On March 20, most homes in Kerala were deprived of their daily dose of morning newspapers. This was due to a strike called by the newspaper agents, led by the Coordination Committee of Newspaper Agents' Unions of Kerala.
The group has gone on an indefinite strike with a list of demands from newspaper publishers.
The newspaper distributors want an increase in trade discount from the current 28 per cent to 50 per cent of cover price. Normally, the trade discount in most markets range between 18-22 per cent and it was already on the higher side in Kerala - highest among the four South Indian states.
Also, Kerala is the only state where newspaper distributors take a service charge of Rs 15 to Rs 20 per title every month from the households.
Besides, the agents have also demanded that the number of pages per issue be limited to only 16, which would mean that the newspapers will have to discontinue supplements.
The newspaper distributors have also demanded other facilities like festival allowance, setting up of a welfare fund and pension, increasing the commission period to five months from the present two months, increasing travelling allowance per household and pension, among others.
Shreyams Kumar of Mathrubhumi claims that about 95 per cent agents are not interested in this strike and also hints that the strike is spurred on by political agenda.
According to him, the newspaper agents are being beaten up and forced by union members backed by a political party to not distribute the papers.
"They are trying to hold us ransom to their illogical demands but we won't give in to their threats. Anyway, the situation should turn better as not many agents are willing to go ahead with this strike," he tells afaqs!.
In fact, the incident has affected the retail ad volumes of the Malayalam dailies, which have come down by about 20 per cent because of the stir, as per industry estimates. However, there is no change in the national ad volumes.
Some of the major papers of Kerala include Malayala Manorama, New Indian Express, Mathrubhumi, The Hindu, Deccan Chronicle, Deshabhimani and the recently launched The Times of India.
According to an official communiqué released by Indian Newspaper Society (INS), the only major newspaper that is not facing any resistance is Deshabhimani. Industry sources have also informed afaqs! that the small newspapers have remained unaffected by this strike.
The area worst affected by the strike is the Malabar region. While The Hindu had to cancel its Kerala editions, The New Indian Express also cancelled its Kozhikode edition for a day.
While most of the newspaper companies are in a mood to relent to the demands of newspaper agents, Malayala Manorama has announced that within a year, it will place inserting machines in all its unit areas, each costing about Rs 10 crore, thus addressing one of the demands of no supplement by agents.
Rajagopalan Nair, chief general manager, circulation, Malayala Manorama, says, "This is a politically motivated strike. It doesn't make business sense to pay a commission of Rs 2 every day for a newspaper priced at Rs 4. Even Deshabhimani pays Rs 1.08 commission per copy, but it is not facing any resistance, which clearly talks about the state of affairs."
He adds that the direct pickups by readers are happening at various units of Malayala Manorama.
Another major newspaper, on condition of anonymity, says, "We do not negotiate with the political unions because all the political parties have their own agenda and they would like to manipulate the media to their advantage. Therefore, when a news item which is not palatable to a political party appears in the newspaper, the concerned political union could create problems and even call for boycott of the newspaper under some pretext or the other. This is the stand we have in respect of all political parties."
The move by newspaper agents has also drawn flak from the Indian Newspaper Society (INS). Ashish Bagga, president, INS, in an official communiqué, says, "Though the trade discounts offered by all Malayalam newspapers are identical, they have excluded some of the political party newspapers from the strike, thereby exposing the political motives behind the so-called indefinite strike."
The INS adds that despite the fact that publishing houses and agents do not share an 'employer-employee' relation, the publishing houses of Kerala give possible financial assistance in terms of reimbursement of reasonable hospital expenses to agents and their family members, and also provide accident insurance.