Shiksha Sahayika poison

What our lives have become. Unless a spectacle of life is created no one is bothered.  The marginalised section of the society understands this insensitivity of our political class very well; be it women, people with disability, sexual minorities, religious minorities, Dalits, tribal, economically weaker and oppressed section of our society though together they are the major part of the population. The circumstances under which women are compelled to set themselves on fire in front of the office of the head of the state, courts, administrative offices, police stations tell the story of desperation, helplessness and hopelessness and insensitivity of those in power.

The work of recently deceased sociologist and human right activist Gail Omvedt, whose five decades of activism and writings involved Dalit and anti-caste movements, environmental movements, farmers’ movements and engagement with rural women, earnestly believed that We Will Smash This Prison (of oppression, exploitation, inequality, injustice, hopelessness …..) while participating in and studying the struggle of Indian women. Are we closer to her dream or where we were 50years back or further away from the goal?

The latest in this series of self-destruction are five female teachers (Shiksha Sahayika) of Shishu Shiksha Kendra (SSK) who took poison in front of the office of Education minister of West Bengal on August25, 2021. The immediate reason for finishing their lives by drinking poison is the humiliation that Anita Nath, Chobi Chaki DasHazra, Shikha Das, Jyotsna Tudu and Putul Mandal faced by the illegal and unlawful punishment transfer to hundreds of kilometre away from their residence and workplace for their peaceful protests against repressive and exploitative working conditions. Chobi Chaki, one of the protesters was transferred to a Hindi medium SSK in Jalpaiguri district from a Murshidabad District Bangla medium SSK.

The five women were rushed to hospital, where Putul Mondal is still battling for life in hospital even after 15days of hospitalisation and the rest being released after 10days of hospitalisation. Instead of sympathetic listening and attempting to resolve their problems, the police have registered FIRs against all five women. They were in ICU under the police guard. No one was allowed to meet them, their phones were seized and remained incommunicado since August25 while in hospital.

This reminds the ritual of Seppuku or Harakiri practiced in Japan to restore honour of Samurais for themselves or for their families. A spectacle of extremity needed to be created when all the means of peaceful protests are exhausted. Public suicides are being taken recourse across the country. Self-destruction is neither a drama, nor is meant for eliminating oneself. The person is left with no other choice to express her/his helpless hopelessness, sufferings, etc. The person who has suffered so much of pain, horror and indignation feels that this is the only step left. It is not a cry for attention but is a last and final cry for all that may become fatal. Who may foretell the lethality of the poison they consumed? One more sip of the poisonous solution, delay in medical attention might have killed all five of them.

On the other hand, our political leaders suffer from a wrapped sense of priority. Their interest revolves around popularity and elections. Mamata Banerjee’s government is not an exception. It is not hesitant to allot more than Rupees 1500 crores to 26,000 clubs across the state and 200 crores each year to 37,000 community Durga Puja committees whereas it has not spent a Rupee for generating employment or uplifting the standard of its poorly paid teachers.

Education in India and World Bank

In this connection, the role of World Bank on our education management may be discussed a little. With the adoption of new liberal policy by India in early 1990s, World Bank dictated country’s economic policy. At the same time, World Bank has entered in educational arena with the implementation of District Primary Education Program (DPEP). World Bank is primarily a bank that deals with money and financial transactions and is least to be expected to draw an education strategy, which is concerned with human right and good citizenship.  The argument that its proponent put is that education is required for the production of required human capital and, therefore, is a matter of economics and development while it ignores the most important role of the educational institute on the transmission of the culture and values amongst the children and learning how to socialise with others and acquiring skills to cope with the challenges of life, which must not be downgraded.  Schools should not only focus on vocational skills but also areas such as general analytical and cultural skills. Implementation of DPEP led to dismantling of the primary education system and creation of vast market for private schools, the core objective of World Bank.

The second intervention of the world Bank was in Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), said to be an extension of DPEP in 2000 towards the goal of achieving education for all and universalisation of elementary education (UEE). Implementation of SSA led to a multilayer school system rooted in discrimination that failed to achieve mandated goal of universalising elementary education (Class I to VIII) by 2010. However, it was successful in accomplishing the neo-liberal capital agenda of creating space for private actors and a market in elementary education for its 25 crore children.

When education becomes an investment and the aim is to drive profit, the exploitation and discrimination are inevitable. The imparting of knowledge will definitely be different to those who pay high fees to those who pay little or study for free. The agents of this transfer, i.e., teachers too will be paid accordingly.

