Unperturbed by thousands of teachers on a mass strike in Bhubaneswar, the Odisha government on Thursday sent a letter to all district education officers in the state directing them to check attendance of teachers and ensure striking teachers do not receive pay for the period of absence.
School and Mass Education Minister Badri Narayan Patra told the press that the letter has been sent in accordance with the “no-work no-pay principle”.
Thousands of teachers in Odisha’s block-grant schools and colleges on Wednesday evening stepped up their agitation in Bhubaneswar, reiterating a four-year-old allegation of discrimination in pay and perks in comparision with regular state government teachers.
Starting Thursday, the teachers stopped teaching in 2608 schools and around 1,000 colleges across the state, which they say will affect 30 lakh students. They have also threatened to shift their protests to the MLA quarters in the capital.
The block-grant system of education, said to be unique to Odisha, is a model where schools are set up under local management committees in blocks across the state. Teachers in these schools are selected by local management, unlike the systematic and centralized recruitment of regular state government teachers.
These teachers say they do not enjoy government benefits such as seniority in tenure, maintenance of service books, dearness and house rent allowance, and pension, among others. A senior member of the state’s Board of Secondary Education (BSE) said that the “disparity is inevitable because they (block-grant teachers) are not as qualified as full-time government teachers”. However, block grant teachers say that they possess the same qualifications.
Saroj Panigrahi, Vice President of Odisha Secondary Schools Teachers Association (OSSTA), told The Indian Express that after even after years of service and same responsibilities as regular state government teachers, block-grant teachers were denied the same service charter. OSSTA is leading the agitation of the teachers, which started in 2014.
“At the time of retirement, a state government teacher draws a pay of around Rs 74,000. But a block-grant teacher receives Rs 17,500,” Panigrahi said, pointing out pay disparity.
The teachers, who had been protesting the state government in small numbers since August 16 on the Chief Minister Office (CMO) adjacent PMG square, saw a swelling in ranks by Wednesday evening as thousands of their colleagues joined them from all across the state.
In 2017, Chief Minister Naveen Patnaik tried to defuse ongoing protests by proposing to abolish the block-grant system and replace it with a grant-in-aid system, where the state government promised a hike in financial assistance to such schools. “This meant that we block-grant teachers could receive hike in DA every three years as per the Sixth Pay Commission”, said Bhabanishankar Mishra, another senior member of OSSTA.
Mishra said that negotiations broke down after the government attached conditions to its compromise. Teachers were asked to submit affidavits that they would not challenge the state government any further in courts. “Shutting us out of the legal system is a blatant human rights violation and so we renewed protests”, explained Panigrahi.
However, the low scale agitations stepped up on Wednesday after Minister Patra commented on their protests. “If teachers disrespect Teachers Day, what can we do?” Patra said, referring to the decision of the agitators to observe Teachers Day as ‘Black Day’.
Opposition parties, BJP and Congress, visited the teachers to express solidarity. Union Petroleum and Skill Development Minister Dharmendra Pradhan said, “The protests are a result of the state government’s failure to work sincerely for a solution”.