bargaining process) seems in no state to take on the power of the newspaper industry at a time when crucial elections at the state and national levels are imminent”.
As for the claim that implementing the Majithia Wage Board’s recommendations would “cripple most newspapers and drive them out of business”, a look at the Assam Tribune Group of Newspapers published from Assam may provide some insight. They implemented the wage board’s recommendation way back in January 2012 – a month after the Cabinet approved them. The Hindu’s circulation, even by the most conservative estimates, would be about 15 times more than the Assam Tribune. Maybe the Northeast – which is rarely reported on by mainline newspapers – can finally show the way to the big guns of the media world.