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Teachers to stand in for police? Even ministers differ as big debate rages in Punjab

In two controversial orders issued and revoked since 21 May, Punjab govt teachers were deployed to check illegal liquor smuggling and illegal sand mining.

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Chandigarh: On 21 May, the Punjab government ordered its school teachers to be deployed outside distilleries to check liquor smuggling. Just about a month later, this Saturday, school teachers were directed to take position at check points to curb illegal sand mining.

While both the orders were quickly withdrawn in the face of a massive row, they have triggered a debate over the deployment of schoolteachers on duties that are not related to teaching, especially law enforcement. 

Supporters of the idea point to the gravity of the Covid-19 crisis, and say teachers are currently “largely free” as schools remain shut amid the pandemic. However, critics note that teachers serve a specialised role. As for the claims that teachers are “free” right now, they claim educators have their hands full trying to mitigate the impact of the school shutdown on the curriculum.

Even members of the government are failing to see eye-to-eye on the issue. Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu stressed that every government employee must be up for any task as the state battles a crisis like Covid-19, but School Education Minister Vijay Inder Singla said it’s wrong to deploy teachers on such duties.

Also Read: PM Modi asks states to follow Punjab’s micro-containment strategy to handle Covid crisis

‘They are largely free’

On Saturday, a sub-divisional magistrate of Phagwara ordered the appointment of 40 teachers to check illegal sand mining. These teachers were supposed to monitor various traffic checkpoints in the district along with police personnel until late at night and look for trucks carrying illegally mined sand.

Following protests by teacher unions and criticism from opposition Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD), the orders were revoked.

On 21 May, the deputy commissioner of Gurdaspur deputed two dozen schoolteachers to check liquor smuggling. This order was also revoked within hours, again in the face of criticism.

The use of teachers for non-teaching work is neither new nor limited to the lockdown. In 2018, teachers had also protested when they were put on duty to generate awareness about stubble burning. 

The recent orders come as schools remain indefinitely shut down on account of the pandemic. Teachers, however, point out that just because the schools are closed, it doesn’t mean they are free, as they are still having to provide online lessons and go the extra mile to cover the syllabus.

“Let me first clarify that none of the government teachers is free. We are taking online classes everyday, which is more work than physical teaching. We prepare a lesson, record the video and then make sure that it reaches the students,” said Gurpreet Roopra, president of the Punjab Teachers and Education Welfare Association, an organisation engaged in promoting educators’ welfare.

“We ensure the students are getting the lectures and are responding. In some villages, where students don’t have mobile phones, teachers are also going to their homes and making these available,” he added.  

Teachers, Roopra said, are already on pandemic duty at quarantine centres across the states. 

“Teachers have been notified as duty magistrates and made in charge of quarantine centres. They have been escorting people coming from outside the state to the centres and also keeping a tab on their movements,” he added.

According to Roopra, when the Prime Minister’s ‘Ghar Ghar Shauchalaya (Toilet in Every Household)’ scheme was launched, teachers were even asked to make a list of people who defecated in the public every morning and supply this to the administration so that necessary steps could be taken to get a toilet in their homes. 

“Is this the work of a teacher?” he said. “It is extremely unfair that teachers are considered to be available for anything and everything. If teachers are considered to be a replacement for excise officials to check the illegal liquor trade or mining officers, who check illegal sand mining, are these officials also qualified to replace teachers in school when the need arises?”

SAD leader and former state school education minister Daljeet Singh Cheema said schoolteachers were the backbone of the education system. 

“I fail to understand why the Punjab government does not learn the right lessons by making a mistake once? Why are teachers being put on such duties? Has the Punjab government no respect for school teachers who are the backbone of the education system?”  

A senior IAS officer, however, begged to differ, saying schoolteachers were put on duty in these two cases “because they are largely free” due to the closure of schools following the Covid-19 lockdown. 

“Also, police are overworked because of being on duty at containment zone nakas and other lockdown-related work. It should not have been any problem had the school teachers, who are sitting at home and drawing salaries, assisted the other officers of the government in carrying out their tough duties,” the officer added. “It is not that they are being put on these jobs alone. They were to provide some assistance to the officers of the departments concerned.” 

Punjab Health Minister Balbir Singh Sidhu said every government officer should be ready to perform any duty “in an emergency situation or a situation in which the state was fighting a war against pandemic”. “I am the health minister of the state but, if required, I would don a PPE (personal protective equipment) suit and assist doctors in hospitals,” he added. 

“Whatever duty a government officer is put to, depending on the requirement of the administration, should not be seen as big or small. This is the time when government officers should volunteer to be a part of fighting this battle,” he said. 

His school education colleague Singla, however, does not agree. “Our teachers are already engaged in teaching apart from doing the duties in quarantine centres. They have worked really hard and, for the first time in the state’s history, managed the entire admission process online,” he said. 

“It has been a roaring success and we have seen a whopping 10 per cent increase in admissions this year. What teachers are doing is highly commendable and to put them on such duties is wrong. On both occasions, it was on my intervention that the orders were revoked.” 

Singla said it was “dangerous” to start involving teachers in such law-and-order enforcement work. “Teachers are trained to teach and, if something happens to them, no other set of government officers can replace them,” Singla added. 

Principal Secretary, School Education, Krishan Kumar, said the Right to Education Act allowed teachers to be involved in only three kinds of non-teaching work — elections, census operation and disaster management. “Anything they are asked to do beyond this is illegal.”  

Also Read: Covid-19 behaves like a sexually transmitted infection

‘Not considered an intellectual entity’

Balkar Singh, general secretary of the prominent Government School Teachers Union Punjab, said teachers are “used as extras by every government and we have strongly objected to that”. 

“Since the lockdown, they have put us on duty at airports and railway stations to take note of people coming from outside and keep track of them. We have been on duty at mandis during wheat procurement,” he added. “I am the supervisory officer for Covid containment in a cluster of 12 villages. We also continue to work as block-level officers for elections in revising the voting lists. And all this while we are doing online teaching,” Singh said.

Professor Apoorvanand of the Hindi department, Faculty of Arts, University of Delhi, said the use of teachers for various non-teaching activities only “pointed to the fact that teachers are not considered an intellectual entity”. 

He added, “They are not considered professionals but jacks of all trades who can be used as replacement for all odd jobs. It is unfortunate that teachers are not seen as knowledge creators or persons capable of research but considered to be somebody who gives a mechanical input to the functioning of the education system.”

Also Read: Why, as a Punjabi, my hardest reporting stint was in Punjab during Covid lockdown


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