NEP 2020 is the latest intervention of World Bank in Education.

School education in West Bengal

The school education department in West Bengal was formed in the year 1977. The Minister-in-Charge of School Education along with the Secretary and Secretariat are responsible for planning and policy making in all matters related to school education to be implemented by the Directorate of School Education through the inspectorate located at various tiers- like districts, sub-divisions and circles. The entire school education system has a dual control. The syllabus and the curriculum and the final evaluation are administered by the respective Boards. The financial aspects as well as the service benefits of the teachers and staff are being administered by the Department of School Education through Directorate and Inspectorate.

Established in 1990, the West Bengal Board of Primary Education (WBBPE) is the only board of its kind, entrusted with the sole authority to develop, supervise, manage and control the entire primary education, both in qualitative and quantitative terms. The functioning of the Board is decentralized at the district level, forming the District Primary Council (DPC).

The West Bengal Board of Secondary Education (WBBSE), is a State administered autonomous body having the power to advice the State Government on all matters relating to Secondary Education to lay down the general policy for the development of Secondary Education in the state. WBBSE conducts Madhyamik Examination annually all over West Bengal and also in affiliated schools of the Board located outside West Bengal.

The West Bengal Board of Madrasa Education serve as a primary educational institution for many rural Indian children. Most of the students of these Madrasas are the first generation learners coming from socioeconomically backward families. It is only in West Bengal that Madrasas are recognised by the State Government. The Board is headed by the Minister of Minorities Development & Welfare & Madrasa Education. Since the fee is nominal poor non-Muslim parents also prefer to send their children to Madrasas where the syllabus is same as regular Government schools and the certificates are recognized all over the country. Interestingly, 12 percent of the total 329,000 Madrasa students are Hindu.

With an objective to reach education among all section of men, women and children of the society irrespective of their different age groups, the State Open School under the State Education Department named Rabindra Mukta Vidhyalaya (RMV) was established in 1998. RMV imparts learning through its study-materials, as well as through many study centres scattered all over West Bengal. Procedure and rules are flexible as they were formulated taking into account the need and circumstances of the target group of the learners. The teachers are called Shiksha Bandhu and Shiksha Mitra. It caters to the educational needs of the vast population, deprived of education mainly due to socio-economic reasons and other social hurdles.

With the enactment of Right to Education Act, 2009 for the universalisation of elementary education for all the children between the age group of 6 to 14 years a twin project, District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) and Sarba Siksha Abhiyan (SSA) was launched in West Bengal. The twin projects are being carried out under Paschim Banga Rajya Shishu Siksha Mission (PBRSSM). DPEP is a seven-year programme launched by the State Government with an objective to achieve universalization of elementary education in 1997-98. Autonomous Paschim Banga Rajya Prarambhik Siksha Unnayan Sanstha, has been entrusted to ensure its successful implementation. Under this project 7527 Shishu Shiksha Kendras (SSK, alternate schooling), to impart education upto class IV, were established in the ten districts in the first stage.

SSA, too, is implemented by PBRSSM since 2003 in the state of West Bengal with the same purpose of universalisation of elementary education and further to strengthen the DPEP and is implemented in all educational districts. SSA targets the primary and the upper-primary schools in the State through Alternate Schooling. The two main components of Alternate Schooling are the Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS) and the Alternate and Innovative Education (AIE). Rabindra Mukta Vidyalaya comes under AIE and Sishu Shiksha Kendra (SSK), Sishu Shisha Prakalpa (SSP) and Madhyamik Shiksha Kendra (MSK) fall under EGS.

The programs are implemented under the supervision of the District Magistrate through Circle Resource Centre (CLRC) at circle/ block level and Cluster Resource Centre (CRC) at gram panchayat level. Programme implementation at school level was supervised by Village Education Committee (VEC), Ward Education Committee (WEC) and School Management Committee (SMC).

It was under VEC, WEC or SMC that Shishu Shiksha Kendra (SSK), and Madhyamik Shiksha Kendra (MSK) are established to provide education from Pre-primary to IV and class V to VIII respectively for enrolment and retention of children in the age group of 6 to 14 years within the schooling system. The majority of students in these schools are either never enrolled before or had never been to school or drop-outs.

Teachers of SKK, are called Shiksha Sahayika and that of MSK are Shiksha Samprasarika, who started work for Rs1,000 and Rs2,000 per month at primary and post-primary level in 2003, respectively. The qualification required was equivalent to that of normal primary and post-primary teachers in Government Schools. Important was that they should be living in the locality, within walking distance, within 2km radius of the school. Making it a job lucrative to educated unemployed women in the locality though the remuneration was pittance. Once again the state became a party in strengthening the exploitative patriarchal system!

