Karnataka chief minister B.S. Yediyurappa has announced a Rs 1,250 crore Covid relief package for the state. The government has addressed different vulnerable groups, a welcome move that has come rather too late. However, one stark absence from this relief allotment is the education sector and its stakeholders, particularly the contractual guest teachers.
‘Guest’ faculty – the term itself captures the incredibly unstable and fragile nature of their job – have had a very difficult experience, even before the pandemic began. Even if a qualified (often over-qualified) teacher does manage to find a job despite corruption, lack of transparent processes of hiring and the network of caste- and class-linked ‘connections’ and ‘favours’ that oil the system, life ahead is mostly unstable, unsustainable and undignified.
There are many stories of ad hoc and guest faculties from large central universities such as Delhi University — which sustains its pedagogic structure by overworking and underpaying a mass of temporary teachers — where teachers have been promptly dismissed from their contracts at will, and rarely paid summer salaries. Similar stories have come from schools where guest teachers have been forced to take up stitching, selling fruits, making PPE kits, and doing daily wage work. They were even put on challan duty against their will, a far cry from their usual work. But stories from smaller colleges in states like Karnataka are less publicised.
Contractualisation in the education sector
In India, teaching has often been upheld as a lofty profession, perhaps only next in line after public administration and medicine. It is seen as ‘noble’ work. But while teachers are often lauded for their services, their genuine issues have few listeners. Education too, is understood to be the pathway to socio-economic mobility and a ladder to success. The bedrock of education in India has been laid by teachers like Jyotiba Phule, Savitribai Phule, Fatima Sheikh, B. R. Ambedkar, and so on. But the current situation of the teaching profession is dire.
The Constitution guarantees right to equal pay for equal work, which is also established by international agreements such as the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights 1966 and established as precedent in law through cases such as State of Punjab and Ors. v. Jagjit Singh and Ors. The judgment holds that two people doing the same amount of work cannot be treated differently merely on nomenclature. But since the structural shifts of the 1990s, the entire economy in general and the education sector in particular has seen a decisive shift towards discrimination among teachers on the basis of their classification. After rapid privatisation of the education system, two categories of teachers have essentially been recognised: permanent/regular teacher and contractual/guest/para teachers. Studies have suggested that qualification required to teach, workload and work hours are same for both regular and para/contract teachers in India. But only one is paid a higher salary.
The situation in Karnataka
Karnataka is no exception to the broader situation of contractualisation in education, and the pandemic has worsened things. A July 2020 study showed that over 40,000 teachers (only in the private sector) lost their jobs in Karnataka. Considering the second wave, and if one were to take into account public schools and higher educational institutions, this number would surely have risen. Over 268 teachers have lost their lives to Covid-19 since March 2020.
Apart from last year’s lockdown, the community of guest faculty in the state has suffered from issues like lack of job security, under-payment, and delay in salaries among others. The second wave and the poorly-managed lockdowns have only compounded their problems, becoming the straw that inevitably breaks the camel’s back. Many difficult narratives of bare survival have emerged from the second wave as well.
Shifting professions in precarious times
One of the prominent educationists of Karnataka, professor Niranjanaradhya V.P. of the National Law School recently observed that “when we look at the situation of guest faculties, we see that in general they do the same amount of work as compared to permanent faculty. The simple fact that they have been reappointed continuously for so many years means there are vacancies for those posts in colleges… The guest faculties’ situation is just evidence of how inhumanly the government treated them.”
Instead of absorbing them as permanent faculty, they are left dangling in economic and social precarity for years at end. A guest teacher from Karnataka had to work as a daily wager under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) and borrow Rs 40,000 for the final rites of his father. Another guest teacher in Puttur (Dakshina Kannada district) lost her job due to the sudden lockdown. She was forced to work in the beedi-making industry.
In Haveri, a guest teacher was forced to sell mangoes to survive. There are others doing agricultural labour and daily wage work for their survival. More than 350 non-permanent teachers have changed their profession due to Covid-19 in order to sustain their family members, due to the lack of government support. They have been constantly demanding a special package. Last year, the All India Save Education Committee (AISEC) had submitted many memorandums, and requested ministers and local administrators to help guest teachers but there has been no help to date.
Demands of guest teachers
Various guest teacher organisations have been protesting this continued discrimination. They demand timely disbursal of salary, job security, conversion of para/contractual/guest teachers to permanent/regular teaching posts by fulfilling existing vacancies, equal pay among others. In June 2020, the guest teacher community gave a call for a statewide protest with support from various teacher associations. There were many protests at various places in Karnataka in the months of July, August and September, urging the government to accept their demands. In the form of small relief, the state government in November 2020 announced an honorarium for the months March to August 2020 for 14,447 guest teachers across Karnataka. Again in the month of January 2021, the state education department announced vacancies through a circular, which proposed to make guest faculties permanent. However, guest teachers protested this stop-gap solution and alleged that the circular’s intent was to appoint only 50 per cent of guest faculties (7,091 out of total 14,447) and claimed that it would be injustice to those left out and who had served as guest lecturers for many years.
A comprehensive solution must be found to make such teachers permanent in order to give them a sense of security, dignity and respect. Guest teachers are treated like mercenaries, who are (infrequently and insufficiently) paid for their services and then dismissed, and yet expected to have a sense of affection and devotion to their profession. Such treatment to teachers also affects their students, who are put through a rotation of multiple educators on short-term basis, rendering them unable to build any deep connections.
Sadat Hussain is PhD Scholar, Zakir Hussain Centre for Educational Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Views are personal.
(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)