Bihar's striking contractual teachers left to fend for themselves amid lockdown

More than 400,000 teachers suffer from financial crunch, 60 die so far

By Mohd Imran Khan
Published: Friday 24 April 2020
Students in a school near Bihar's Bodh Gaya Photo: José Antonio Morcillo Valenciano/Flickr

More than 400,000 school teachers in Bihar — locally known as niyojit shikshaks or teachers on contract — were left in the lurch, with 60 of them dying so far, after an indefinite strike called by them entered its 68th day on April 24, 2020.

The strike continued even as the nationwide lockdown — invoked by the Union government to curb the spread of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) — resulted in a severe financial crunch for the teachers, as the Bihar government withheld their salaries for the months of February and March.

The teachers remain neglected and ignored, despite wanting a dialogue with the state government to postpone the strike keeping the lockdown in mind. The government, however, has ignored their demands till date.

The teachers suffered mounting mental stress from the non-payment of salaries, Brajnandan Sharma, the convenor of the Bihar Rajya Shikshak Sangharsh Samanvay Samiti, an umbrella teachers’ association comprising of 26 smaller associations, told Down To Earth on April 24.

Some of the 60 teachers died from heart attacks, brain haemorrhages and other chronic diseases due to lack of proper treatment.

“We are still waiting for a response from the government. It is unfortunate that the government is indifferent, despite the death of 60 striking teachers,” said Sharma, a retired 95-year-old teacher, who was jailed in the 1942 Quit India Movement.

More teachers may die in the coming days, he said, as the government has not bothered with them.

“The government should give us a written assurance to invite us for a dialogue to discuss our demands if it wants us to postpone the strike and join hands to fight COVID-19,” he said, adding that the strike cannot be called off on a mere appeal by Bihar’s education minister in the name of fighting the pandemic.

Krishnandan Prasad Verma, the education minister, remained unavailable for comment, with no response from his private secretary and personal staff.

RK Mahajan, the additional chief secretary of the Education Department, however, refuted the allegations, calling them baseless.

Four striking teachers died on April 22 and April 23, according to Manoj Kumar, the media in-charge of the association.

Bachcha Pandit, the headmaster of a middle school in West Champaran district and three teachers — Anita Kumari from Madhubani district, Mohd Shamim from Purnea district and Hira Lal from Sheikhpura district — died in a span of two days, Kumar said.

“56 striking teachers died till April 21 as they faced financial crunches. They failed to manage their families and were unable to arrange proper treatment for the ailments they suffered from,” he added.

Some teachers began to sell vegetables to earn money as they had no other option, according to local reports.

The state government took strict action against more than 30,000 teachers by not just suspending and dismissing them, but also filing First Information Reports against them, claimed the teachers’ association.

The teachers were also suspended without any show cause notice, the association said.

They were demanding equal pay for equal work since February 17, with another demand being reversal to an old pension scheme.

The strike badly hit teaching across 72,000 primary and middle schools, until the government announced the schools would have to shut because of the lockdown.

The state government earlier decided to pay salaries only for the month of January to the striking teachers.

A senior official of the Education Department said the government will not pay salaries to striking teachers for the strike period.

Striking teachers would be marked absent and their salaries deducted on the basis of the no-work-no-pay principle, the education minister had earlier warned.

There has, since, been no move to open dialogue with the teachers.

The state government also made it clear that it will not fulfil the teachers’ demand of equal pay for equal work.

A decision from the Supreme Court last year was also in favour of the state government.

The apex court refused to regularise the jobs of the contractual teachers and pay them salaries at par with permanent teachers, setting aside an earlier Patna High Court judgement.

The state government had challenged the high court's order that said contractual teachers in government schools were entitled to salaries at par with regular teachers.

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