Ever since general election 2019 in which the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) won 18 of the 42 seats allotted to West Bengal (pop. 91 million) in the Lok Sabha, and the number of seats of the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) party dropped from 34 to 22, chief minister Mamata Banerjee has been on the back foot. Although high rankings awarded to the state government-run Calcutta and Jadavpur universities by the London-based Quacquarelli Symonds’ (QS) World University Rankings (WUR) was a morale booster, statewide protests by teachers of West Bengal’s 92,000 government and government-aided schools in November have plunged Banerjee into another sea of troubles. On November 6, the state’s primary school teachers demanding a 72 percent pay increase choked south Kolkata for over six hours. Moreover, since November 11, more than a thousand para-teachers are demanding upward rationalisation of their pay scales.
Primary school teachers want education minister Partha Chatterjee to fulfil his promise to increase their salaries and bring them on a par with their counterparts in other states. They claim that while government primary teachers’ pay scales in neighbouring states are in the Rs.9,300-34,800 per month range, in West Bengal the scale is Rs.5,400-25,200. In support of this parity demand, teachers had gone on an indefinite hunger strike on July 25 which lasted for 18 days. They temporarily withdrew the strike after the state government agreed to meet their demands with effect from August 1. Four months later with no progress in this matter, the disgruntled teachers have launched renewed protests.
Simultaneously, thousands of para-teachers from Bengal’s government schools are protesting under the banner of Para Teachers’ Aikya Mancha in front of Bikash Bhavan, education minister Partha Chatterjee’s office, for over three weeks demanding the pay scale of assistant teachers. After the protest reached its sixth day on November 15 without any response from Chatterjee, 34 of the protesting teachers launched an indefinite hunger strike. Moreover in solidarity, 48,000 para-teachers across West Bengal have been boycotting classes since November 18.
The para-teachers’ grievances are that they are assigned the duties of regular teachers and made to work long hours without the financial benefits accruing to regular teachers. On August 16, they began a hunger strike, but s.144 (IPC) was imposed in the area forcing them to take their agitation to Kalyani, 55 km from Kolkata, where the police brutally lathi charged them.
According to service rules of the Pay Commission, state governments pay 40 percent of the salaries of para- teachers with the remaining 60 percent transferred to the state by the Central government. The protesting teachers allege that they only receive the state government’s 40 percent. The Centre’s allocation is received by the state government but diverted for expenses such as decorating government buildings and running various populist schemes.
Para-teachers are non-permanent teachers of the West Bengal education ministry who were appointed between 2007-2009 by the CPM (Communist Party of Marxist)-led Left Front government to maintain a healthy teacher-pupil ratio. At that time, they started with a monthly salary of Rs.5,000 for teaching in primaries and Rs.8,000 in upper primaries. In 2018, their salaries were raised to Rs.10,000 and Rs.13,000 respectively. On the other hand, a state government full-time teacher averages Rs.24,000 in primary, rising to Rs.34,000 per month in upper primary classes.
As the indefinite fast by para-teachers entered its eleventh day on November 25, inevitably, education minister Partha Chatterjee blamed the predecessor CPM-led Left Front government which misruled West Bengal for 34 years uninterruptedly (1977-2011). Addressing the media, Chatterjee said, “Despite fiscal constraints, we increased pay of para-teachers last year. To raise them again this year will impose severe strain on the budget. We can’t follow the CPM model of populist governance,” says Chatterjee.
Teacher unrest has been a major headache for the TMC ever since Banerjee routed the CPM in the state assembly elections of 2011, and again in 2016. Recruitment and appointment of a large number of teachers who passed the Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) held in 2015 is still hanging fire because of court stay orders following writs filed by unsuccessful teachers alleging exam malpractices.
Consequently, the average teacher-pupil ratio of government schools has risen to 1:59 against the 1:35 prescribed by the Right of Children to Free & Compulsory Education (RTE) Act, 2009.
Academia that initially supported the TMC government is now disillusioned with Banerjee, whose promise to usher in radical poribartan (change) in education has remained unfulfilled, particularly in school education. With the West Bengal legislative assembly election scheduled for 2021, teacher unrest could well prove to be TMC’s Achilles heel.
Baishali Mukherjee (Kolkata)