Against the backdrop of hectic campaigning for the 17th General Election with West Bengal’s ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) party led by chief minister Mamata Banerjee expecting to bag all of the state’s 42 seats in the Lok Sabha, around 450 youth have been on a hunger strike since February 28 in the heart of Kolkata, the admin capital of this eastern seaboard state (pop.91 million). They are on the waiting list of the School Service Commission (SSC) after having qualified for the post of assistant teachers and named in the commission’s published list of a test conducted in 2017. These youth are on an indefinite strike in front of the Press Club, Kolkata, demanding immediate filling of vacancies in West Bengal’s 92,000 government and aided schools.
The agitating youth allege non-transparency in the merit list and “backdoor appointments” by SSC. With the commission taking its own sweet time to issue appointment letters, many merit list teachers have lost hope and taken up low-paying jobs in the private sector or are working as private tutors. An application filed under the Right to Information Act, 2005 by the agitating youth indicates that of the 18,000 vacancies notified by SSC, 12,000 assistant teachers have been hired while 6,000 are on the waiting list.
The issue of filling teacher vacancies in government schools is an emotive one in West Bengal because teachers are relatively well-paid in a state where unemployment is pervasive and small and medium-scale industry salaries are low. During 34 years of uninterrupted rule of the CPM (Communist Party of India-Marxist)-led Left Front government (1977-2011) when labour militancy and violence was officially encouraged, there was 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. The damage caused to West Bengal’s economy by the flight of capital during the Left Front government rule was huge. West Bengal’s share of the total industrial output of India plunged from 9.8 percent in 1980-81 to 5 percent in 1997. The share of manufacturing in the state’s GDP declined from 21 percent in 1980-81 to 13 percent in 2000-01, according to research scholars Ajitava Raychaudhuri and Gautam Kumar Basu of Jadavpur University, Kolkata.
The School Service Commission was constituted in 1997 under the West Bengal School Service Commission Act, 1997 when the Left Front government was in power. Recruitment of teachers for government and aided schools to create employment for graduates, started in 1998 and was an annual affair till 2010.
However, the high hopes of industrial revival after the Mamata Banerjee-led TMC routed the Left Front partners in the assembly election of 2011 and again in 2016, have been belied. Instead of rejecting Marxist agitationist politics, Banerjee and TMC party cadres have continued the state’s tradition of confrontational politics which has depressed business and investment confidence necessary for generating employment.
More damagingly, senior academics have also joined the hunger strike. “We have come here to express our solidarity. We support their demands. I hope that the education ministry and SSC authorities will quickly recruit the qualified teachers,” Alok Banerjee, former vice chancellor of Kalyani University, told IANS (March 25).
Senior academics deplore that youth who topped the state government’s TET (Teacher Eligibility Test) held in 2017 haven’t yet received appointment letters, testimony to the TMC government’s lackadaisical attitude to filling teacher vacancies for the state’s 92,000 government schools. They confirm that teacher recruitment for government schools has been stymied since 2012 because of a series of scams in TET and court stay orders with thousands of youth forced into low-paid temporary jobs and idleness. Consequently, 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, exacerbating poor quality education delivered in government schools.
“By not publishing merit lists and number of teacher vacancies, the state government is actually admitting to allegations of corruption in the teacher recruitment process. Our agitation against malpractices by the state government will continue until duly qualified candidates are recruited for government schools,” says Sheikh Insan Ali, president of SSC Youth Students’ Rights.
Although the number of protesting would-be teachers on a relay hunger strike is small, their just cause and public protest which has attracted headlines in the media, is hurting Mamata Banerjee’s projected image as a decisive, can-do leader at a time when she has set her sights on sweeping all of West Bengal’s 42 seats in the Lok Sabha.
Unemployment and rising joblessness is a serious issue in West Bengal. If the just demands of the protesting qualified teachers are not met soon, Banerjee’s dream of making a clean sweep of the state’s 42 Lok Sabha seats could go up in smoke.
Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)