On November 15, Birsa Munda’s birth anniversary, Jharkhand celebrated its eighteenth year of independence from Bihar. However, the usual Foundation Day celebrations at Ranchi’s Morabadi Ground took an ugly turn, with protests and a police lathi charge in front of the venue.

These protests were not unprecedented. In the past few years Jharkhand has seen various demonstrations by para-teachers from different parts of the state, who trooped into the capital on several occasions asking that the government meet their demands, centred on the principle of ‘Same Work, Same Pay’.

Photographs: Sania Mariam

Last April, thousands of para teachers staged protests in Ranchi under the umbrella of the Ekikrit Jharkhand Para Shikshak Sangharsh (United Jharkhand Para Teacher Struggle), a state-wide association of some 70,000 para-teachers. They presented a five-point demand paper with specific focus on Same Work, Same Pay.

In Jharkhand contract teachers are paid around Rs 8,000 a month, while a regular teacher draws a figure above Rs 40,000. For several months in a year most temporary teachers have no income at all. And as they are paid according to how many classes they teach, their income keeps fluctuating through the year.

Their other demands included the constituting of a para teachers’ welfare fund, job regularisation, the direct appointment of JTET (Joint Teachers Eligibility Test) qualified teachers and the annulling of the state government’s school merger plan.

Recently the Jharkhand government’s department of education, supported and advised by a private consultancy group, has merged over 6,000 schools in the state, with similar plans in store for the rest. Besides teachers who fear they will lose their jobs, many parents say the decision was rammed down their throats without any consultation, according to reports.

Activists argue that such a move will prevent children from remote areas from accessing a school education. Twelve BJP MPs from Jharkhand, including union ministers, Jayant Sinha and Sudarshan Bhagat, recently wrote a joint letter to Chief Minister Raghubar Das, requesting him to put on hold the ongoing school merger for at least a year, owing to the widespread protests by civil society organisations, parents and teachers’ unions across Jharkhand since February last.

Schools both in Jharkhand’s tribal and non-tribal areas face an acute shortage of teachers. The government argues it is merging schools with a view to improving the poor teacher-student ratio. In a recent study of the status of implementation of various provisions of the Right to Education Act in six major tribal districts of Jharkhand, not a single school in the chosen districts was found to have the requisite number of teachers.

Mahua Sundi, a 12th Standard student from the Manglilal Rungta +2 School in Chaibasa, says there are around 350 students in her class. They have had no political science or sociology subject teachers for the past year.

There are around 68,000 trained and untrained para-teachers in Jharkhand. According to a recent government report on school education in India, contractual teachers constitute 44% of Jharkhand’s school teachers.

Trained and untrained para teachers, variously known as shiksha mitra in Uttar Pradesh, shiksha sahayak in Odisha, niyojit shikshak in Bihar and guest teachers in Delhi, were first hired under the centre's Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan programme in 2000-01. Their primary role was to assist school teachers in government schools.

With the coming of the RTE Act, greater emphasis was laid on professional trained teachers. The act set a 2015 deadline for having teachers trained, which parliament extended to 2019 last August.

Most of Jharkhand’s para teachers collected basic training certificates after completing a two-year programme by distance learning.

The subject of para teachers has become a sore point for the government. The protesting para teachers claimed that a high level committee constituted a few months ago to look into their demands and take prompt action was merely an eyewash. They say the state government is deliberately delaying the appointment of para teachers.

A five-day protest from October 29 to November 2 was again launched in the same Morabadi Ground by teachers accusing the government of apathy. Despite several attempts to convince the protesting teachers to withdraw their agitation, over 67,000 of them evidently remain unsatisfied by the measures taken by the Jharkhand government.

Their protest is gaining momentum and is predicted to become a huge issue electorally. Leader of the opposition in the Jharkhand assembly Hemant Soren of the Jharkhand Mukti Morcha criticised the attack on para teachers, claiming that if his party was elected to power in 2019 all para teachers would be regularised.

A few days prior to the Foundation Day protests, para teachers declared a Kala Diwas or Black Day for the government’s inability or unwillingness to regularise their jobs.

The state government’s education and literacy department had issued notifications to keep all schools open on Foundation Day. Over a thousand preventive arrests were also made across Ranchi. Additionally, protesters were handed threats that their job contracts would be cancelled if they protested.

Nevertheless the main statehood day ceremony turned into a battleground, as some 50,000 para teachers showed black flags to Chief Minister Das. No one was spared in retaliation. Several rounds of lathi charge were ordered and journalists, photographers, women and even children got caught in the battle between the para teachers and policemen, the Rapid Action Force and the Quick Response Team.

The Ranchi Press Club has severely criticised the incident, and the attack on seven journalists who were left injured.

An FIR has been filed against protesters. Around 300 para teachers were dismissed from their jobs after being arrested. It is apparent that the government has devoted more resources to quelling the protest than addressing the demands of para teachers across the state.

Many states have significantly increased the amount of honorarium paid to para teachers. Last year Goa chief minister Manohar Parrikar announced that para teachers hired on a contract basis who had signed up for a diploma course in elementary education, would receive nearly 90% of the salary paid to an entry-level teacher.

Similarly in March the West Bengal government almost doubled para teachers’ salaries. Women para teachers were also given the right to paid maternity benefits and their retirement age was increased to 60 years.

It’s about time the BJP-led Jharkhand government takes the issues of para teachers seriously, and does more for them than the usual rounds of lathi charge.

Sania Mariam is an associate consultant with the Policy & Development Advisory Group in Ranchi and New Delhi.