Dying on duty: Where's the aid Uddhav Thackeray promised to journalists?

Around 126 journalists have died of Covid in the last eight months, according to journalists’ union data.

ByPrateek Goyal
Dying on duty: Where's the aid Uddhav Thackeray promised to journalists?
Kartik Kakar
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Last June, during the first wave of Covid in India, Maharashtra health minister Rajesh Tope announced that journalists in the state who die of Covid will be covered under the government’s Rs 50 lakh accidental cover. This effectively meant that journalists would be counted as frontline workers.

But a year later, Maharashtra’s journalists are still struggling to get what was promised to them. In the last eight months, around 126 journalists have died of Covid in the state, according to the Marathi Patrakar Parishad, with 52 dying in April alone while reporting on the pandemic. The Marathi Patrakar Parishad is one of the oldest journalist unions in the state.

Several journalists and their family members told Newslaundry they’re struggling to get support from the Uddhav Thackeray government.

In September, journalist Pandurang Raikar, 42, who worked for TV9 Marathi in Pune, died after testing positive for Covid. There was reportedly a delay in Pandurang getting a cardiac ambulance, and deputy chief minister Ajit Pawar ordered an investigation.

Eight months later, there has been no progress on this promised inquiry.

“An inquiry was ordered but nothing has happened yet,” said Pandurang’s wife Shital Raikar, 36. “Health minister Tope sahab announced a Rs 50 lakh cover but that promise was not kept. Supriya Sule ma’am told me she would provide a job in the education department but as of now, nothing has been done.” Sule is a member of the Nationalist Congress Party and its MP from Baramati.

She added, “If they don’t want to help, they shouldn’t promise. We don’t expect anything from them in their personal capacity. But as a government, they should do something for journalists because a lot of them have died while doing their jobs during Covid.”

Shital and her two children, aged five and three, live in Kopargaon in Ahmednagar district. On January 6, she approached Maharashtra governor Bhagat Singh Koshiyari to ask that the ex-gratia of Rs 50 lakh be allotted to her family, in accordance with Tope’s announcement.

The letter sent by the governor to Rajesh Tope.

The letter sent by the governor to Rajesh Tope.

“The governor considered my request and a letter was sent to his office to Tope sahab to take appropriate action...It’s been more than a month since that letter was sent to the health minister but I haven’t received a response,” Shital said. “I’ve been given financial aid by journalists and BJP and Shiv Sena leaders in their individual capacities. But no one is going to help me forever. I have to deal with my problems on my own and struggle to make both ends meet.” The aid came from politicians like Praveen Darekar and Mahesh Landge of the BJP and the Shiv Sena’s Neelam Gorhe.

Journalists take risks while reporting during the pandemic, Shital pointed out, and they need help. “Many young journalists have lost their lives while doing Covid-related stories,” she said. “Their parents and wives must be facing the same problems that I am facing.”

Shital isn’t alone in her ordeal.

On May 3, Raju Bhise, 58, a journalist who wrote for Lokmat, Aapla Mahanagar and other local papers in Raigad district’s Nagothana, died of Covid-related complications.

Raju’s son, Archit Bhise, 20, said his father had been actively working and reporting on a daily basis before his death.

“He battled with Covid for 12 days,” he said. “First, he was at a Covid centre here for four days. Then he was shifted to Roha Civil Hospital as his oxygen was dropped. When his condition worsened, he was shifted to Mangao. He was kept on a ventilator but he couldn’t survive.”

Raju was a stringer and therefore did not receive a regular salary for his work. “He would get money once or twice in five or six months,” Archit said.

Stringers in India, who are not formally employed by media houses, are often poorly paid and work under difficult circumstances. Archit said his father received no help from the papers he had worked for.

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“But at least the government should come forward to help journalists,” he said. “My father couldn’t even get himself vaccinated. He used to roam daily to file reports on the Covid situation in Raigad. He risked his life to bring out these stories. The government should consider them as frontline workers and provide them with health facilities, also some financial assistance to the families of journalists. There should be some kind of protection.”

