Rakesh Kumar and Deepak Kumar, who are camping on a 110-foot mobile tower near the high-security Punjab Bhawan in Chandigarh since November 2, have added a new narrative to the story of angry, jobless youth in the state.
Logging 960 hours atop a tower, the two protesters may have qualified for a Guinness record but they’re yet to land a teacher’s job in poll-bound Punjab.
It’s no picnic atop the cramped 3.5-foot platform that is at a height of a seven-storey building. The weather has gone from a welcome 29 degrees Celsius on November 2 when they climbed the tower to a hostile 8 degrees Celcius on December 12, but the duo sounds unfazed.
“It’s do or die. We won’t come down unless we get appointment letters from the Punjab government,” 30-year-old Rakesh, a member of the ETPUTU, says from the tower that is just a stone’s throw away from chief minister Parkash Singh Badal’s residence and the Punjab assembly.
- Of the two protesters, Deepak Kumar has a postgraduate degree and Rakesh Kumar is a science graduate.
- Punjab government has 6,500 vacant posts of elementary teachers and 5,500 eligible candidates who have cleared the teachers’ entrance test (TET), as per information received under the RTI, claims the leader of an unemployed teachers’ union group.
- Amarjit Kamboj, leader of Elementary Teachers Training Teachers Eligibility Test Pass Unemployed Teachers Union, says these posts are not being filled up.
- Kamal Thakur of ETPUTU claims there is a huge mismanagement on the Punjab School Education Board’s part.
- “Some candidates are getting three appointment letters, others were jobless. Both Deepak Kumar and Rakesh Kumar were toppers in Class 12,” he said.
- Before camping on the tower, the duo along with two others stayed atop a water tank in Badal village in Muktsar for five days last month.
Elementary Teachers Training Teachers Eligibility Test Pass Unemployed Teachers Union accuses the state government of gross mismanagement in giving jobs to teachers.
The two, who became friends during their “struggle”, have threatened to immolate themselves or jump off the tower if they are forced to climb down.
Speaking on one of their two cell phones, Rakesh says they launched their protest in November so that the government could get time to act before the code of conduct came into place. Initially, they confess, they felt suicidal.
“It seemed like an exercise in futility but now ever since the government has started talking with the union, we are feeding on hope,” Rakesh says, adding how Badal has now reportedly instructed the department to fill all 6,500 vacancies.
An official, however, said the government won’t be arm-twisted into giving jobs to protesters as that would open floodgates of demands.
Fasting out in the cold
Rakesh and Deepak have lost count of the days and the freezing nights. The cold is killing but union members on the ground have sent them tarpaulin to spread over their blankets.
Food is supplied on a crane by Chandigarh Police under Sector 3 station house officer (SHO) Poonam Dilawari. Their diet ranges from dal-roti, on days the union volunteers supply it to the UT police, to dry ration such as bread and fruits.
“Why shouldn’t we fight for a job when we have cleared the tests and there are vacancies. An elementary teacher is paid Rs 38,400 after a three-year probation. It will change our life,” said Rakesh Kumar, one of the protesters .
“We ration everything, from food, water and sleep to cell phone charge,” Rakesh says.
Renu Sujana, an ETPUTU member who has delivered food to the two protesters twice last month, says it’s impossible to recognise them with their newly grown beards and sunburnt skin. Kamal Thakur, another union leader, says they eat when they get food or go hungry.
Rakesh tells you he’s a veteran at fasting. “I kept a fast unto death without water for five days when I was lodged in Bathinda jail for the same cause in 2011,” he says.
When they climbed the tower on the night of November 2, they came prepared with dry fruits and water that sustained them for a couple of days. The Chandigarh administration sent them some ration on November 6 that lasted until November 11.
“After that, we fasted for 10 days until November 21 when we started talks with the Punjab government.”
They haven’t bathed in 40 days for water is a luxury. “I haven’t even washed my eyes,” claims Deepak.
They relieve themselves in the dark in poly bags. And they sleep in three-hour shifts. “While one of us sleeps, the other keeps a watch,” Deepak says.
They say they haven’t fallen ill though Rakesh suffered stomach cramps that subsided after a while. The doctors’ team appointed by the Punjab and Haryana high court last fortnight reported that the two, who refused to be examined, appeared healthy. They’ve also had three visits by amicus curiae Tanu Bedi.
On the job
Happy to talk to the media, the two haven’t spoken to their families for they fear it will make them weak.
Rakesh’s wife Meenakshi works as a teacher in a private school in Gurdaspur and looks after their year-old son.
Deepak’s elder brother Puran Chand, who is now looking after his wife Veena and two children, Vishwas, 3, and Harsha, 1, at Fazilka, says it’s only through a friend that he learnt about Deepak’s protest.
“We are living from hand to mouth. I always tell him to stop running after this mirage and start working as a daily wager but he doesn’t listen,” he says.
But both of them say they’ve had enough of working as daily wagers. “Why shouldn’t we fight for a job when we have cleared the tests and there are vacancies,” Rakesh asks. “An elementary teacher is paid Rs 38,400 after a three-year probation. It will change our life.”
It’s this “mission”, as they call it that keeps them going atop the tower.
Below, Punjab Bhavan is bustling with activity as usual. Sanjeev Kohli, the head of the disaster management unit of the UT, says 25 of his men have been camping there for the last month or so. A fire brigade, a crane, and a police posse are on standby to keep the pair safe.
As dusk falls, the two prepare for another night in the fog. But now with the Punjab government seemingly warming up to their demands, they have hope for company.