On muster rolls in the Hindi heartland

BY Sushmita Malaviya| IN Media Practice | 12/07/2004
In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh the concept of women journalists with permanent jobs still does not exist.



Extracted from  Status of Women Journalists in India, produced  by the Press Institute of India, under the aegis of the National Commission for Women  



Sushmita Malaviya 



Like in the rest of the country, in Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand though the number of women in the media is steadily increasing, it continues to remain a male-dominated field, one in which women have to struggle to create their own identity. In these four states, journalism itself has yet to establish professional norms. The status of women journalists in the region is fraught with daily struggle.


They are constantly battling discrimination at the workplace in terms of salary, promotions, amenities, benefits, areas of work allotted to them and sexual harassment.


In Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh the concept of women journalists with permanent jobs still does not exist. While the ‘lucky’ ones are those on contracts with a measure of job security for two to three years, most women work without appointment letters or designations and are hired and fired on the whims of the management.


The method of payment for both men and women is a bit like that for daily wage labour on muster rolls. They are verbally asked to begin work on a hazy work profile and at the end of the month sign a muster roll. Should there be any reason for either party to terminate the ‘understanding,’ the final settlement is made on a voucher. In some cases the journalists sign for a lump sum amount, payment for several months, on a voucher.


Most young journalists begin their careers in these states on Rs 1500 as against the starting wage of Rs 7000 to Rs 8000 in the Delhi newspapers. If a journalist has to be axed, it is most often a woman who is asked to leave. The management’s reason for easing out women could range from the whimsical ‘can you justify what you have been doing for the last few months,’ to demoralising her by saying her work is not up to the mark without qualifying it or - the edition is not doing well and we have to downsize.


Along with gender specific problems the women journalists face, they also face area-specific problems. Working conditions in urban areas differ to those in the rural areas and each has its own set of problems. While in Bihar, the All-Bihar Women Journalists’ Forum has been formed and is quite active in helping women journalists with their work-related problems, in Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh the union movement is weak.


Despite the fact that women journalists in the region do not have the scope and facilities of those working in the bigger metropolitan cities they have still contributed to broadening press coverage, including reporting on a much neglected field - social issues. They have played a major role in highlighting development issues and introducing human interest in the media. Despite this, the number of women in decision-making capacities is almost negligible.


Work began by contacting editors of regional local newspapers. The response was mixed. Some cooperated and allowed us to meet journalists while others were not so helpful. After the initial visits to Chhattisgarh, Bihar and Jharkhand,  few people were assigned specific responsibility. For Chhattisgarh - Sapna Giri, for Bihar - Nivedita Jha, for Jharkhand - Vasavi, and for Indore - Archana Pillai. This effort was necessary because journalists in this region did not have easy access to the Internet. 


The experiences in filling in the questionnaires too have been mixed. In Rajya ki Nai Dunia, Bhopal there was just one woman reporter who readily filled the questionnaire and was open to an interview too. However, in Dainik Bhaskar, Bhopal, which has a good number of women journalists, many of them stalled filling the questionnaires on the pretext of a heavy workload.


In another local daily, Central Chronicle, women journalists refused to fill the questionnaire saying the management would not allow them and might take action against them if they did so. There was some tangible pressure on the employees, therefore, we did not insist. In their sister organisation, Nava-Bharat, reporters and sub-editors filled the questionnaires without hesitation.


In Deshbandhu, the lone woman sub-editor said she would not be able to fill questionnaires because of work pressure. In few small newspapers like Swadesh and Dainik Nai Dunia, no women journalists were employed. When people working there were asked why there were no women, they said the payment was not lucrative and the management found it easier to employ men who could do multiple jobs - report, work on the desk, do night shifts. They said many women refused to go out into the field and work nights, forcing the management to give preference to men. 


Some journalists who had left newspapers and had moved into the electronic media were curious to know if the questionnaires would translate into action that would benefit women journalists. Few journalists hinted that they had tough professional lives but did not reveal their stories for fear of losing their jobs. In Bhopal most journalists claimed they did not have the time to fill the long questionnaire and agreed only after many requests. 


In Chhattisgarh, journalists were directly contacted in their offices and homes. They were very cooperative and every journalist spoke of her struggle to stay afloat in the profession. All of them wanted an improvement in their working conditions. Even responding to the questionnaire seemed to remove some of their frustrations and they wanted a follow up to the survey.


For Bihar and Jharkhand, Nivedita Jha and Vasavi followed up the questionnaires with personal interviews. Since Nivedita Jha has been actively involved in the All-Bihar Women Journalists’ Forum she was able to co-ordinate the filling of questionnaires even at the district level. The survey included journalists from the electronic media, some of who had moved from the print to the electronic media.


It has not been possible to get a proper estimate of the actual number of women journalists because many of them, both in Hindi and English newspapers, either refused to fill the forms or did not have the time to do so. Many of them were afraid of the management`s reaction, were insecure and in some cases they were just indifferent.


In Madhya Pradesh, 16 women responded -- eight each from the Hindi and English language media. Most of them are in their early twenties. Two were between 40 to 44 and there was none below the age of 20. Two were freelancers. None had permanent full-time jobs. All were on contracts and many were on the voucher system which meant they are not entitled to provident fund, gratuity and other benefits. There was not a single woman journalist in a senior position--the highest being a sub-editor. Though most of them are post-graduates and had field experience, the average monthly salary is below Rs 10,000.


In Chhattisgarh too the 12 respondents, nine from the Hindi and three from the English language media, were all post-graduates, most of them below 35 years but none was earning over Rs 10,000 a month. The highest position they had was that of a sub-editor and none of them was a permanent full-time employee. All are on contracts or worse still, as in Madhya Pradesh, on the voucher system.


In Bihar, of the 18 respondents, 11 were from the Hindi and seven from the English language media. Here too most of the women were on contracts. Five, however, were permanent full time employees and five were freelancers. As in MP and Chattisgarh most of them were below 35 years and their average monthly salary below Rs 10,000. Five, however, were earning up to Rs 15,000 a month and one more than that. One was a bureau chief and eight are sub-editors. Most of them were post-graduates and some were graduates and almost all of them have been through a course in journalism.


There were nine respondents from Jharkhand, four from the Hindi and five from the English language media. Most of them were below 35 years. Three were freelancers, four on contracts and there was only one permanent full-time employee. Most of them worked for newspapers, one worked for a magazine, and none of them was in the senior echelons. Most of them were post-graduates and their average monthly salary was between Rs. 10,000 and Rs. 15,000. Most of them had done courses in journalism or served as apprentice journalists.



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