The death of a 14-month-old girl and the cold-hearted display of this infant's body on Thursday in Bathinda by Punjab's protesting unemployed Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS) teachers escalated into a major political showdown on Friday between the opposition Congress and the Shiromani Akali Dal-BJP government.
Eknoor Kaur 'Rooth', the daughter of a Moga couple participating in the protest, seeking regular employment, died on Thursday. Later, the protesters brought the body to their agitation site, triggering a wave of sympathy towards their plight. The unemployed EGS teachers have been sitting on dharna in Bathinda, seeking regular employment the demand which the government has dismissed as legally untenable.
However, the death of the infant and continuing agitation by these unemployed EGS teachers provided the much-needed ammunition to the Congress to corner the SAD-BJP government, especially Bathinda Lok Sabha MP Harsimrat Kaur Badal, wife of deputy chief minister Sukhbir Singh Badal. Punjab Congress chief Partap Singh Bajwa, who was in Bathinda on Friday, joined the dharna by the protesters and condemned "the police brutality" towards the "striking teachers", which he said "led to the death of a girl child." Slamming the government for turning a blind eye towards the agony of striking teachers, Bajwa questioned why the Bathinda MP had not visited the mother of the deceased baby.
The government, which was on the defensive, found itself in the tight spot. But, later in the evening, the government dismissed the demands of the protesters as "unreasonable and unjustified." Education minister Sikander Singh Maluka said the protesters were "trying to blackmail the government to succumb to their illegal demands" in view of the upcoming Lok Sabha elections. "These agitators are demanding regular government employment even as they don't fulfil the basic criterion of having qualified the Teachers' Eligibility Test (TET)," he said.
In 2007-08, under the centrally-sponsored EGS, these agitating teachers (matriculate and above) were hired on temporary basis to teach village students not enrolled in schools and bring them back to the mainstream. They were paid a paltry salary of around Rs 2,000 per month.
According to the education minister, about 4,250 teachers were hired under the EGS and two other central schemes initially. After the schemes lapsed, the minister said, they began pressing for regular employment and resorted to agitations. The demand could not be fulfilled, the minister said, as they had not done the elementary trained teachers (ETT) course the mandatory qualification to become a primary school teacher.
"All those employed under the EGS were then admitted to government-run institutions to do the ETT course," said Maluka.
But, in between came the central law that every teacher will have to qualify the Teachers' Eligibility Test (TET) also as a prerequisite to get government employment. "None among these agitating teachers has passed the TET, but they want a government job as teacher," Maluka said.
In this backdrop, according to Jangveer Singh, media adviser to the deputy CM, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal met the protesters in question on January 8. "The CM asked them to qualify the TET in the next two years so that the government could fulfil their demand," said Jangveer. "But the protesters are blissfully blaming the government instead of passing the TET."
'Blame parents for death'
Education minister Sikander Singh Maluka said 'Rooth', the baby girl of protesting teachers, was admitted to Bathinda civil hospital on February 3 and that since then the child was in the hospital. The infant had died on February 6 at 3am in the hospital. "The child died of malnutrition and not due to cold. It was from the hospital that the body was brought to the dharna site by the parents," Maluka said.
"The parents of this child must repent and regret their callous action of using their child's body for political purposes deliberately and willfully. Action must be taken against the parents," Maluka said.