s“There is in every village a torch – the teacher; and an extinguisher – the priest.” -Victor Hugo Hugo, the great French writer and activist, had famously described the role education or a teacher plays in a backward society, where education was still a preserve of the few.
Perhaps we Indians can associate with it more since this has been a society where education was denied to the vast majority of people for hundreds of years just because they were born into so-called unclean families. How the mere exposure to rudimentary education could transform someone like a Muktabai – a girl born to one of the depressed caste families – challenges these age-old denials with vehemence.
It can be said with a degree of certainty that Hugo would not have envisaged a situation when the Priest himself assumes power or where a monk himself becomes the ruler.
The biggest state within the Indian Union, namely Uttar Pradesh, with a population of more than 200 million people, provides a glimpse of this phenomenon unfolds in the field of education. The state is presently governed by monk-turned-politician Yogi Adityanath; a man who till he became Chief Minister was a member of Parliament and had the sole experience of running a religious mutt.
Reports mention that 135 teachers and teaching assistants died owing to their duties in Panchayat elections in the state. A teachers' association said how right from the days of training teachers for election duty to the actual elections, thousands of teachers and teaching assistants had contracted COVID-19.The counting of votes for these elections will occur on May 2.
What was rather troubling was that despite the rapid surge in COVID-19 cases the government did not deem it even necessary to vaccinate the teachers and Shiksha Mitras before involving them in the election process, even making it compulsory for them to join election-related duties.
If a doctor, nurse, health-worker or police personnel could be included in the list of front line workers, why did the government not include the teachers and Shiksha Mitras in the list. They were dealing with students and were also involved at different levels in other relief and outreach work as well.
While the executive utterly failed to look into the grievances of the teachers, the judiciary immediately took cognisance and even issued a notice to the UP State Election Commission (UPSEC), seeking an explanation on why it failed to check non-compliance of COVID guidelines during multiple phases of panchayat elections. It even asked why action should not be taken against the state poll panel and its officials and why those responsible for violations should not be prosecuted.
Anyone who has observed these elections – being held during second COVID-19 wave – could have seen for themselves the apathy and callousness shown by the Election Commission Officials and the governmental machinery in maintaining COVID-appropriate behaviour.
Questions are also being raised about the necessity of conducting panchayat elections when the second wave was on the horizon and why they could not be postponed indefinitely, something which would have relieved the state machinery which diverted its attention from th pandemic.
This intransigence on the part of the rulers can be easily understood.
It was at a time when the state capital witnessed COVID-19 deaths for a lack of Oxygen, ventilators and the unavailability of beds, where there was a mismatch between official figures of patients who had died from the virus and actual reports from cremation grounds.
Anu Singh (name changed), a teacher who works at a government school in Varanasi, feels that she could be the 136th victim.
Her husband and son have tested positive for COVID-19 and she is the only person attending to them while they are under home quarantine. However, she has been asked to take care of election-related duties on May 2 when the counting of votes is supposed to take place. She is worried that if she contracts the virus there will be no one to take care of her family and has formally written to higher authorites about her situation and sought exemption from duty. However, she also knows that if the letter remained unanswered and she would have report for work. Absence may lead to consequences.
She is not the only one worried.
Kusum Shukla (name changed) – another teacher from Jaunpur – was similarly called in for election-related duties. She still cannot forget an earlier experience when she and her colleagues were at a village booth when votes were cast. Let alone COVID-appropriate behaviour, the police and other officials did not deem it even necessary to disallow them from crowding around the area.
While voting was over by 5 pm, it was not the end of their ordeal, much more work needed to be done. When they reached home it was already 11.30 pm. For many of her colleagues from the minority community – who last ate early morning due to Ramzan – hunger had set in and they could not even break fast or drink water the entire day.
Anyone with a minimum sense of civic responsibility, concern about the lives of common people or knowledge of how crowds of any nature become super-spreaders for a virus, would raise questions about the timing of these elections.
The Rashtriya Shaikshik Mahasangh (RSM), a national level outfit of primary school teachers, has demanded compensation for the families of the teachers to the tune of Rs 50 lakh per person and a government job to the dependents. One does not know whether the government can make amends. The chances are definitely remote.
The UP state government provides a compensation of Rs 50 lakh to officials deputed to election duty who die in a terror attack, explosion, firing or violence during booth rigging. It has yet to include COVID-19 as a reason for compensation. States like Rajasthan and Bihar have already included such deaths for a compensation of Rs 30 lakh.
What is rather disturbing that this phenomenon of 'collateral deaths' of teachers while discharging duties during such times is not limited to Uttar Pradesh.
It seems that the phenomenon is an all-India level one.
The Telegraph has reported deaths of many schoolteachers working with the Central Government run Kendriya Vidyalaya Sangathan (KVS) and Navodaya Vidyalaya Samiti (NVS) schools in the past one month due to COVID-19.
What has been noticed is that about 40,000 KVS teachers were coming in to schools to take online classes from the school premises till last week. Only after a surge in cases did the KVS authorities allowed teachers to take online classes from home. For teachers deputed to admission duty and other official responsibilities there was no escape from going to the school and the possibility of being infected.
According to the report the “situation in the Navodaya Vidyalayas is worse”. According to a rough estimate there are around 650 NVS schools in the country which provide residential schooling to poor and talented students and according to sources, not only have “several hundred students been infected by COVID-19. Many teachers have died in the last one month due to COVID."
One does not know whether the governments at the Centre and states would look more sympathetically towards the issue. Whether they will understand the gravity of the situation where an infected teacher could further infect many others.
Deaths of teachers and Shiksha Mitras while on duty due to COVID-19 has to become a cause for concern at the national level.
It is not only the loss of a human being which severely impacts their family but also a tremendous loss to students, who, in most of cases, are attached to their teachers.
Such deaths also impact – at least at the immediate level – the already skewed teacher-student ration in the country which is still far below that in neighbouring countries like Sri Lanka and Bangladesh.It further negatively impacts the dropout rate of students from schools.
The author is a freelance journalist. The views are personal.