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In the 1990s migration, the state broadcaster lost eighty percent of its human resource which made running the show very difficult. An alternative emerged by hiring cheap labour that eventually picked up the skill. Instead of accommodating these men and women behind the showmen, the Radio Kashmir closed doors on them for many weeks till pressures within and outside forced a reopening, reports Saima Bhat

Casual employees of Radio Kashmir.

After September 07, 2014, floods devastated Kashmir; Radio Kashmir (RK) resumed its services from the Shankaracharya hills and started their live-in programs to help people reunite with their families. But the announcers were making desperate announcements for at least for two days to locate their two employees: senior programmer Talha Jahangir and his programme assistant Azad Ahmad Chiloo, who were last heard on previous Sunday at 5.36pm on-Air before the flood water touched them to their knees.

Less than four years later, on July 18, 2018, the RK gatekeeper informed Azad that he and his 26 other ‘casual employees’ won’t be allowed to enter the premises. Reason: their contract has expired.

“How would it feel when a gatekeeper will tell you that you are not allowed to enter after serving the institution for 13 long years? Some of us had served for more than 20 years?” asks Azad. “We are not staffers, but during strikes and shutdowns we have worked 24×7.”

Azad was engaged by RK on January 01, 2005, soon after he passed his twelfth class. Then, he used to participate in plays and some employee asked him if he could work as a casual labour. Azad’s father was caught in cross-firing in 1992, and killed in Zaina Kadal, outside his house. The thought about the responsibilities of his widowed mother and two sisters made Azad quickly accept the offer. While working as a ‘casual labour’, he picked up the art of broadcasting and soon became a favourite name for the broadcasters to assist them as programme assistant. His work included editing, mixing, dubbing, recording, outdoor broadcast recording. He literally became the technical expert.

Any casual labourer at RK, as per rules, is expected to work for six days in a month, but Kashmir being the special case, these ‘employees’ were allowed to continue throughout the month but paid for only 24 (below the age of 40) or 29 (in case of above 40 years) days at the cost of Rs 700 a day.

Azad also used to earn Rs 16,800 per month and his hope to get permanent someday kept him going. During the mass unrests of 2008, 2009, 2010 and 2016, Azad would stay back in the RK, as unknown people would threaten his family, seeking his discontinuation with Radio.

As Srinagar was getting inundated in the 2014 floods, the last programme that was broadcasted live on Sunday at 5.36 pm was done by Talha and Azad. “I still remember Talha Sir telling me to leave the office but I said no because why should have I left my Radio alone when it needed me the most,” Azad said. “We had reported at 9 am that day, and throughout the day we had nothing to eat. We went to the canteen where there was some leftover rice of the previous day that we ate.”

It was only after the request of engineering head who asked them to stop broadcast because water had inundated CPU of the station and it could have resulted in a short circuit if not switched off.

Azad left with Talha in his car and took a left turn after coming out of the RK gate but at the same time the nearby bund had a breach and they were caught in 6 feet of water. “Luckily we both knew swimming and we came out of the car. After sailing through the tops of some buses and then on huge signboards we managed to reach Dalgate, which was a safer area then.”

After 15 days, Azad started developing abdominal pain and his urine blocked. When he reached the hospital and did the prescribed tests, he was suggested for an emergency gallbladder surgery because it had developed serious infection by taking in floodwater. Post removal, Azad developed blisters all over his body and it led him to depression. He is still on anti-depressants.

But he resumed his work from the temporary station in Narbal during 2016 unrest after the killing of Burhan Wani closed Kashmir for almost six months. Risking their lives, Azad and his other colleagues were coming to the office daily. As life in the old city became difficult, Azad migrated to city outskirts. At the peak of 2016 unrest, a mob tried to set them afire in the vehicle that was driving them home.

In the 2018 autumn, RK closed doors on them as the system engineers conveyed that they have apprehensions that “we might put the system on fault” because “we are better experts than them”.

The 27 casual labourers, who had to fight a “humiliating battle” to reopen the gates, are RK’s highly skilled workers. They owe their existence to the migration in the 1990s that left RK almost empty, as eighty percent staff comprised Pandits. In that desertion, the process of permitting the ‘labourers’ to work for the entire month started. The immediate impact was that the government also enforced migration on the news sections of the RK and Doordarshan. While DD moved to Delhi, RK stayed in Jammu.

“Kashmir became a special case because of the conflict. Nobody dared to work with RK, and the ones who did are the real heroes who kept RK alive,” one insider in the RK said. “These labourers rose from a different position, learnt the art while working. Their good work has been appreciated by All India Radio, Delhi and union ministers.”

Most of the 90’s batch of these labourers have retired years back. Now, the new batch has been supporting the RK stay alive even with “90 per cent staff deficiency”.

In February 2012, one minister raised this question in the Parliament and the case was sent to a parliamentary committee. They investigated the case and drafted recommendations under which the RK, Commercial Broadcasting Service (CBS) of RK and Doordarshan Kendra, Srinagar were asked to follow certain guidelines.

