June was the cruelest month for a lot of the teachers of the community primary schools (CPSs). They first went on a hunger strike till death and then a group among them considered self immolation to press home their demands, among which the most logical one was their pay raise. The government as well as the opposition intervention has made them rethink their drastic strategy. "We have decided to cancel the programme of self immolation and withdraw our fast unto death programme on June 27 following the government assurance that our demands would be considered with 'sensitivity,'" says Habibul Ahsan Bablu, president of the Community Primary Teachers' Association (CPTA). He and his colleagues, who teach children at the CPSs across the country, are determined to resume their programme after the month of July "if the government fails to respond to the demand of nationalisation of the jobs of the teachers who are working for the CPS."
"CPSs are not really different from the government primary schools. The edifice is the same, the amenities are the same, the curriculum is the same, the hour of time that children receive education is the same, and even the administrative norms are the same, -- we too submit the "return report" to the assistant thana education officer at the end of the month to ensure disbursal of salaries; we are also given appointment through the thana nirbahi officer as in the case of any government primary school, but the only difference between the school where we teach and any government primary school is in the payment of salary," says Bablu, who as the leader of the CPTA has led a long-drawn programmes to vent their demand for nationalisation of the job of the teachers working in the CPSs.
In the present non-nationalised status, the salary the teachers draw is appallingly small. As the Head Master of Jagannathpur Community School in Banshundia union, of Jessore sadar upajila, Bablu draws a salary that any other teacher of community primary school does, -- Tk 750. This pathetic amount is what every CPS teacher gets for their work which is considered a voluntary job. This is the status that the teachers are fighting to change. "Nationalisation" is the final demand that came to the fore front during the recent hunger strike staged by the teachers. "The government should either nationalise our jobs or bring us under a salary structure equivalent to that of the government primary school teachers. The salary of a government primary school teacher starts at 3,000," says Bablu.
The association that Bablu heads has been relentless in its effort to make their demands heard. "In the last five years, prior to every budget, we have been diligently sending memorandums to the prime minister, to the local administration minister, to the education minister, to the education secretary, to the director general of the primary mass education department to remind them of our demands. Every year, since six months prior to the budget we have made it a point to remind the government and the relevant authorities thrice through memorandums. We made it a part of our agenda to try and reach the prime minister to submit a memorandum from a procession that we regularly brought out a few days before each budget," says Bablu. Each time their procession faced obstruction from the police. Since their continuous effort to make the government listen to their plights failed, the teachers' movement took a different turn since the beginning of this year. "We went on a hunger strike from February 5 to February 10," says Bablu. Unfortunately, no one from the government came to ask the teachers to end the strike. Years have elapsed trying to catch the attention of the government, and at present their movement centres round the one point demand, which is the nationalisation of their jobs.
Bablu lets us in on the fact that when the Bangladesh Nationalist Party (BNP) was in the opposition in 2000 and the teachers went on a hunger strike, Abdul Mannan Bhuiyan, secretary general of the party and now LGRD minister an came to end the strike and had consoling words to spare. "He promised that if the BNP came to power in the next election teachers' plight would come to an end," remembers Bablu, who is utterly disappointed over the fact that the BNP is now in power and Mannan Bhuiyan has been denying the representatives of the teachers even the opportunity to meet him and talk about their demands since the beginning of their tenure.
A section of the teachers during their fast-unto-death programme
"July 30 is the deadline after which we would close down the schools for indefinite period and would start a hunger strike if the demand remains unmet," declares Hafizur Rahman, who is the secretary general of CPTA. He says that CPTA also has the plan to boycott the exam which is to start from August 5.
Hafizur Rahman Khan, the president of the Bangladesh Community Primary Teachers' Association, another platform which is also demanding nationalisation of the teachers' jobs, is more optimistic about the government meeting their demand. "I'm hopefull that the present prime minister (PM) would meet our demand. It was Haris Chowdhury, the political secretary to the PM, who came with the letter from the PM on 22 June to end our fast unto death programme. He assured that measures will be taken to mitigate the plights of teachers. In fact, in the present budget there has been an allocation for the teachers. So, I hope that our demand will be met from July 1," says Khan, who with the members of his association staged a hunger strike in Muktangan of Dhaka while the CPTA members staged their hunger strike in the Shaheed Minar of Dhaka.
Khan, though infused with optimism, is unsure whether their salary would be restructured exactly according to the government pay scale. "We were told that the teachers would be brought under the government salary scale but I'm unsure whether it would be 100 percent in accordance with the government salary scale," says Khan.
Most of the teachers who got involved in the CPS did so in the hope that in the near future the government would change their status as volunteers and award them the full-fledged status of teachers, which means they would be getting paid under the same pay scale as do the teachers of government primary schools.
The CPSs were planned in areas where there were no schools. At the onset they were being referred to as shalpobayee or "economical primary school". The cost of establishing these schools was low, as 33 percent of the land came from donation of the local people, and Tk 10,000 too came from a local donor.
