December 17, 2023

WB:Thousand Days of Deprivation and the Fight for Justice

Indrajit Ghosh

ON December 9, 2023, the dharna movement at the foot of the Gandhi statue in Esplanade, Kolkata marked its 1000th day. This protest is held by the deserving candidates who had successfully cleared the West Bengal State Level Selection Test (SLST) for secondary and higher secondary school teaching positions. Nearly three years have transpired since the inception of this movement.

Throughout these past three years, the lives of these aspiring teachers have been marked by hardship and deprivation. Festivals, including Durga Puja, Diwali, Bhai Dooj, Eid, Bakrid, Muharram, Christmas, and New Year's Day, have been observed on the streets. Eid prayers are held every year on Red Road. The picketing Muslim brothers and sisters also offered prayers at the dharna stage. On Eid, the chief minister expressed assurances, but regrettably, no concrete actions followed. Much later, the protestors were summoned to Abhishek Banerjee's office, where additional assurances were provided, but no concrete action was taken. It is evident that the lack of progress stems from the corruption within the ruling party. Trinamool leaders stand accused of pilfering employment opportunities from these individuals, rendering them perpetually deprived of their rightful positions.

Meritorious job seekers were defrauded by Trinamool leaders. West Bengal School Service Commission was formed by the Left Front government in 1997 for the appointment of Assistant Teachers in Government sponsored and government aided schools. At that time the School Service Commission used to undertake the Regional Level Select Test (RLST). West Bengal was divided into 5 regions to conduct the examination so that the teachers could be recruited for schools in the marginalised areas. The TMC government came and dismantled the system replacing it with centralised SLST (State Level Selection Test). As a result the problem of qualified teachers in remote rural schools has become acute. Moreover, this centralisation brought in its trail organised, large-scale centralised and decentralised forms of corruption.

The first SLST exam was announced on February 16, 2016, with the test conducted on November 27 and December 4, 2016. Results were released by May-June 2017, and recruitment commenced in September 2018. However, the Daribhit incident, where Tapas Barman and Rajesh Sarkar lost their lives in suspected police firing during protests against the "faulty" appointment of teachers, led to a halt in recruitment on September 20, 2018. The process resumed about six months later.

As time passed, evidence of blatant corruption continued to surface. Trinamool leader Paresh Adhikari's daughter, Ankita Adhikari, secured a job without being on any lists, prompting eligible candidates to launch a 29-day hunger strike in front of the Press Club, Kolkata, in February-March 2019. The chief minister was forced to come to the protest and assured the fasting protesters of their rightful appointments, urging them to "keep faith" in her. Following the chief minister's instructions, then-education minister Partha Chatterjee formed a five-member committee, led by Shantiprasad Sinha, to bring transparency in the recruitment process. However, in August 2022, Sinha was arrested and has remained in custody since, raising questions about the reasons behind his arrest.

Candidates who were positioned far down the list managed to secure jobs through this five-member committee. Even candidates who had failed were able to secure employment. This fraudulent activity persisted under the leadership of individuals entrusted by the chief minister with the responsibility of ensuring transparency. In response to this widespread corruption, job seekers initiated a mass movement across the state. Numerous legal suits were filed in the courts, and a series of protests unfolded in both the streets and courtrooms. Job seekers, whose names were on waiting lists, have been engaged in a 1000-day-long protest at the base of the Gandhi statue in Dharmatala. On one hand, they continue their sit-ins and various forms of protest, while on the other hand, they regularly encounter police actions, forced interruptions of marches, and arrests. The resilience of these protesters underscores the depth of their commitment to addressing the corruption that has plagued the employment process.

Due to the street agitation and court battles, Ankita Adhikari, the daughter of minister Paresh Adhikari, has been dismissed from her position in a government-aided school, and her entire salary had to be returned. The high court has instructed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and the Enforcement Directorate (ED) to conduct a thorough investigation into the matter. In a related development, crores of cash and huge scale of property are being seized from the residence of Arpita Mukherjee, a close aide of the former education minister, Partha Chatterjee. The ED has informed the court that, thus far, it has identified cash, jewelry, and immovable property valued at Rs 103.10 crore associated with the former minister and his confidante, Arpita.

The number of teachers who secured positions by paying bribes to scammers is more than a few thousand. These individuals paid sums ranging from Rs 15-20 lakhs to secure jobs even after failing the selection tests. The enormity of the exchanged sums becomes evident, and only a fraction of the ill-gotten gains has been recovered. Notably, individuals such as Shantiprasad Sinha, former education minister Partha Chatterjee, Kalyanmoy Ganguly (the former president of the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education), and former School Service Commission chairman and North Bengal University vice-chancellor Subiresh Bhattacharya are all currently in jail. Furthermore, Trinamool youth leaders Kuntal and Shantanu, along with Sujoy Krishna Bhadra (who maintains close ties with the state chief minister and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee), have also been arrested.

