Para teachers collective had filed a petition seeking deadline relaxation for an activity amid COVID-19 pandemic
The Calcutta High Court August 24, 2021 directed the West Bengal government “through the learned Advocate General” to let para-teachers (those not on the rolls) in the state “live in peace” and help them get both doses of the COVID-19 vaccine.
The para teachers had filed a petition seeking deadline relaxation for an activity amid the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. A new order was issued August 26 in line with the HC judgment.
What was the petition about?
The petition — Madhumita Bandopadhyay & Anr Vs the State of West Bengal & Ors — was filed seeking repeal of a June 30 order by the state project director, Paschim Banga Samagra Shiksha Mission, according to which para-teachers were asked to complete ‘child registers’ within 21 days.
To do so, teachers had to go door-to-door to three-four booths across the block, panchayats, municipality, etc in their jurisdiction and document every minute detail of the children there.
Para-teachers have been fulfilling this responsibility for years; they did so this time as well. They wanted the deadline be extended owing to panic and fears stoked by the pandemic, according to petitioners.
State representatives met the state project director and requested that the deadline be extended, but to no effect. The teachers waited for a week, after which they wrote a letter to the chief minister, education minister and state secretary of the education department. Again, no action was taken.
The representatives, after another seven days's wait, took legal action.
The demands were:
Sabir Ahamed, national research co-coordinator of Paratichi Trust, said:
“Para-teachers have been denied recognition in terms of remuneration or work responsibilities for long. In many places, their number has increased. In fact, they are working as substitute of the teachers. While the teachers who had election duties were vaccinated through government initiative, para teachers were not.”
Pratichi, formed by Noble laureate Amartya Sen, works for rural education. He added that the judgment will offer them long-term protection and security.
Madhumita Bandopadhyay, the representative of petitioners, said: “We said we would complete our duties like we did in December last year. We wanted all teachers to be vaccinated, too. But the state ignored our vulnerable request and we had to move court. This is a moral victory for us.”
The petition was filed from Manab Sampad Unnayan Sahayak Karmee Union, the largest organisation of para-teachers in the state.
The secretary, education department, had not contacted to this organisation when Down to Earth reached out to Bandopadhyay August 30. An administrative officer, however, unofficially contacted Bandopadhyay and conveyed that the education minister was planning to have a meeting with them soon.
According to Bandopadhyay, the state does not provide many provisions to para teachers affected in the line of duty. One ‘Swasthya Sathi Card’ has been given to them, but it is not accepted everywhere and does not give many benefits.
The state does not provide any compensation if any teacher dies of COVID-19.
What do para teachers do
The duties of the para-teachers include:
Para-teachers have been taking online classes and also physically attending schools for other activity work since February 2021. They have also been supervising the mid-day meal distribution in schools, the main source of nutrition for under-privileged students.
There also the teachers who are not fully vaccinated remain vulnerable as the crowd cannot be avoided – the guardians are thronging to collect the food supplies. Approximately 48,000 para teachers across West Bengal are working risking their health and lives even in this pandemic.
A few para-teachers were issued show-cause notice when the petition was under trial. Judge Abhijit Gangopadhyay, who passed the judgment, said: “In the same tune I will request the state through the learned Advocate General not to make their lives miserable by taking disciplinary action against them. Let them live in peace.”
He added that para-teachers did not evade their duty and only wanted “some respite in this situation and they wanted some preference of vaccination, both doses.”
Advocate Sudipta Dasgupta, who represented the petitioners in the court, pointed out: “Several para-teachers were not fully vaccinated. Children were not, too. We are skeptical about the vaccination status of the children’s parents also. Nobody has the data.”
The judgement, in a way, recognised the para-teachers as frontline workers in the fight against COVID-19, both Ahamed and Dasgupta said.
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