Utterly Painful

This month, we celebrated International Literacy Day and Teachers Day with much fervor. On these days, we extol the virtues of learning and speak fiercely about the unparalleled service teachers provide to society. `Respect teachers is our overarching theme. Sadly, for the most part, it is all talk. In reality, our state and society treats teachers shabbily. Teachers recruited under the Rehbar-e-Taleem scheme are a case in point.

Once seen as the “backbone” of Jammu and Kashmir’s education system, especially in rural, mountainous and tribal areas, these 41,000-odd teachers now recurrently face humiliation. They are being dealt with batons and water cannons, for no other reason than demanding better service conditions such as the 7th Pay Commission benefits. Driven to desperation, they routinely undertake sit-ins and hunger strikes, but it seems the government (and the society at large) is hardly bothered. This apathy is shocking given that it is ultimately the largely underprivileged children in the care of these children who suffer the most.

The state has been justifying its refusal to accept ReT teacher’s demands

citing poor finances. But why is it that fiscal deficit, budgetary allocation, plan expenditure and such jargon is only bandied about when it comes to our grossly underpaid teachers – and spending on public services, generally – and not, say, the legislators, ministers, bureaucrats? If ours was a truly progressive society, we would be compensating teachers – and other providers of essential, tangible public services – much more than we do the high officialdom whose comfort is always prioritized no matter the state of the government’s finances. After all, don’t we and our leaders proclaim on such occasions as Teachers’ Day that teachers provide the most important public service?

ReT teachers, recruited under the central government’s Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme, by virtue of being deeply embedded in their local communities, have played a starring role in bringing vast numbers of marginalized groups such as Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes into the formal school education system. Sufficient data is available to show they have helped reduce the dropout rate drastically. This spells great demographic benefit for a largely young state over half whose population is under 25. In many places, these teachers have worked tirelessly to improve infrastructure, sometimes at their own expense. They have persuaded local communities to proactively engage in the learning process of their children.

It, therefore, beggars belief that they are being denied what are by any measure reasonable demands – the delinking of their salaries from the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme, confirmation of those among them who are still on contracts, 7th Pay Commission benefits. At the least, the state can show it cares about their welfare by releasing their pending meager dues. The state has promised on several occasions to redress the grievances of these teachers, only to never follow through. This is disgraceful.

It is high time we corrected the gross imbalance in how we treat and compensate our teachers and other public service providers. It is an injustice whichever way one looks at it and if we allow it to fester, our society will pay a heavy price. In fact, it already is paying. For evidence, witness the sorry state of our education and healthcare systems. This shouldn’t be surprising, for as the great Martin Luther King Jr said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”