Suicides of depositors, agents and small-time operators of chit fund ‘Ponzi, and multi-level marketing schemes are now common place in West Bengal – the leader of the pack being the Saradha Group.
The collapse of the Group in April this year set in motion a series of collapses of its offshoots and subsidiaries – a number of which were media houses. It was pure contagion. The contemporary analogy is the fall of the commercial, illegal, multi-storied building in Sabar, Bangladesh, which recently fell like a pack of cards, killing over a thousand people and maiming countless others.
The Saradha Group meltdown not only ruined lakhs of families across the eastern state, and triggered a spate of suicides – at least eight investors and agents have so far taken their lives – but it also claimed the jobs of over 1,500 journalists.
The Ponzi collapse is in fact the collapse of a clutch of media entities. Daily newspapers Sakalbela (Bengali), Prabhat Barta (Hindi), Bengal Post (English), TV channels Tara News, Tara Music, Channel 10, all belonging to the Saradha Group have not been able to pay their staff for the last three months and have shut operations.
Only Channel 10 plods on with stoic employees running the show with advertisers’ support. The Dainik Prattohik Khabar (Bengali) owned by the Tower Group has also shut shop.
“For almost three years, I gave my heart and soul to the newspaper. It repaid people like me by shutting down with just five days’ notice and that too with pending salaries for two months, PF dues and non-handover of Form 16 for 2011-12,” Sandhya Sutodia, a former journalist with the erstwhile Bengal Post, wrote in Firstpost.
She added, “The closing of all editions of Kolkata-based news dailies owned by the company has put my career, along with those of nearly 1,400 journalists of other media ventures like Sakalbela, Azad Hind, Tara News, Tara Music and Tara Bangla, Prabhat Varta, Parama and the Seven Sisters Post in jeopardy. Tara employees are trying to keep the channel on-air on their own. Other than its media empire, Saradha was also involved in construction, realty, tours and travels, and agro development.”
Crash of the media?
One common feature of all these publications and channels is that they all came into being between two to three years ago. This synchronised with the rise of the phenomenon of the ‘Trinomool’ (grassroot). The political expression of a conglomerate of opportunistic lawless elements thrust into political pre-eminence by default of negative perception of ‘34 years of Left Front misrule’.
The rogues of Bengal United, for they had nothing to lose, made good use of the population perceptions and rode on the crest of the voter’s backlash against the Left Front. A by-product of the Congress, this entity called the Trinomool Congress or TMC became a heady cocktail of self-seekers, the litteratti and the glitterati. The clamour for glamour was deftly put to use by pitch-forking film stars, publicity-hungry painters and start-ups with the capacity to splurge money.
The dismal industrial and business scene of West Bengal was sought to be diverted from public attention. The diversionary means were public hypnosis, false icons, false impressions; false promises such as turning Kolkata into London, false ‘beautification’ schemes such as massive installation of trident lamps. Tughlian measures such as painting of public buildings with blue colour. The avid readers of vivid escapism, the charade of absurd, the conduit of the cantankerous – all being the genesis of the mushrooming media growth. But alas! Such growth did not bring about any multiplier effect.
The eager, enthusiastic, energetic, employed and empowered journalists felt they were climbing the ladder of success to reach the platform of social stability; the thousand or so journeys now on the verge of death. Their self-sufficiency, independence and new found identity snatched by cruel ‘fate’.
But that is not what ought to be in the structure of a civilised society of the 21st century. They are the casualties of the economic house collapse.
The duped investors, who have been threatening to commit suicides, were given a straw to clutch with a promise of subsidies emanating from the dubious cigarette tax. No help of such kind came through for these media men. After weeks of silence, the state government spokesman has at last mulled of forming some sort of co-operative organisation. Meanwhile, the media men are as helpless as ever.
The stark face of suicidal death stares at the financially ruined journalists. Why should death be the answer? Are we not living in a ‘welfare state’? But who cares to answer? The answer to a thousand questions is a thundering silence.
The state government has not invited any new ideas of alternative means of livelihood for the shell-shocked journalists. The suddenly implied office spaces of their erstwhile publications lie wastefully vacant.
The journalists are duly educated enough to run other enterprises such as tutorials, BPOs, typing, proof-reading, publishing and a host of other alternative economic activities. But imagination is in short supply. Even a figment of imagination or initiative does not see the light of the day in today’s state of West Bengal. There is a crisis of confidence. The administrative machinery is passive in its paralysis. The bluff, fluster, lackadaisical and apathetic attitude is killing the spirit of free enterprise.
“For the employees right now, the focus is on getting paid the money that is owed to them. But it also seems that now we have become a joke for all the media houses. Companies do not take us seriously. I feel I am back to square one, after taking a trip to the wonderful fairyland of journalism – from the Bengal Post to every pillar and post,” said Sutodia.