In time, with continuous struggle, though the posts of Sahayika, Samprasarika and numerous other appointed in various schemes remained temporary, the then left-front government, in 2009, increased their fixed remuneration to Rs5,400  and Rs8,500 respectively with 5% increment every 3 years along with the approval letter to all to work till 60yrs of age and one-time retirement benefit of Rs2 to 3 lakh, if the teachers don’t seek extension after 60yrs of age (benefitting nearly 1lakh of teachers appointed in various categories). Increments were made in other categories too. Shiksha Bandhu, teachers in Rabindra Mukta Vidyalaya, were given Rs7,500. However, the provision of retirement benefit and approval to work till the age of 60, was not given to teachers recruited after 2009. The appointments now are contractual, need regular renewal.

Because of persistent agitation and demonstration, in 2019, the present government was forced to hike fixed salary for SSK teachers from Rs5,954 to Rs10,000 and Rs10,340 for SSK head teacher along with a rise from Rs8900 to Rs13,000 for MSK teacher and Rs14,000 for MSK head teacher. The State government also decided to bring SSKs and MSKs under the School Education Department from the Panchayat Department.

Who are Protesting

After bringing SSK and MSK teachers under the fold of School Education Department, the SSK, MSK teachers discovered that their so-called salary/ remuneration is far less (1/4th) to that of regular appointments while having the same qualification and equal working hours and that both categories were sharing the same school building and teaching in the same classes in the same school. This was the biggest disappointment. Discrimination was to the extent that the female SSK/ MSK teachers were not allowed maternity and child care leave (CCL).

The teachers, appointed under various schemes viz., Parateachers, Shiksha Bandhu or Shiksha Mitra, Special Educators, Madarsa Teachers, Un-aided Madarsa Teachers, Part time teachers (HS), Deen Bandhu ITI, Information and Communication Technology (ICT) project computer teachers etc. through their organisations or individually formed Shikshak Oikya Mukto Manch, an umbrella organisation with more than 15 organisations in 2018 which now has 3Lakh members, to put forward their demand of a fixed salary structure similar to that of their counterparts.

The case of Shiksha Bandhu teachers in Rabindra Mukta Vidyalaya, is most intriguing. While the then left-front government was deciding the salary of teachers according to their qualification it forgot to include Shiksha Bandhu in the Annexure I of the notice. When the omission was brought to the notice of government, it accepted the error and asked them to wait for Annexure II. Annexure II did not include qualification and all the Shiksha Bandu teachers were given a flat salary of Rs7,500. Today a Shiksha Bandhu with post graduate degree gets Rs7,500 whereas her/his counterpart in a government school gets more than Rs35,000.

The case of Shiksha Mitra is heart-rending. They were appointed under SSA in 2004 to teach in Rabindra Mukta Vidyalaya (RMV) centres and were given monthly allowance of Rs3000. In the year 2013, two years after coming to power, the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress (TMC) government reduced this allowance to Rs2,500 and also changed their designation to ‘Education Volunteers’. To rub salt into the wound this paltry sum is stopped since April 2014. It was these teachers who swam across Adiganga located behind West Bengal Chief Minister’s residence at Kalighat in Kolkata to protest against low wages in February 2021.

With the slower if not stopped fresh appointments, number of SSK and MSK teachers has reduced to the extent that the prescribed teacher student ratio of 1:30 for SSK and 1:35 for MSK under Right to Edcation (RTE) Act can never be maintained. There are many SSK and MSKs run by two teachers. Single teacher SSK and MSK too are not exception. These teachers are burdened with performing all the duties to run a full-fledged school.

Since the formation of Oikyo Mukto Mancha, the teachers are continuously fighting against this discrimination and repressive work conditions. They took out rallies in each district. Nearly a lakh of them participated in a three-day sit-in demonstration at Shahid Minar in Kolkata in January of this year after Calcutta High Court gave them permission for peaceful demonstration from January 11 to 13. They also organised protest demonstration in front of Bikas Bhavan, the office of the Minister of Education. They were brutally lathi-charged while they were going to meet the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at Nabanna (secretariat WB) to apprise her with their demands. Many were injured and 60 of them were arrested, though the program was pre-declared and the police permission for rally was also obtained. They also held protest at various election rallies of Mamata Banerjee. As a mark of protest to press their pending demands some of them jumped into Adiganga in a bid to meet Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee at her residence. Seven of them were arrested.