"It was my father who gave the 33 percent land and the 10,000 taka towards the establishment of the school of which I'm the head master. So, I, as a family member, thought there should be a major contribution from me in running of the school," says Bablu. The building was built in 1995 and the school formally kick-started on January 1996 and Bablu joined as headmaster of the school. "I used to receive Tk 500 a month at the onset. The salary was made Tk 750 only in July of 2004," informs Bablu. Faced with the question why he chose this vocation he says, "It was a chance to contribute to the education of the children of the area I belonged to. I thought the name of my father would be immortalised and I would be engaged in a noble profession. I never realised that we would be subjected to such neglect." It is impossible for him to survive on the salary alone. "I'm engaged in a business of medicine, it is a means to survive," adds Bablu.
Nahida Akhter, who is the headmistress of Tarwa South Borobari Community Primary
School in Brahminbaria sadar, feels that she became a teacher considering the humane aspect of it. However, at present she is in two minds regarding her job. "If the government doesn't do anything about our salary I might have to consider leaving my present job to take up a position at a private firm," says Akhter who lives with her husband and his mother along with their two children in a village near the school. She spends most of her salary paying rickshaw fare plying between her home and the school.
Akhter has obtained her HSC certificate but could not complete her honours degree. She is constantly being pressured by her relatives to leave the current job for a better one; they regularly point out to her that with the qualification she has she can easily land a better paid job. Her husband, who is a corporal in the army, too, feels that teaching at the CPS simply takes away a lot of time from her daily routine. "I'm able to continue my job as my husband is earning the keep. It is my misfortune that I'm a teacher at a non-government school where I'm not being paid a proper salary" she laments.
It is noteworthy that to qualify for teaching at the primary-level a male teacher needs to complete HSC and a female teacher needs to complete SSC. Akhter is over-qualified for her job. But she enjoys her work in the present post. "I feel passionate about teaching, and I want to continue in the post of the headmistress," she enthusiastically says. But a committed teacher like Akhter, who started her career in 2001, is looking forward to the government intervention that might change their lot forever.
Symbolic gesture: Teachers wearing burial shrouds to protest discriminatory pay
Nurul Islam, who teaches at Boshiura Community Primary School, Sarail, Braminbaria, says that he cannot even pay his mobile phone bill with the salary he gets. He has joined the school as a teacher in 2002 and is currently completing the Primary Training Institute (PTI) training which every teacher must go through. "I'm unmarried, but I have a responsibility towards the family. If I didn't have a younger brother living abroad we would've been in deep crisis," says Islam who is planning to look for a proper job in the government primary schools as soon as he completes his training.
This is the scenario of the teachers of the CPS. Alongside these CPS teachers, the government primary school (GPS) teachers too started their own "action programme" since February 26 to bring home their demands. While the CPS teachers are pressing for nationalisation of their jobs, the GPS teachers has been fighting to end discrimination in wages in primary education. "Though we are equally qualified, an untrained EPS teacher earns TK 2100 more than a government primary teacher," says Kazi AK Fazlul Hoque, general secretary of Primary School Teachers' Association. The EPS stands for the 57 Experimental Primary Schools that are attached to the PTI. These PTI-run schools, however, follow the same curricula as the other government primary schools. The amount is miniscule: a government primary teacher's salary starts from Tk 3000, a PTI teacher's, on the other hand, starts from Tk 5100.
GPS teachers went on a fast unto death programme on June 24, which was later withdrawn upon a promise from the PM who assured that she would consider their demands. But the teachers, who form the backbone of the country's education, are left in a limbo; promises have been made in the past, but they were not kept. "Let's see what happens now…" Hoque says..
It is a wonder why the education system at the primary level is divided into so many factions. There are EPS, GPS and CPS, and no one can claim that it is the teachers getting paid the most who are providing the most quality teaching. Teachers of the third category school claim that their students did better in the talent pull exam of class five. Ironically, it is the teachers of the third category school who are being deprived of a proper pay scale.
Prof Sirajul Islam Chowdhury, a renowned academic, feels that "there should be a uniformed single system." "There should be reform of the education system and the aim of the reform would be to bring uniformity in this divided and discriminatory education system," says Chowdhury, who feels that the demands of the teachers must be met to ensure education of the future generation of the nation.
"The CPS teachers are doubly neglected. The CPSs are situated in the rural areas, and education and reform have become more and more city centred. It is no wonder why any reform has not yet touched these schools and why the salaries of the CPS teachers have remained so low. This must be changed, and there should be awareness regarding the status of the CPS teachersacross the country," feels Chowdhury.
Choudhury believes that since the CPSs are built with the help of the community, there must be effort by the community leaders to alleviate the problems of the teachers. However, Akhter, Bablu and many others who are engaged in teaching feel that unless the government take steps to solve the crisis, there is no other way to end this discrimination in the form of disparate salaries. Teachers do look forward to the government to rescue them from their current misery, but if the government fails to do justice by rewarding the CPS teachers with a proper pay scale they will not have any other way but to opt for another bout of the fast unto death programme.
(R) thedailystar.net 2006