The location — an unused service road adjacent to the highway — has been chosen carefully. Two gurdwaras are nearby, as much for divine intervention as for daily needs of food, washing, and sometimes shelter. Their tent’s roof is covered with tarpaulin, keeping the sun and rain out. The mattresses are not too thick, placed over a mat, so as not to get too hot when the road burns. There are banners and strings on which clothes are hung for drying. Water bottles are everywhere. Across the road, right in front of the tent, is the crucial weapon — a concrete water tank, several feet high.
This is the world of unemployed teachers protesting in Mohali.
Every evening over the past fortnight, as I drive to office, near the Sohana gurdwara I see scores of young men and some women sitting in huddles, sometimes raising slogans against Punjab’s beloved rulers, sweeping the road, polishing shoes of passersby as a mark of their fate, or simply reading the newspaper. As I drive back, I see them sleeping, with their travelling bags as pillows.
This past Friday, as I stop at the venue around 6.45pm, the sun is already trying to set. There are few protesters at the venue. Some have shifted to a tent at the office of the rural development department, intensifying the protest, while many are eating at the langar in the gurdwaras.
I ask about the issue, and Harpreet Singh, 27, from Mansa, explains: “Ours is the ETT (elementary teacher training) Unemployed Union. The state government had advertised 4,901 posts of elementary teachers in February. There are hardly 2,500 eligible aspirants. The merit was finalised. But now the government is not moving forward. All we want is that counselling should be done, and teachers be handed over appointments. Apparently, there is lack of funds! But wasn’t the file cleared from the finance department before the advertisement was issued?”
All these aspirants have cleared the mandatory TET (Punjab state teaching eligibility test), and underline how difficult it was. “Of the over 2 lakh candidates, barely 800-odd passed the last time.
First, the government does its best for us not to pass. If we somehow do, there are no jobs. We had to protest even to get the ad issued!” says Pardeep, 28, another protester from Mansa.
Why such desperation for a government job? “Fer ki kariye ji? What is other option? Landholdings have shrunk. There is no capital or scope for business. We spent lakhs on acquiring teaching skills.
Do we now join private schools?” he asks. Well, why not? “I have an MSc in math, plus BEd. Yet, I was paid just Rs. 6,000 a month for an ad hoc job at a private school. Is that the worth of my degree? This job, if I get it, will pay around Rs. 35,000, and there will be no sword hanging over me.”
Mankinder Singh, 27, who is here from Malerkotla, adds, “Among us there are people with doctorates too. We cannot change careers at this stage in life, even if we only become fulltime ‘tank-climbers’.”
One such tank-climber is Hardeep Singh, 24, from Sangrur. “I spent five days on the tank at Rakhra, the minister’s village, in extreme December cold; and then another five days in February,” he says, proudly, as we meet him on the tank stairs. “This time, we climbed up at 4.30 on July 17 morning, and have come down only to bathe and use the toilet.”
Isn’t it hot up there? “We keep moving for shade, shifting as the sun shifts. It’s a science,” he laughs.
What about your families? “Even our parents know that haq vi khoh ke lena penda hai (even rights have to be taken forcibly).”
Do women participate? “Most of them come for the day and return, or stay at the gurdwara inns. Some bring children and parents, which swells the crowd, good for us!”
How do you manage daily chores? “People from nearby localities visit us during their evening walk.
Some offer words of encouragement, some even offer tea. But food and washing is at the gurdwara.
Rest, we pool in money, ask parents for help. We protest in shifts of four to seven days at a time.”
For pastime, they mostly read newspapers. The tank-climbers play games on phones. “We charge our phones at the pump room under the tank; the old uncle who works there is very friendly,” says Hardeep. No one from the administration has visited them. Don’t you get sick of it? “How will I return to the village where they mock me as ‘master-ji’? I am no master-ji. I am just a ‘tank-top protester’. They don’t understand. I can’t climb down.”