Over 2 lakh primary school teachers have been protesting in West Bengal demanding better wages for a long time now. As part of their continuing agitation, 17 primary school teachers from West Bengal have been on an indefinite hunger strike since last 14 days. The protest has been going on in Salt Lake, Kolkata, very close to the office of Education Minister Partha Chatterjee.
Talking to NewsClick, Kalatan Dasgupta, West Bengal state joint secretary of Democratic Youth Federation of India (DYFI), the youth wing of Communist Party of India (Marxist) [CPI(M)] that has extended their support to the protesting teachers, said, “The teachers have been asking the state government to increase their grade pay since a long time. They have been humiliated time and again by the education minister and Chief Minister Mamata Bannerjee. Finally, they realised that they have no option but to come out on the streets and protest, even if the state government meeting their demands came at the cost of their lives.”
He added that even though the protest has been happening right next to the education minister’s office, he has not met the teachers even once to listen to their issues and demands. “The minister has made the teachers feel like they are not deserving of even minimum empathy,” he said.
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The teachers have been demanding that their pay scale be increased from existing Rs 2,600 to Rs 4,200, the same amount as in other states of the country. The teachers have been working for meagre salaries and periodically asking the government to increase their salaries. However, when they were unable to support their families, they decided to come out on the streets, Dasgupta said. Fourteen teachers, who had been leading this movement for the increase in salary since a long time have been transferred to schools far away from their residences, as a punitive measure by the state government. The protesters are also demanding that these teachers be transferred back to their original workplaces.
Even though the education minister has not found the time to come and meet the protesting teachers, on July 25, he found the time to attend a meeting of the Trinamool-backed West Bengal Primary Teachers’ Organisation held at Nazrul Mancha, Kolkata, where he made irresponsible and sexist remarks about the female teachers who are part of the protest. He said, “So many women teachers are suffering from stree rog (gynaecological problems) that I am terrified,” as the audience erupted in laughter.
Speaking about the facilities provided to government school teachers, Chatterjee said in case a teacher is not well, he or she can apply for a mutual transfer. “When it was declared that those unwell would be transferred, immediately a lot of teachers started feeling unwell,” he said, “What is this? If it’s a genuine problem, you should definitely raise a request.”
His remarks have furthered angered the protesters. At the meeting, he also said that the government will increase their salaries to Rs 3,600 from the existing Rs 2,600 if the teachers stop their protest. However, since the amount he declared is much lesser than what they have demanded, they have decided to continue their protests. Veteran actor Soumitra Chatterjee has also urged the state government to meet the demands raised by the teachers.
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High school teachers have also extended their solidarity to the movement by the primary school teachers. The protesting teachers have said that they will not stop the hunger strike until the education minister comes in person to meet them, and assures them that all their demands will be met.