Casual announcers, who were getting bookings for 29 days were supposed to be engaged on a contract basis and it should continue till they attain the age of 60, one recommendation said. They should be taken under minimum wages act, and if the casual labourers who are booked for six days only but they work for all 30/31 days should be paid actual dues without any delay.

But out of these ten recommendations, the three stations of the official broadcaster, through an RTI, accepted that they have implemented only three recommendations.

In 2016, a team reached RK for its yearly inspection. They, according to the permanent employees of RK, asked them to reduce the services of casual labourers to six days only.

“These are labourers, who are governed by labour laws, are highly skilled and are not artists,” one senior officer of the RK, who agreed to talk anonymously, said. Artists, under the prevailing norms, can be hired for only six days a month.“These men and women have served RK for last 7 to 20 years during the years of turmoil. And now when the situation has improved these poor staffers are asked to vacate. The majority of RK employees who were killed during turmoil were amongst this list of casual labourers.” The officer said closing doors on them was “purely injustice” and because of their absence “we are suffering as we lack technical staff”. The last recruitment in RK happened in 1996.

As on date, the RK has three staffers under staff artists and composer against the vacancy of 22. They have one librarian against four positions; two transmission executives/production assistants against the vacancy of 28 and the station does not have a single regular security guard!

Presently these ‘casuals’ after putting in their services for almost two decades have been asked to reduce their working days to just six in a month, which will fetch them around Rs 4200 a month. This was done on basis of a report from a yearly audit committee. The casuals had no option but to move to the High Court. A direction came for the status quo but the casuals alleged that it was never implemented.

Riyaz Ahmad Ganie, 32, another program assistant, said they got hands on a long-term contract with their names on the contract order dated 2013-14, signed by the then deputy director general All India Radio, Bashir Arif. The contract was for around thirty employees but it was implemented on class-IV grade employees only, who are non-skilled he says.

“But we were never shown this order, may be because they had to give us the highly skilled staff, a consolidated salary of around Rs 22000 with six monthly increments, prescribed working hours, festivals, paid off days and other benefits, but nothing was ever implemented. Radio Kashmir and Doordarshan both work under Prasar Bharati but this particular order was implemented for Doordarshan only and not for the RK and associated services,” says Riyaz.

Interestingly, the RK managers do not accept them as skilled people. But they are making them pay professional service tax! “They withhold our wages for a few months till the due amount becomes taxable and then they deduct taxes,” said Riyaz. Since July 2018, Riyaz alleged that neither they were given any salary nor their attendance record was maintained. “Earlier we had biometric attendance and then we had log books, section signature books and even the broadcast programmes mentioned our names as well but they have removed our credits now,” Riyaz said, indicated a serious crime. “You will hear Abdul Rashid Nizami’s, a casual announcer, voice in a programme but you won’t find his attendance anywhere.”

RK has only five to seven permanent employees, including program executives (Pex). “These Pex are not there after qualifying any exam, they are simply because they fought a case in court and it was after court’s direction that they got their recruitment orders,” one ‘casual’ alleged.

Riyaz was hired in 2003 when he had passed his twelfth standard. Some senior officer in AIR told them that they will get double time benefits as their routine working schedule was from 8 am to 9.30 pm with no holidays. “Our job doesn’t require a night duty but we have spent countless nights in the studio without any sleeping arrangements,” Riyaz said. “Earlier, there were no computers and we used to record on tapes.”

Casual employees briefing Advisor Kumar about their service issues.

In 2018, Iliyas, another program assistant, says they were hopeful their daily wages would increase from Rs 700 a day to Rs 1300. They were thrown out and their wages stand withheld since June, instead.

“They wanted to weaken us financially, so that, we don’t go to Central Administrative Tribunal (CAT), in Chandigarh, but, jointly, we managed to do it and that through High Court Srinagar,” Illiyas said. “It is most probably for the first time that state High court accepted our case which is related to a central company.”

But the crisis has cost them all. Their female colleagues have almost crossed the marriageable age. “We don’t get better marriage proposals because we are working with RK,” one female program assistant said. “This has given us a bad name and a few of us have already crossed the age of 40 years. Why are we doing this?”

Their another colleague Sarfaraz Ahmad Khan added that recently when they had no money in hand, he and Azad went for painting a shop.

Sarfaraz, 32, a science graduate with a diploma in computers was engaged by RK in January 2010.

“My father was a laboratory technician at a government hospital but after my mother was diagnosed with cancer in 2002, all his earnings and saving were spent on her treatment,” Sarfaraz said. “Later, I and my father lifted hefty bank loan to settle my sisters. Presently I have to repay my loan with an instalment of Rs 6000 monthly but I don’t have a single penny in my hand.”

Iliyas, almost holding back his tears, said his mother asked for Rs 20 but he had nothing in his pocket. His wife has given him an ultimatum that she will have to leave him if he does not get his job back.

When contacted Nawaz Ahmad Nengroo, program executive and K Murugan, DDG (engineering), didn’t receive calls repeatedly and did not respond to texts as well. CBS head Rabia Rasool, however, received the call but refused to comment saying she is ‘just following the order of RK head Nawaz.’

After putting in a lot of effort, the RK doors reopened for 27 men and women on November 15. The tensions still remain. But the two sides are face-to-face.

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