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West Bengal: Banerjee’s Achilles heel

EducationWorld January 2023 | Education News Magazine
-Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)

Even as west Bengal’s monu­mental teachers’ recruitment scandal in which cash moun­tains of Rs.100 crore were discovered in the palatial home of actress Arpita Mukherjee, mistress of education minister Partha Chatterjee, is being investigated by the CBI and Enforce­ment Directorate (ED), the West Bengal Board of Primary Education (WBBPE) held a fresh Teachers’ Eligibility Test (TET) on December 11. In the new TET held after an interregnum of five years, 690,931 college and university graduates wrote the test to qualify for 11,000 primary teachers’ positions in West Bengal’s 92,000 government-owned and aided schools. TET 2022 of 150 minutes duration was held in 1,460 exam centres statewide amid heavy security and police presence.

Although there are reports of exam paper leakages, cheating, im­personation etc — which have been a feature of previous TETs — at the time of writing, candidates are ap­prehensive about behind-the-scenes marking and paper substitution scams which have stymied teacher recruitment since 2014. That’s because the Calcutta high court has taken a dim view of teacher recruit­ment scandals in the state and has frequently cancelled flawed TETs and stayed recruitment. On Decem­ber 6, Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay said he would, “cancel the appoint­ment of 42,000 candidates who had passed TET 2014 if they are found to have been recruited illegally”. This comment was made after WBBPE published the detailed scores of TET 2014 qualified candidates following orders of the Calcutta high court. It was found that some candidates had scored 10.96 points out of the maxi­mum 10 in a TET higher secondary paper. WBBPE explained this away as a technical error.

Government school teachers’ jobs are highly prized in this state which suffered sustained capital flight and de-industrialisation during 34 years (1977-2011) of uninterrupted rule by the CPM (Communist Party of Marxist) where unemployment (7.6 million registered unemployed youth) is pervasive and small and medium scale industry salaries are rock-bottom. A government school teacher’s job with starting pay of Rs.33,000 per month after imple­mentation of the Sixth Pay Commis­sion recommendations in 2020, is so highly prized that families desper­ate for sons and daughters to be employed as teachers in government schools often sell property and/or take loans to pay upto Rs.20 lakh as bribes to government officials to land these jobs.

Therefore since 2015, disgruntled TET failures and civil activists have filed a string of petitions, obtained ten recruitment and appointment stay orders, CBI investigation and more than 1,000 appointment orders have been revoked even as educa­tion minister Chatterjee and former WBBPE chairman Manik Bhattacha­rya have been arrested.

With recruitment for government schools stymied since 2012 because of a series of scams in recruitment tests and pending court cases, thou­sands of youth who aspire to teach in government schools are suffering ex­treme frustration. And with no fresh SLST (state level standard testing) or TET exam held in the past five years, 1.2 million aspirant teachers statewide who acquired B.Ed degrees have now become age-ineligible (age upper limit: 40 years) to write TET/ SLST.

With teacher recruitment at a standstill, it’s hardly surpris­ing that the latest (2021) Annual Status of Education Report of the Pratham Education Foundation indi­cates that the percentage of class VII children in government schools who cannot read and comprehend class III textbooks has risen from 23.7 percent in 2014 to 31.7 percent in 2021. With primary-secondary edu­cation experiencing severe pandemic disruption, West Bengal’s GER (gross enrolment ratio) in higher education has also experienced a steep fall. According to the All India Survey on Higher Education (AISHE, 2018), the state’s GER is 19.3 percent against the national average of 27.1 percent.

Increasingly the blame for West Bengal’s teacher recruitment freeze is being placed at the door of the state’s chief minister Mamata Baner­jee, now in her third term in office.

“The teacher recruitment scam has made a mockery of Baner­jee’s famous electoral promise of paribartan (change) in the education sector. Eighty percent of recruitment in schools during her rule is illegal. This has been such an elaborate scam that it is unbelievable that the chief minister was unaware of what was happening,” says Sujan Chakraborty, CPI (M) central committee member, a former MLA and Lok Sabha MP.

The consensus of opinion is that the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) founded by Banerjee, which routed the CPM in 2011 and has ruled over Bengal since, has inherited the corruption and extortion culture of CPM cadres. With close aides and minister Partha Chatterjee being ousted as corrupt careerists, Banerjee’s image as a simple-living high thinking leader is taking a hit.

With her seeming lack of ur­gency about teacher recruitment and apathy about the future of children in public schools, the chief minister is fast losing the support of not only Kolkata’s influential bhadralok (cul­tured middle class) but the grassroot voters as well.

Also Read: West Bengal: Unwashable scandal

West Bengal: Teacher deficit fallout

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