WB: Chit fund media shuts, journalists thrown out of job

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Kolkata, April 16: For many Bengalis, the year 1420 has started on a horrendous note. A chit fund company in the state, which was growing faster than the North Korean nuclear capacity in the recent years, and started projecting itself as a major media house by taking over or launching a number of newspapers, magazines (its Bengali magazine had actor Aparna Sen as its editor) and TV channels, suddenly gave in resulting in the unemployment of a number of people, both journalists and non-journalists.

On Monday, when the viewers switched on a popular Bengali music channel owned by the same group for the New Year programme, they were shocked to see the anchors and artistes weeping because the channel was shutting down.

The employees of the shutting electronic media still had the chance to reach out to the people and share their grief about an uncertain future but those of the print media were left to survive an uphill battle of life.

Over 800 journalists go jobless

This writer had worked in The Bengal Post, an English daily which was started by the same chit fund company in June 2010 but was shut down last month, throwing a large number of people out of job. There are other sister publications which have also shut down.

Over 800 journalists and many more non-journalist employees lost their job because of this sudden shut down of the conglomerate businesses. Who is going to take care of these people? The chairman and the managing director of the publications unit, Sudipta Sen, could not be contacted for any reply.

What is even more shocking is that salaries were delayed for several months in publications like The Bengal Post before it was indefinitely shut down. A couple of my friends called me out of desperation to see if there is any vacancy somewhere. But, jobs are not easy to come by. I couldn't help but give dry assurance.

The printing and publications unit, a part of the chit fund company, which diversified into construction, realty, tourism and other businesses, had tried every possible way to please the rulers of the day to keep itself afloat but yet couldn't survive.

There were instances when we used to feel terribly upset with the standard of news being published (news only praising Mamata Banerjee) but nobody could utter any official objection for the sake of the livelihood. Yet, they could not save it at the end. Journalism has some objective standards to comply with otherwise, it becomes suspicious. It is no surprise that The Bengal Post saw three editors in succession in less than two years.

The project started with a bang

If we go back exactly by three years, the publication house had made a crashing entry into an otherwise stagnant media market in West Bengal. The impact was so much so that people left from their organisations in hordes to board Sen's ship. They did not bother about the prospects and was overwhelmed by the huge salary offers.

They also called their old colleagues, thinking it was a golden opportunity for them to establish their own ways, something which they perhaps could not do while working in other houses. Even people who returned from abroad due to the recession also joined the house. I had even heard people mocking mainstream newspapers after joining this house, saying "they will starve to death while we grow" or "it is a revolution in Bengal".

The owner's assurance that he would easily run the business for a minimum of five years might have made them even more sanguine. In a nutshell, the party was too big to be spoiled then.

Dream started crumbling soon

The general feeling in the house was that since it was a pro-Trinamool Congress (TMC) establishment and Mamata Banerjee was just steps away from coming to power, there was no threat to its survival. But nobody saw that the threat within could be far more fatal and it exactly happened so.

A number of theories started doing the rounds that Sen's business was getting hijacked by some opportunists and although those claims were never backed by any evidence, it was gradually getting clear that the laws of economics are infallible.

The house had started with an arrangement whereby the employees were given lunch and dinner and endless cups of tea. But the 'exploitation of food' reached such levels that soon, the tea was made available only in lieu of two coupons and the standard of the food took a nosedive. The vehicles to drop employees in the night also got sharply reduced in number while the authorities took ages before giving the PF number to the employees. The salary was always paid in cheque (once it was paid in cash for the banks were to remain closed owing to Durga Puja holidays) and even allegations were heard that some employee had received a fake currency note in his salary! 

The agreement letter, which was the most erroneous I have ever seen in my life, had promised a number of facilities but none of them saw the light of the day. The only facilities that people got were fruits, dairies and food packets on occasions like New Year.

Sen had once said at a forum, which was organised only for the members of the house, that he always looked to Mamata Banerjee for the improvement of Bengal for she was the real leader. A TMC MP had also joined his venture those days and conveniently landed him in safety while several of the employees of the house perished.

Opportunism meets an end

These opportunist traders backed the Mamata Banerjee regime to make some quick profits in the name of social service and media business but gradually these quarters stood exposed. Markets watchdog SEBI has said that there are many firms in West Bengal which are under scanner for questionable money circulation schemes and complaints of fraud.

This writer had known a number of journalists in The Bengal Post who gave their best for the editions despite getting a little or no appraisal in three years. A number of good hands had left the job out of sheer dissatisfaction. The management expected the paper to achieve great heights just by pleasing the rulers, which never happens. But yet, there were people who worked passionately. Those people have been terribly betrayed.

Do we have the freedom to deny the right to live to anybody?

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