Row intensifies after 5 teachers consume poison during protest in Bengal
Kolkata: I have been transferred from Bakkhali to Cooch Behar. We cannot live like this. The government has pushed us to this point,” a temporary teaching assistant at a Sishu Siksha Kendra (SSK) in West Bengal’s South 24 Parganas district had said, according to her colleagues, before drinking pesticide during an agitation on Tuesday. She was among the five teachers who consumed poison from small bottles they were carrying on Tuesday, as part of a protest outside Bikash Bhawan, the secretariat of the state school department at Salt Lake in Kolkata’s eastern district.
For her, the transfer meant relocating to a place 746 km away, a distance which, according to Google maps, takes around 18 hours to cover by car.
“Transfer orders, that had asked her and four other teachers working on contract for SSKs and Madhyamik Siksha Kendras (MSK) to report for duty in districts hundreds of miles away from their homes, led to the mass suicide bid,” said Maidul Islam, general secretary of the Paschimbanga Sikshak Aikya Mukta Mancha, which has demanded permanent placement and revocation of the transfer orders.
SSK and MSK teaching assistants working on contractual basis are usually posted in schools that are not too far from their homes, Islam said, adding, “None of us knew that the five women were carrying poison. What they did was not right.”
Run by the panchayat and rural development department, SSKs and MSKs are schools where teaching assistants used to be paid ₹5,400 per month till the state government revised the salary to ₹10,340 in October last year, following a long agitation.
“Along with the revised pay came transfer orders for some of those who were part of the movement,” Islam said. The Mancha earlier moved court and held protests outside the residence of education minister Bratya Basu.
All five teachers are now under observation at critical care units in the state-run RG Kar Hospital and NRS Hospital in Kolkata.
Another teacher from Jiaganj in Murshidabad district has been transferred to the Mal community block in Jalpaiguri. The 409-km distance entails an almost 11-hour road trip via NH-12.
“What’s more, he has been transferred to a Hindi-medium SSK. Similarly, another teacher, a tribal woman teaching at an SSK at Salboni in West Midnapore district, has been transferred to a Hindi-medium school at Dhupguri in Jalpaiguri district,” said one of the agitators, who did not want to be named fearing disciplinary action.
A teacher from Mahishadal in East Midnapore has been asked to go to Harirampur in South Dinajpur district while another one from Balagarh in Hooghly district has to report to a Madrasah in Malda district, 314 km away. Both attempted suicide.
The incident, being the first of its kind in Bengal, has triggered a slugfest between the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which won 77 seats in the March-April assembly polls.
“During the Left Front regime, teaching assistants at SSKs and MSKs used to get a token honorarium. They had no job security and post-retirement benefit. The government has now introduced provident fund scheme for those who opt to retire at 60. Women get maternity leave and all are entitled to healthcare benefits and 18 casual leaves a year. Those who are agitating even after getting all these must be BJP cadres,” education minister Bratya Basu tweeted on Wednesday afternoon.
BJP state general secretary Sayantan Basu visited NRS Hospital to check on the teachers during the day.
“Even if a TMC worker’s home is damaged by a falling tree the ruling party will accuse the BJP. The accusation does not surprise us. We don’t support this suicide attempt. It cannot be a mode of protest. The education minister should spend more time meeting teachers and hearing out their problems instead of visiting Tripura. He should resign after what has happened,” said Basu.
“The Mancha is not affiliated to any political party,” said Islam.
Doctors at both hospitals said the women were in stable condition but could not be declared out of danger before 72 hours. They showed symptoms triggered by organophosphorus compounds used in pesticides.
Deputy commissioner of police (eastern suburban division) Priyabrata Roy said, “Police personnel tried their best to stop the agitators from taking poison. We hope they get well soon.”
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