“The management might pay the dues only if I die.”
These were T Kumar’s words to his family, amid domestic turmoil caused by financial stress – the photojournalist had allegedly not been paid his full salary for nearly 60 months by the news agency United News of India. Months later, and a week before his daughter’s engagement, he was found dead in the newsroom – his watch and mobile phone lying next to his body – on the night of February 13.
While Nungambakkam police are probing the matter as unnatural death under section 174 of CrPC, Kumar’s wife, son and daughter, and his friends and colleagues, have called it a death by suicide, triggered by irregular salaries. A police officer said the “direction of the investigation is dependent on the post mortem report which is expected in a week”. Ajay Kaul, UNI’s editor-in-chief, confirmed that employees had not received a portion of their salaries but “there was no suicide note” in Kumar’s case. “So how can the media arrive at a conclusion…? The journalists who wrote about the incident don’t have any version of the police.”
Days before his death, Kumar spent less time with his family, drank more and showed signs of less appetite. At the Chennai press club he used to frequent, his peers and colleagues noticed something was amiss.
He was the sole breadwinner in the family until three months ago when his son, K Praveen, began work as a customer support executive; Kumar was getting Rs 15,000 a month – less than a third of his monthly due. “We pay a rent of Rs 15,000 every month and there are many expenses. Even though my dad tried hard to keep the family going, he couldn’t,” said Praveen. “We have no money to buy a gas cylinder and groceries...my sister’s engagement was planned a year ago, hoping that the management would release at least a few months of salary. As it didn’t happen, I had suggested we postpone the event. But my dad was hopeful.”
Expressing shock over the death, the nine journalists who spoke to Newslaundry said Kumar was a good counselor and passionate journalist. “When photographers lost their jobs during the pandemic, his words of support helped many,” said N V Sampath, chief photographer at Deccan Chronicle.
Ashish Kar, who retired as head of UNI’s photo department in Delhi, recalled him as a passionate journalist. “A day before his demise, we spoke at length about retirement plans. We planned to pen a book on our field experiences.”
The UNI All India Employees Front has sought a compensation of Rs 10 lakh for Kumar’s family and his dues cleared in a week.
Rise and fall
Sending shockwaves across the media fraternity in the city and elsewhere, the death, for many, also became the story of a news agency’s rise and fall.
Kumar had, after all, grown with UNI with a 36-year experience, starting off as an attender, to being promoted as photographer and photojournalist, to a bureau head managing a team of seven at the Chennai office. “My father wanted to retire at UNI and that’s why he didn’t seek other opportunities,” said Praveen. Be it the increase in subscriptions or the UNI’s Tamil Nadu office becoming a major revenue-producing bureau, Kumar had seen the heydays of the agency.
But the tables turned in 2006: salaries were late, the increments rare and the vacancies unfilled. “It started off with us receiving our salaries once every two months. Now, there are dues from at least 56 months. I received only three months of pay in 2021,” said Kumar’s friend and colleague Vanamali G B, who found him dead in the office.
While Ajay Kaul said the partial payment of salaries began in August last year, employees have a different story – of mounting debts, uncertain future, and compromises with life and “dignity”.
Divakar*, who has been receiving Rs 15,000 as against a salary of Rs 55,000, said “even this” has come for only the last three months. “We are still going on the field and I have no money to even commute by bus,” he said, adding that his family has now shifted to a smaller home and is struggling to pay the school fees for the children.
Another employee who retired last year claimed that he received no gratuity. “Besides the dues of over 55 months, I have not received my gratuity amount. Only if I take this to the court will I receive the dues,” said the employee, adding that even eating “dal, chaawal” has become a struggle.
Three UNI employees told Newslaundry that they rely on donations from philanthropists and NGOs to live paycheck-to-paycheck. “A few NGOs bought provisions, few of them paid the fees of our kids. In order to survive, we let go of the last ounce of our pride,” an employee said.
Many UNI staffers also moved courts: the management refused to divulge the numbers but several employees alleged there are over 100 such cases.
