At around 6 am on 12 October, Ravinder Singh, a 56-year-old former employee of the Hindustan Times Limited, was found dead in a small tent outside the newspaper’s office building in Connaught Place, in Delhi. Singh was a former printing press worker at the Hindustan Times, whose services, along with those of 361 others, were terminated on 3 October 2004. Since then, Singh and other former workers—who are members of the Hindustan Times Employees Union—have been protesting their termination outside the office building. Members of the union told me that Singh worked at the Hindustan Times from 1980 till 2004.
Akhilesh Rai, a member of the union, told me that some protestors went to wake Singh up that morning and alerted the police upon discovering his body, which was then taken to the Ram Manohar Lohia hospital. A police officer at the Barakhamba Road police station, who asked not to be identified, told me that the police are still waiting for a member of Singh’s family to release his body and conduct the post-mortem. Shatrugan Singh, another member of the union whom I met at the protest site, said, “I do not think any of his family members are around anymore, why else would he be staying here and not with them?” He continued, “The rest of us have been protesting since 2004 too, but by the grace of god we are fortunate that we still have families to go back to.”
Akhilesh said that Singh was among few protestors “who still believed that a combination of legal recourse and protest would lead to things changing.” But he added, “He was doing worse than the rest of us, that is for sure.” According to Akhilesh, Singh’s mental health had deteriorated since his termination. Ramesh Negi, a union member who worked at the Hindustan Times from 1978 to 2004, appeared to agree with Akhilesh. “The rest of us come here on some days in groups no larger than 50 to continue our protest,” Negi said. “He was, however, the only one that used to stay here even in the night—more often than not, he would sleep here.”
In 2004, Hindustan Times Limited had terminated the employment of the protesting workers of its printing-press staff when the company transferred the ownership of its printing undertaking to HT Media Limited. “We had a holiday for Gandhi Jayanti and on the day we returned to work, there was a notice that said we would no longer be employees,” Akhilesh said. “Just like that, we were removed from jobs that were paying us a consistent salary of at least Rs 18,000 a month,” he continued. Negi told me that on the day that the company terminated the workers, bouncers and police officials came to manhandle them and see to it that they did not protest. “The termination itself was unjust and to add to that, they used force to prevent us even from protesting,” he added.
That year, the workers challenged their termination in a Delhi industrial tribunal that adjudicates on labour disputes. In 2012, the tribunal held that the termination of services of the workers was “illegal and unjustified.” The court directed the company to “reinstate 272 workmen,” although it did not direct the company to pay the employees back wages for the period between 2004 and 2012. The subsequent year, the union workers approached the Delhi High Court seeking the payment of back wages, which was allowed by a single judge of the court in 2014. However, in an appeal by the company to a division bench of the high court, the court set aside the direction for back wages. In 2015, the Supreme Court dismissed an appeal challenging the division-bench judgment.
At present, there are two cases on the dispute ongoing in the Delhi High Court—a petition by the company concerning the reinstatement of the workers; and an appeal by the workers challenging the validity of the tribunal’s judgment. After the Supreme Court upheld the high court’s decision that the judgment cannot be interpreted to mandate the payment of back wages, the workers filed an appeal challenging the tribunal’s verdict itself, on the grounds that it did not direct such payment.
Members of the union claimed that Singh was the latest among several workers who died after the termination of services, due to their economic impoverishment and an inability to pay for medical expenses. “At least 24 have died and around 12 are in very bad health but have no money to afford adequate medical treatment,” Brijnath Yadav told me. Yadav said he had worked with Hindustan Times for 23 years, before being terminated. Mahesh Rai, a 64 year-old worker who said he had been employed with the printing press since 1970, added: “These things take a toll on a person.” He continued: “Despite the orders that have come in our favour, when nothing happens, it is hard to blame people for losing faith and hope.” All the union members I spoke to said they were relying on the money they received from their provident fund accounts for their daily expenses.
My conversations with the union members indicated that they did not know much about Singh except that his circumstances appeared to be becoming increasingly desperate. “All I know about him was that his father also worked here, but I did not know too much about his personal life,” Akhilesh said. When I asked the rest of the members whether Singh had ever approached them for any help, including financial or medical, several members said that Singh’s mental health had deteriorated over the years. Yadav said that Singh “somehow believed that by staying here every night, some miracle would happen.” “What he did not know is that the company is not concerned about whether or not he lives,” he added.
I made several unsuccessful attempts to contact the management of HT Media Limited for a comment. On 15 October, I sent an email to Rajiv Verma, the chief executive officer of the company, and Anand Bhardwaj, the business head of the company’s New Media Initiatives, seeking their comments on the issue. At the time this story was published, neither of them had responded.
The union members also expressed their concern about the lack of attention that their protest receives by the media. “It is ironic that this paper will send a reporter to cover the struggles of all other workers, but does not care about the struggles of their own workers,” Yadav said. I asked the group whether journalists from other publications ever approached them to enquire about the difficulties they were facing. Akhilesh said, “A few of have come and some stories have even been published in lesser known publications.” He continued, “But most often, our story never gets told because HT does not want it told.”
The protesting workers also told me that Singh, on occasion, would go to the office of the Delhi Union of Journalists to seek consolation from some of the union’s senior members. Sujata Madhok, a senior journalist and general secretary of the DUJ, said, “From what I know, the man was practically homeless and his state of mind was deteriorating rapidly.” “Many of the workers who have lost their jobs have been struggling, and despite judgements in their favour, not much has been done to change the status quo,” she added.
SK Pandey, the president of the union, told me that the death was “deplorable” and that “justice delayed is justice denied.” According to Pandey, the Hindustan Times Employees Union was “one of the strongest unions of journalists and workers, but they have been broken by the fact that judgments in their favour have not been implemented.” According to him, all the unemployed workers are victims of the company’s unfair labour practices. He added: “The maximum number of dismissals under unfair labour practices of workers and journalists in Delhi has been done by the Hindustan Times.”
Kedar Nagarajan is a web reporter at The Caravan.