Instead of a sympathetic hearing by the minister or administration, the teachers were harassed. 17 in leadership were transferred to the schools hundreds of kilometres away from their residence. This transfer is illegal because the pre-requisite of these appointments is that the teachers should be living within the radius of 2Km from the school.

Maidul Islam, General Secretary of Mukto Manch, was arrested while protesting against these transfers. Incidentally Maidul, a primary teacher, too is transferred from Kulpi in South 24Parganas to 750 Km away in Cooch Bihar. Maidul along with other teachers was arrested in a protest demonstration by Anti Rowdy Squad of Kolkata Police in Kolkata on August18, 2021 He alone was taken to Jhargram, where a case of assault of Chief Minister was registered against him. Next day all the teachers including Maidul were released on bail. The teachers then decided to file an appeal against the transfer in the Calcutta High Court. While they were preparing to attend High Court to file the petition, on the morning of 23rd August, police from Anti Rowdy Squad invaded the guest house where the teachers out of Kolkata were put up in the night. A senior female teacher, who at the time of police raid was in bath room, was pulled out and was not even allowed to wear a Sari before being picked up. The 7teachers including Maidul Islam were first taken to Beleghata Thana and then to Lalbazar headquarters where they were detained whole day and were released in the evening. While the police were busy in abducting teachers who were preparing to file appeal in High Court against the arbitrary transfer, 4more were transferred.

It may also be noted that Maidul has contested Magrahat West Assembly seat as a candidate of Indian Secular Front (ISF). Presently he is a member of ISF State Committee. Maidul is specially targeted. Presently, he is staying with his in-laws at Beleghata. On the night of September10, his in-laws house was raided by nearly 200 policemen of New Town North and Beleghat PS, to arrest him. The high pitch drama continued for two hours and finally left the place without arresting him. Police, without any legal document of arrest, accused him to incite teachers to consume poison during the teacher’s agitation in front of Bikas Bhaban.

It has become a practice of government, to go all out to crush the democratic people’s movement that make space in public and is a sign of vibrant democracy. The demonstrators are brutally beaten up, tear gassed, shot and arrested under the stringent sections of draconian laws. This type of intimidation is seen during anti NRC- NPR- CCA protests, on students like in JNU, Jamia Milia and Viswa Bharti in recent time. State is becoming more and more uncaring and ruthless. The exemplary 9month old farmer’s protest against Farm laws is a pushback against the uncaring rules giving a new life to democracy.  The manner in which school education is made complicated by splitting it in various units and the confusion it created in teacher’s appointment and in their salary structure tells the story of insincerity of the government in accomplishing the goals set under RTE Act.

Lastly

Education is the backbone of our society. Education is the right of every citizen. There should be required number of teachers to maintain optimum teacher/ student ratio. Teachers must be paid well and there should be parity in their pay scale and other benefits. India being a signatory to the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, 1966, cannot escape from the obligations thereunder in view of the different provisions of the constitution. ‘Equal pay for equal work’ can be described through the interpretation of Article 14, 15 and 16 of the constitution that guarantees fundamental rights of equality before law, protection against any kind of discrimination and equal opportunities in the matter of public employment. In this connection, the case of Seema Shakya and Others vs. The Board of Secondary Education and others, in the High Court of Madhya Pradesh is worth mentioning. The court was moved by the steady decline in the standard of education in Primary and Government Sector and observed that salaries, allowances and perquisites attached to the post of primary teachers in the Government Sector should be attractive enough. The bench of Justice Sheel Nagu and Justice Deepak Kumar Agarwal further observed in its judgement dated 24.08.2021 saying, ‘In fact, a primary teacher should be one of the highest paid employee under the government so that the most meritorious available in the society is attracted.’

The role of teachers in the society is both significant and valuable. Teachers are the pillars of a sound and progressive society. They bear not only the weight and responsibility of teaching and frequently are the main source of knowledge and values for the children. They play a key role in shaping the society. Therefore, the Government of West Bengal should urgently take a cue from the Madhya Pradesh High Court Judgement and if it can’t better then, at least, bring parity in pay scale of all its teachers. The punishment transfers and police cases must be immediately withdrawn. They should avail all the perquisites enjoyed by other government teachers. The teachers are energetic, hard-working and have taken responsibility much more than the post require. Instead of dividing them in minute fragments bring them all under one administration for best performance.

Nisha Biswas is an activist based in Kolkata.


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