Ajay Kumar Gupta, who worked at the agency for 37 years and retired in October 2018, was to receive salaries pending for 33 months but got just 13 months of it after years of legal proceedings. As per complaint copies seen by Newslaundry, Gupta first reached out to the Rajasthan labour department. In September 2018, the labour court directed UNI to clear Gupta’s dues with a 9 percent interest, but the agency moved the high court in 2019 – the court dismissed the petition and the labour department issued a contempt order against the management in 2021. Gupta said he still hasn’t got dues amounting to Rs 10 lakh.
The management is trying to arrive at out-of-court settlements with the others, said editor-in-chief Kaul. “Negotiations have also been underway with Mr Ajay Kumar Gupta and we are hopeful that this case too will be settled sooner than later,” he said.
‘Blunders’, lost subscriptions
But how did it come to this, for an agency that was once seen as a competitor to the Press Trust of India and that broke the news of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination?
Starting out as an English news agency in 1961, UNI launched services in several languages over the years, and continued to expand with an increasing number of media houses subscribing to it. Its revenue, according to D J Walter Scott, UNI’s Chennai former bureau chief, is dependent on subscriptions from newspapers and TV channels, and the agency is managed by a board of directors from various newspapers.
UNI, like other agencies, was a bridge between international news agencies and Indian media. “The Associated Press and Reuters had an agreement with UNI and PTI, which used to interchange once in four years. However, after liberalisation, international agencies have direct access with the Indian media – another reason that reduced the importance of agencies,” said Walter Scott, who quit UNI in 2012. He said the agency had grown at a time when vernacular media houses couldn’t afford to hire journalists in all towns and cities of India.
Then came the jolts.
The Hindu, a noteworthy subscriber that paid around Rs 13 to 15 lakh per month, withdrew its subscription in 2007, and many newspapers followed suit. The big blow came in 2020 when terminated the Doordarshan and All India Radio subscription.
Maintaining that the management is looking at alternatives to recover losses, Ajay Kaul said, “For more than 12 years, UNI has been hard pressed for funds. Our losses multiplied after Prasar Bharati, which paid us Rs 6.5 crore a year, snapped subscription in October 2020.”
The board of directors is headed by Sagar Mukhopadhyay of Manipal group who became chairman with a promise to revive UNI last year. But the group, which has not brought any fresh investments, has instead employed over 30 contractual employees in key positions with hefty paychecks amid a financial crisis for other staffers, according to the UNI All India Employees Front.
Manipal group legal head Binod Mandal and advocate Pawan Kumar Sharma are the other directors of the board. UNI’s major shareholders include Jagran Prakashan Ltd, Kasturi and Sons Ltd, Express Publication (Madurai), HT Media Ltd, Statesman Ltd, Nava Bharat Press (Bhopal) Ltd, ABP Pvt Ltd, and Times of India, among others.
Sharma attributed UNI’s downfall to what he called a decline of the newspaper industry. “UNI has a minuscule online presence. Its employees are not trained to be updated for electronic media…It has been less than a year since Manipal media is associated with UNI. The downfall happened for not taking corrective measures for 12 years.”
Maintaining that steps are being taken to increase subscriptions, Sharma said that Manipal group was nominated by shareholders to look after management. “They are independent professionals giving their services.”
Meanwhile, some others pointed to “bad judgment” on part of the management.
“Twelve years ago, the management started UNI TV in four languages – Hindi, Urdu, English and Kannada. While it was a right move to get subscriptions, it had to be closed within two years as the quality was mediocre. If only it was done in-house rather than giving the contract to a third party, it wouldn’t have been a debacle,” said A Kandasamy, senior engineer at UNI.
R Bhagwan Singh, a former executive editor of Deccan Chronicle, said the agency should have added services to evolve with time, especially when its subscription cost was much lower than PTI. “UNI’s trials were a debacle. The agency added a photo service but didn’t recruit professionals to do the task. Quality of the pictures were compromised.”
*Name changed for confidentiality reasons
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