Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)
West Bengal’s unprecedented teacher recruitment and related scandals which have blocked the appointment of much-needed teachers in the state’s 92,000 government schools for over a decade, are in the process of being unblocked.
On September 26, Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay of the Calcutta high court issued a slew of orders directing the West Bengal School Service Commission (WBSSC) to appoint aspirants who have passed the state’s TET (Teacher Eligibility Test), and simultaneously cancelled appointments of illegally appointed teachers. As a result 250 candidates, whose appointment had been stayed by the high court because six “wrong questions” had been posed in a 2014 TET question paper, have been appointed. Moreover, Justice Gangopadhyay directed WBSSC to complete the recruitment process of 15,924 candidates for 4,150 upper primary schools and 3,929 candidates for 75,141 primary schools who have passed TET 2014 and TET 2017, but are yet to receive appointment letters.
The back story of the huge backlog in recruiting teachers for government schools is that ever since the Trinamool Congress (TMC) led by fire-brand chief minister Mamata Banerjee routed the Left Front government in the assembly elections of 2011 and was returned to power in 2016 and again in 2021, graduates who had written TET have been flooding the courts with writ petitions alleging exam malpractices, favouritism and non-merit appointments, and obtained stay orders.
For instance, 5 lakh graduates wrote TET 2014, of whom 2.4 lakh were declared passed in 2016 and 29,000 candidates short-listed for interview. But 12,000 complaints were submitted to WBSSC alleging fraud and payment of bribes to examiners and board members. Consequently, the recruitment and appointment of teachers who passed TET 2014 was stayed by several high court orders. Although 10,000 teachers were appointed in 2016 after they cleared a special state-level selection test administered by WBSSC, it has subsequently become clear that the appointments were made fraudulently.
According to Shankar Samanta, convener of the West Bengal SLST Candidates Association, since recruitment of teachers has been stalled for the past six years, 1.2 million aspirant teachers statewide with B.Ed degrees have become age-ineligible (age upper limit: 40 years) to write SLST or TET.
Following a Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) probe ordered by the Calcutta high court on April 7, it has become manifest that bribes of Rs.10 lakh for Group C and D jobs; Rs.10-12 lakh for primary teachers’ appointments, Rs.15-18 lakh for secondary and Rs.18-20 lakh for higher secondary teachers’ posts were demanded and paid to former education minister Partha Chatterjee. This was confirmed on July 23 when Rs.100 crore in cash and title deeds of 12 properties were unearthed from four upscale apartments of Chatterjee’s girl-friend, cinema actress Arpita Mukherjee. Earlier on May 21, CBI arrested president of the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education (WBBSE) Kalyanmoy Ganguly and former WBSSC chairman Soumitra Sarkar.
With the number of teacher vacancies in West Bengal’s 92,000 government schools having risen to 85,000, the average teacher-pupil ratio in government schools has risen to 1:59 against the 1:35 prescribed by the Right of Children to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009. Moreover according to the latest (2021) Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) of the Pratham Education Foundation, 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. Unsurprisingly, an estimated 20 percent of 23 million children enrolled in government schools have dropped out of school during the two years of the Covid pandemic when the TMC government locked down schools statewide for 91 weeks, the most prolonged schools lockdown of any state of the Indian Union.
With the Calcutta high court’s teacher recruitment directives of September 26 and arrest of TMC heavyweight Chatterjee revealing the sheer magnitude of the scam, chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s projected image as a decisive, can-do leader of the masses has suffered a severe dent. In an urgent damage control initiative she announced recruitment of 11,000 teachers in government primary schools following a new TET scheduled for December 11.
But the consensus within West Bengal’s intelligentsia and especially influential bhadralok (cultured middle class) is that the proclamation is too little and too late. With the TMC government having failed to conduct fair and transparent teacher recruitment exams even after 11 years in office, Banerjee’s dream of emerging as a national leader heading an anti-BJP all-parties alliance in General Election 2024 has faded.