Over the past few days, multiple states have declared journalists as frontline workers, including Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, West Bengal, Goa, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar.

Maharashtra has not. On May 5, state revenue minister Balasaheb Thorat told reporters that he had written to chief minister Uddhav Thackeray urging him to do so. “It is necessary to consider them as frontline workers and get them vaccinated,” Throat said.

Meanwhile, families of journalists in the state are in despair.

‘Journalists report for the public’

Malhar Pawar, 25, lost his journalist father in Matheran to Covid on September 9 last year. Santosh Pawar had been a journalist since 1993, working for Marathi daily Sakal for two decades. From 2017, he ran his own news portal.

“He had a bodyache the night before and in the early hours of September 9, he started feeling breathless,” Malhar said. “We took him to the sub-district hospital in Karjat. His oxygen levels came down drastically but no ventilator was available there.”

Desperate, the family then tried to take Santosh to DY Patil Hospital in Navi Mumbai, about 42 km away. “We got an ambulance,” said Malhar, “but it was not a cardiac ambulance. By the time we reached the hospital, he was dead.”

Malhar said he received no help from the government, despite Rajesh Tope’s announcement of Rs 50 lakh accidental cover for journalists just months before his father’s death.

“The government is now taking a U-turn,” he said. “Journalists have to work in the field when they are told to by their editors. They cannot refuse to go, it’s their job. Many young journalists reporting from the ground have died. The government is not doing anything for journalists. They have to understand that it’s important work and journalists are risking their lives.”

SM Deshmukh, the head of the Marathi Patrakar Parishad, told Newslaundry that the union has been pleading with Thackeray for four months to declare journalists as frontline workers.

“Our demands were very reasonable,” he said. “Many journalists have died in Maharashtra because they couldn’t get oxygen or ventilators. So, we demanded that two beds should be reserved in hospitals for journalists.”

A letter from a journalist union, the Mumbai Marathi Patrakar Sangh, to Uddhav Thackeray asking for support for journalists.

A letter from a journalist union, the Mumbai Marathi Patrakar Sangh, to Uddhav Thackeray asking for support for journalists.

On Tope’s announcement of Rs 50 lakh insurance cover, Deshmukh said, “We know that he is not going to fulfil that promise. So, we asked for a compensation of Rs 5 lakh [to families of journalists who died of Covid]. But the government is not even ready to give that. Our last demand was for the vaccination of journalists. Now, tell me which of our demands are unreasonable? All are simple and genuine and can be easily fulfilled by the government.”

With the economic slowdown and the effects of the pandemic, Deshmukh added, many journalists are currently working at reduced salaries. “Many of them are stringers who work on the ground and don’t even get salaries,” he added. “The government should consider all these factors and take a favourable decision for the well-being of journalists.”

Vinod Jagdale, the president of the TV Journalist Association in Mumbai, said that if other states could include journalists as frontline workers and “Covid warriors”, giving them priority for vaccinations, why couldn’t Maharashtra?

“Even accredited journalists are not allowed to travel in local trains in Mumbai,” he said, referring to the Covid restrictions in place. “They travel long distances on two-wheelers to cover stories. It’s totally unfair..."

Jagdale added that Uddhav Thackeray himself is a “journalist and excellent photographer” as well as the head of Saamana newspaper, a Marathi publication founded by Bal Thackeray. “Then how can he behave in such a manner with journalists?” he said. “Journalists are on the ground and then go back to their respective homes, where they have children and other family members. They are afraid of risking their family members’ lives but are also doing their jobs.”

Geeta Seshu, a senior journalist based in Mumbai told Newslaundry, that journalists report for the public, not for personal gain. “The government has recognised health workers, civic amenities workers, law enforcers as frontline workers. They need to recognise that journalists also provide a service in this exceptional situation.”

Newslaundry sent a detailed questionnaire to Maharashtra health minister Rajesh Tope on whether journalists were receiving the Rs 50 lakh accidental cover and about journalists being categorised as frontline workers. This report will be updated if we receive a response.

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