A total of 952 blank or manipulated Optical Mark Recognition sheets (OMRs) have been discovered for Class IX, and 907 for Class XI and XII. The fact that some got jobs even by submitting blank OMRs has been publicly acknowledged on the school service commission website itself, highlighting the extent of OMR corruption. Additionally, corruption has manifested in various other forms, including the forgery of caste certificates and awarding interview marks at random to pre-selected candidates, which is gradually coming to light.

The Chief Minister, in a cabinet meeting, decided to create additional supernumerary posts to accommodate those incompetent candidates who had obtained their appointments illegally. Although the government aimed to portray this move as an effort to provide jobs to the deprived, it was well aware that the courts would not endorse such actions. Consequently, separate statements were issued by the government and the commission in court. The commission candidly admitted to illegal recruitment and the subsequent creation of supernumerary posts. However, the commission withdrew that initiative due to strong castigation by the court.

There might have been a rationale if the creation of supernumerary posts was for eligible candidates, excluding the ineligible ones. However, the government opted for the opposite approach, making it unequivocally clear that it had no intention of excluding the unqualified individuals. Even if the unqualified candidates were excluded and the qualified ones were appointed to the vacated posts, a significant number of eligible candidates could have secured employment by now. While there might have been instances where even qualified candidates missed out on opportunities, supernumerary posts could have been considered to address those specific cases through a systematic process.

Contrary to this, the government chose to take the matter to the Supreme Court, seeking to safeguard the jobs of ineligible candidates. The Supreme Court, in turn, referred the case back to the High Court, urging for a swift resolution. Responding to this, the High Court directed the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) and Enforcement Directorate (ED) to conclude their investigation by December 31. On December 6, a division bench of the Calcutta High Court issued notices to all 'ineligible' individuals currently employed, informing them that the fate of their jobs hinges on the court's verdict. As a result, many have started to worry.

The state government is spreading a canard that everything is in a mess because of the litigants-- the recruitment has stopped because of the cases filed. But everyone understands this lie now. Eligible job seekers can never accept the fact that their place will be taken away by unqualified ones who got jobs by paying bribes. Ineligible and eligible can never be equated.

Along with the fight against corruption, the movement for recruitment on the basis of transparency, will continue. Deserving candidates cannot be deprived. They must be recruited quickly. Supernumerary posts should be created if necessary after barring the ineligible candidates. This movement will be carried out with maximum mobilisation. Those who got jobs through corruption should be dismissed from service. The money received as salary must be returned with interest. They should be punished accordingly. The officers involved in the scam, those who have given jobs in a corrupt manner should be taken into custody and their properties should be confiscated. And the leaders and ministers on whose orders these officials have done this must also be sent to jail and their ill-gotten properties be seized.

It would be a great mistake to think that the issue concerns the job seekers only. There are many job-scam related cases going on in the High Court.  As a result there has been a stay in several recruitment processes and the recruitment process has stopped. Its impact has been direct on the state-run schools. Many schools in the state do not have teachers, especially in rural schools. Student-teacher ratio is disproportionate. Schools in marginal areas do not have a learning environment. Drop-outs are increasing day by day. As a result, the number of Madhyamik examinees has decreased by about 4 lakhs from 2021 to 2022.

The second significant drawback is the emergence of a trend where individuals secure jobs based on money rather than qualifications. This has led to qualified and talented individuals, who lack the financial means to pay, becoming frustrated and opting to withdraw from the teaching profession. Concurrently, a concerning pattern is on the rise: individuals question the value of investing time and effort in studying and enhancing qualifications when monetary transactions seem to be the key to job opportunities. Consequently, there is an alarming decline in overall competence and quality within the teaching profession.

This situation is contributing to a shortage of institutional school education, leading to a rapid de-schooling effect and an increasing dependence on private tutors for education. Those who cannot afford private tutoring bear the brunt of poor-quality formal education, perpetuating educational disparities based on financial capacity.

The pervasive corruption in teacher recruitment is casting a shadow on the future of the upcoming generations in our state. Consequently, the battle against this corruption extends beyond the immediate concerns of job seekers; it is a collective fight for the well-being of all of us. There is a pressing need to amplify the movement for education and employment opportunities for everyone. Despite enduring numerous challenges over a thousand days, the deprived candidates remain steadfast in their resolve to persist in this struggle until justice is achieved.