It was the sudden flurry of tragic posts by friends and former colleagues on my social media timeline that caught my eye. Something tragic had happened. We had lost a member of our fraternity forever and in extremely unfortunate circumstances.
Ravi Kanojia, a photojournalist from The Indian Express, had met with an accident while on duty. The incident was also reported by various media organisations today, including Hindustan Times, NewsX, DNA and NDTV. The Indian Express, too, carried a front-page report on Kanojia. It also put out some of his recent work on the newspaper’s website as a way of tribute. While most reports dwelled on the cause of Kanojia’s death, IE gave out minimum details stating Kanojia died in an accident while covering the water train stationed in Jhansi, Uttar Pradesh.
The HT report stated that Kanojia had climbed atop the wagon to click a picture of the water inside and got electrocuted by a high-tension overhead electric line. Some of Kanojia’s colleagues told Newslaundry he had climbed on a train adjacent to the water train in order to get a high-angle shot of it.
Reading about Kanojia, memories flooded in of another member of the fraternity, Tarun Sehrawat, whom we lost in 2012. At the risk of judging both these cases, especially the former, they look to have been eminently preventable. Being a former photojournalist myself, it brought back uncomfortable moments from my time on the field.
It is difficult to explain the rush of chasing after a story (or that photograph) to anyone who hasn’t been there themselves. Yes, you tend to take that one extra step, unmindful of the dangers involved.
Hindsight is always 20:20, but what is clearly missing is oversight. Like Kanojia or Sehrawat, I was also a young photojournalist once, travelling to remote corners of the country for stories. Today if I found myself in a position where I am managing a team of young journalists, I wouldn’t start with a course on ethics, but occupational safety instead.
The media loves to call itself the watchdog. But it utterly neglects basic practices that other industries rigorously follow as a routine. In my almost eight years in the media, not a single supervisor of mine (or the human resources department, since that is the fashion now) ever did a programme on occupational safety.
I remember the year was 2006, I was being sent on an official assignment (junket) to Malaysia. The logistics of the assignment was being paid for by a sponsor. I enquired whether they did the travel insurance for journalists too. When the reply was negative, I knew that the insurance had to be done. I went ahead and purchased it myself.
But I was in for a shock when I asked my employer, a grand old newspaper from South India, for a refund of the policy amount, since I was travelling on duty representing the organisation. My employer refused to pay the insurance for its own employee, a paltry Rs 700. What is the employee supposed to do if taken ill or in an accident abroad?
Fast forward a few years. I found myself in the cold desolateness of the upper reaches of Tawang, writing a story about the India-China border. I was, as usual, on a schedule that was short on time and budgets. When my ramshackle taxi gave up at 16,000 feet, I casually decided to walk a kilometre with my 13kg camera bag to an Indian Army post that I was to visit. Needless to say, I was quite breathless and suffering from a splitting headache by the time I got there. I still remember the shellacking I got from the Army colonel there for walking in high altitude areas without proper time for acclimatisation. He told me to forget about the story and sent me right back down to Tawang town at 9,000 ft.
Yes, it was my first time in the Himalayas and my organisation (a different one, which used to love corporate governance practices) knowing that I was going there, had not given me a safety brief or asked me to do a risk assessment.
What I have illustrated above are just a couple of instances where things could have gone horribly wrong. Even today a poll taken in Indian media will reveal a scenario that is no different. What is it that occupies the media so much that it neglects basic occupational safety practices? How difficult is it to prepare a risk assessment and a safety code for at least outstation assignments?
When I stepped of the media and engaged with industries outside, I realised that occupational safety is a big deal for other industries. With me being in the tourism industry today, I know that if you want to work with the right kind of institutional clients, you will go nowhere unless you have strong internal and external safety practices. When I set up my own organisation, becoming responsible for employees and occupational safety discussions became a regular feature.
The pressures on the media in India today are intense, deadlines are 24×7. Judgments can get very blurred in such a scenario. The big bosses of media houses must have plenty of priorities on hand — but is that an excuse to not be bothered by occupational safety?
The only hope is that somewhere, middle managers in the media, in the middle of all and sundry editorial meetings, do make it a practice to have a monthly meeting on occupational safety.