– Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)
With only six months to go before the legislative assembly election is held in West Bengal next summer, chief minister Mamata Banerjee is seeking a third five-year term in office for the Trinamool Congress government. But it’s up against a resurgent BJP which bagged an unprecedented 18 seats (out of 42) in last year’s Lok Sabha election, and has set a target of 200 (out of 294) seats in the next legislative assembly. To woo the public, Banerjee has announced several education sector initiatives to the electorate which accords unusually high importance to public education.
To start with, several government colleges in Kolkata have slashed admission fees by almost 60 percent for undergraduates, citing financial hardships suffered by middle class households during the pandemic. More recently on November 11, Banerjee announced that of the 120,000 graduates (out of 2 million) who passed the Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) in 2014 — 100,000 have been shortlisted for appointment. In addition 16,500 will receive appointment letters from government soon. Moreover, she also announced that the next TET exam (scheduled for 2017) for which about 2.5 lakh candidates have registered, will be held as soon as the Coronavirus pandemic eases in 2021.
These teacher recruitment announcements have generated some euphoria in West Bengal which has witnessed widespread protests by the rising number of educated unemployed. However, opposition parties claim that only 35,000 of the 120,000 graduates who passed TET 2014 got jobs until 2018, after which recruitment was stalled by several high court orders following a spate of writ petitions alleging examination malpractices and favouritism in selecting TMC cadres and sympathisers. Against this, the total number of teacher vacancies in the state’s 92,000 government primaries is estimated at 75,000. Meanwhile even after the November 11 announcement, the additional number recruited is 16,500 which will leave the remaining 3,500 qualified candidates in the lurch.
According to Tulsi Masant, convenor of the DL.Ed (diploma in elementary education) Students Forum which has been protesting the TMC government’s inertia in teacher recruitment, Banerjee has prioritised doles and freebies for voters over filling teacher vacancies in government schools. “Many, who have been preparing for TET since 2014 but could not write it as the exam hasn’t been conducted, have lost precious years and may have crossed the age bar. This has dashed the dreams of tens of thousands of aspiring teachers in a state where employability options are few. Besides, it is already the election season and nothing will move until a new government is sworn in next year,” says Masant.
The issue of filling teaching vacancies in public education which promises half decent pay is an emotive one in West Bengal where unemployment is pervasive and small and medium-scale industry salaries are rock-bottom. During 34 years of uninterrupted rule of the CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist)-led Left Front government (1977-2011), labour militancy and violence was officially encouraged and there was a continuous flight of capital and industry from the state. As a result, overt and disguised unemployment is rife and government — including teachers — jobs are highly prized. However, high hopes of an industrial revival after the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC routed the Left Front government in the assembly election of 2011 and again in 2016, have been belied. TMC party cadres have continued the state’s tradition of agitational politics which depressed business and investment confidence necessary for generating employment.
Currently, with minimal private investment flowing into the state and teachers’ recruitment process stalled by corruption charges, the number of registered educated unemployed has risen to 7.6 million. Consequently, TMC is confronted with the ire of Bengal’s educated middle class with whom Mamata Banerjee has been mending fences in recent years by placing education high on her reforms agenda.
Inevitably, these agitations have also provided BJP, which is going all out to oust Banerjee from power in next year’s assembly election, the opportunity to fish in troubled waters. Continuous public protests are also hurting Banerjee’s projected image as a decisive, can-do leader at a time when she has a high third-term anti-incumbency mountain to climb.