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Sunday, April 2, 2023

Mamata Banerjee regains CM chair; what next for teachers who had consumed poison in protest?

That TMC supremo Mamata Banerjee will win the Bhabanipur constituency and retain her position as the state Chief Minister was an open secret. Though Priyanka Tibrewal was a strong candidate, her victory in Mamata’s home seat was unquestionable. Now that the election rallies and fiestas are over, and Banerjee regains complete unquestioned authority over the state, we are left with one throbbing question – what about the regular civilians of the state? 

That the state has seen no economic growth and witnessed a heavy brain drain since the past decade is well known. There are no infrastructure or job opportunities in West Bengal and the few people who have jobs provided by the state government are extremely unsatisfied and resort to strikes almost regularly. 

It has been over a month that a group of teachers, out of sheer disappointment, consumed poison in a protest. This kind of news should have rocked the country, but they were relegated to a lesser-read news link in a handful of news platforms and denied the national level attention this horrifying incident was worthy of. 

Teachers consume poison

Anima Nath, Sikha Das, Putul Mondal, Chhobi Das, Joshua Tudu, and Mandira Sardar are contractual teachers in West Bengal’s primary schools and are members of a society of para teachers Sikshak Oikyo Mukta Mancha. The five lady teachers have been staging protests demanding a hike in the salaries of the teachers of Sishu Shiksha Kendra (SSK) and Madhyamik Shiksha Kendra (MSK) and also sought regularization of services.

The state administration, allegedly, in response to their protests and demands, had issued them transfer notices to schools of such remote areas in Maldah, that was 300 kilometers away from their homes but in different districts. These teachers get minimal stipends of around 10,000 as remuneration with which they can hardly make their ends meet. On top of this, if they are made to relocate to unknown areas, far from their homes and families, how would they sustain themselves?

They will have to provide for running their families in their home location, relocate to a different district, rent accommodation there and run another establishment – all this is impossible to be managed in the scanty salaries given to these teachers. It is not difficult to understand that these transfers were a penalty handed out to these teachers for raising voices against Mamata Banerjee’s ministry. 

The teachers wanted to meet the education minister Bratya Basu seeking clarification as to why not only were their demands not met but they were transferred to remote locations as well. They have been holding a demonstration in front of Basu’s residence, and when he didn’t come out to meet the teachers, they resorted to consuming pesticides outside the state education departments’ headquarters on August 24th.

One of the teachers was stopped before she could consume the poison, while the other four were rushed to the Nil Ratan Sircar Medical College and Hospital and RG Kar hospital where their stomachs were washed out and they were kept under observation.

 “I am Putul Mondal, I teach at Surya Sen Sishu Siksha Kendra. My home is at Bakkhali (in south Bengal), I have been transferred to Dinhata in Cooch Behar (in north Bengal). We want to meet Bratya Bose. They are not letting us. So we are drinking poison,” said one of the teachers before consuming the toxin from the bottles and collapsed immediately after drinking the substance. The incident was recorded on camera by media and onlookers. All these teachers were aged between 46 and 59 and hailed from financially backward families. 

On September 15th, the Calcutta High Court ordered an interim stay on the transfer of these teachers from Hooghly to Malda district after petitioner Anima Nath’s advocates submitted that though the transfer order was issued, the government has no such policy for contractual teachers. The next hearing of the case will be on November 30th. 

Now with Mamata Banerjee returning as the Chief Minister with a full mandate, these teachers are left vulnerable and uncertain of the future that lies ahead of them. Given that the TMC government is accused not only of transferring officials that fall out of their favor but also of launching fatal attacks on civilians with differing ideologies, one can only hope for the safety of these teachers, though not with absolute assurance. 

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