In March 2020, around 4.5 lakh contractual teachers in Bihar went on a strike for not having received their salaries for January and February. They protested for ‘equal pay for equal work,’ asking for a return to the old pension scheme, along with other demands. The indefinite strike started on February 17 and continues till date.
The had decided to hold a fast on March 31, protesting the same. The livelihood of several teachers has suffered, especially of those belonging to the ‘Niyotjit Shikshak,’ the contractual teachers.
Ashwani Pandey, one of the teachers on strike, said that the state government was unresponsive towards their demands, and chose to avoid giving them three months’ salary during the wake of the lockdown.
Now, the Bihar education department has ordered all the district education officers (DEO), as well district programme officers (DPO) that contractual schools teachers will be paid according to their ‘no work, no pay,’ policy. So, those who left the strike to rejoin work would be paid, but only for that period. As a result, this has added to the financial strain of the teachers’.
About 400 teachers have been suspended across the Bihar districts, such as in, in Patna, Gopalganj, Begusarai and Kaimur. Many have been released on the charges of indiscipline, with FIRs lodged against them. According to the state government, the strike is now ‘illegal.’
However, the umbrella organisation of 26 unions in Bihar, the Bihar Rajya Shikshak Sangharsh Samanvay Samiti (BRSSSS) along with the Bihar Secondary School Teachers’ Association (BSSTA), have urged the Bihar government to pay salaries to the contractual teachers on account of the pandemic.
According to The Wire, “a list prepared by the BSSTA, which claims that at least 42 contractual teachers have lost their lives during the strike period. A majority of them died of heart attack and haemorrhage as they were not in a position to pay for their treatment, according to the BSSTA..”
General Secretary of BSSTA, Shatrughan Prasad Singh said, “The families of contractual workers on strike are already under immense financial strain. We have asked the state government and education minister to provide them with salaries during this pandemic crisis.”
Nevertheless, the chief additional secretary of the education department of Bihar continues to remain unresponsive and dismissive of their demands. In a telephonic conversation with The Wire, the convener of the BRSSSS, Brajnandan Sharma said that the unfair treatment of the contractual school teachers instigated the commencement of the ongoing strike. He added, “It does not give us any pleasure; in fact, we have to suffer a great deal of hardship when we go on strike. Now, in addition, all of us are facing a grave health threat because of the pandemic. That is why the government must pay contractual teachers their salaries during this public health emergency.”
Sharma also mentioned that the March 23 advisory held out by the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment had asked all the public and private establishments to refrain reducing the salaries of contractual workers or even decreasing their wages during the lockdown. He is extremely appalled at the decision of the state during the pandemic crisis.
Abhay Kumar, a member of the BRSSSS, spoke about how heart-wrenching it is to talk about the death of a middle school teacher in Sahebganj, Muzaffarpur, Rajiv Kumar, 1.5 months ago. Rajiv Kumar was the sole wage earner of his family and his family has been pushed into a state of immense financial distress. Abhay Kumar also added that these details are being brought to light to draw attention towards the plight of the teachers.
Bihar’s largest opposition party, the Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD), has appealed to the state government to reconsider their decision. RJD spokesperson and Rajya Sabha MP Manjo Jha said, “The entire discourse during the lockdown has been essentially urban and middle class centric. At a time of such deep crisis, the Bihar government’s decision is objectionable.” Jha added that the contractual teachers’ demands are not charitable; however, they must receive humanitarian treatment during such a time.
The leader of the opposition party, Tejashwi Yadav, asked the state government to abstain from discriminating between contractual teachers who continue to remain, participants of the ongoing strike and those who returned to work.
The Supreme Court had, in May 2019, set aside the Patna high court order of 2017 that had upheld the teachers’ demand of equal pay for equal work. The Wire’s report went on to say that “an official of the education department speaking on condition of anonymity said that while the state government had given the striking teachers an option of joining the service, it was not willing to accept their demand of pay parity.”