Hemlata lost her husband in tragic circumstances in January this year. He was a regular primary school teacher in one of the government schools under the North Delhi corporation. Delhi's children, lakhs of them, belonging to families of the urban poor, attend primary schools run by the three municipal corporations in the north, east and south of Delhi. Her husband Khemchand taught in such a school in Chandni Chowk since 1997 and his last drawn salary was Rs 58,000.
Khemchand was taking care of his widowed mother, his wife Hemlata, five children and his single sister. He belonged to a landless Dalit family originally from Alwar in Rajasthan. He was the first of his family to get a government job having worked hard, educated himself and qualified to be a teacher. He had no other source of income and was the sole breadwinner of his family.
In the last three years, his salary payment had become irregular. He would not be paid for three or four months and then just get one month's salary. He was owed lakhs of rupees in arrears by the government, but instead he was forced into debt. In October, the salary stopped completely. He worked free, without a salary for three months, sinking deeper into depression, living through sleepless nights while he continued teaching every day. A few days before his death, he got a court notice on a case filed by the cooperative bank from whom he had taken a loan which along with the exorbitant interest rates was for Rs 4.5 lakhs. A colleague describes his distress, his fear of being arrested, the indignity it would mean for his family. The stress proved to be too much, and on January 17, he developed sudden acute chest pain.
His colleagues living in the neighborhood got together and contributed the money needed for his last rites. There was no money in the house. In Delhi, there is a fund called the Teachers Welfare Fund with mandatory monthly contributions cut from each teacher's salary. If a teacher dies while in service, her family is given an immediate grant of five lakh rupees from the fund till the rest of the dues are paid. Hemlata has not received any money from the fund although her husband, like all the teachers employed in Delhi's government primary schools, made his contribution. She has not received a single penny of his dues. There is no word about the pension. She has been told by other women in similar circumstances that the pension payments are not being made.
Whether it was his tension and stress which led to a heart attack (he had never complained earlier) will never be known. But the question arises as to who is responsible for thousands of teachers like Khemchand who are forced to take loans at exorbitant rates because their salaries are not being paid to them in spite of their work.
Khemchand's plight is representative of 13,000 primary school teachers in the north and the east of the national capital who have not been paid their salaries since October. In South Delhi, the teachers fare better, perhaps because the corporation has a better financial profile. At Hemlata's small government quarters which she will have to vacate within three months, other school teachers share their experiences. Shabana (name changed), also a single mother who lost her husband a few years ago, is the principal of a primary school in the area. She says she too is in debt. "Everyday when I go to school to teach, it is with such a heavy heart, I wonder if I will make it through the day. I too am deep in debt. I have to educate my children and feed them. People believe that a government employee has a secure income. Look at us, we are government employees, but today we are worse than slaves. But still I go to teach the children. They need me.."
But it is not just teaching that they are doing without being paid. Primary school teachers in Delhi have multiple tasks they have to fulfill which have nothing to do with teaching. Many of these involve long hours after school work or on holidays. For example, a primary school teacher is designated as a booth-level officer. It is her duty to ensure that adults in her area have voter cards. They are responsible for setting up the camps, usually on a Sunday, and filling in voters' forms. Teachers also have to fill in Aadhaar forms for the children and go to the centres to get Aadhaar cards. This could take several hours depending on the queues at the Aadhaar card centres. Also, this is an ongoing process which could mean ten to 12 visits to the centre every month. The teachers also have to make bank accounts for the children linked to their Aadhaar cards. This means getting the forms from the bank, filling in details and the going through the bank procedures to get a pass book for the child. This too is an ongoing process which could also mean ten or 12 trips to the bank every month. Every three months, the teachers also have to do polio vaccination duty. This means running the polio vaccine camps in the schools. This is compulsory work from 9 am in the morning to 5 pm. The teachers get paid Rs 75 for a day's work.
Teachers are also mandatorily "requisitioned" to attend functions organized by ministers. Recently, Environment Minister Harsh Vardhan held a function at his residence to present the achievements of his ministry. The Additional Director of the Education Department of the MCD sent a message to all school principals as follows: "The above message (invitation to the function) received from the Hon'ble Mayor for school principals and officers. In the light of the above all principals/in-charges today 12-2-2018 are to be present at the residence of Hon'ble Minister Shri Harsh Vardhan...".
The three MCDs (municipal corporations) are controlled by the BJP. The Mayor who sent out the message is also from the BJP. So he has the right to direct school principals to mandatorily attend functions organized by a ministry headed by his leader.
Primary school teachers in Delhi have become the latest pawns in the ongoing fight between the central government and the AAP-led Delhi government which complains that the centre is responsible for not providing adequate funds to the municipal corporations as mandated by law. According to the teachers, there were no such delays in payment of salaries prior to the advent of the Modi government at the centre. However, the failure of the Delhi government to take up the issue of non-payment of salaries to the teachers and the callousness towards their plight is also true. Last year, safai karmacharis under the East Delhi municipal corporation had not been paid their salaries for months, leading to acute distress. It was only the High Court's intervention which brought some relief.
In this case, too, a public interest petition was filed by Social Jurist, a civil rights group and argued by the indefatigable lawyer Ashok Aggarwal. On January 5, ten days before Khemchand's tragic death, the acting Chief Justice of the Delhi High Court, Justice C Hari Shankar, had, in response to that PIL, issued an order that the current month's salaries of the 13,000 teachers must be paid within a week of the order and all the arrears within one month. Hemlata says Khemchand did not know of this order, maybe it would have eased his tension. But such is the arrogance and contempt of those mandated to implement the order that even now, one and a half months later, the order has not been implemented. Ashok Aggarwal is planning to move a contempt of court petition naming the respondents, the Government of Delhi and the Home Ministry of the Union Government.
But how can Delhi ever be considered a smart city when it treats its knowledge-sharers with such cruelty?
(Brinda Karat is a Politburo member of the CPI(M) and a former Member of the Rajya Sabha.)
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