‘We’re Treated as Labourers’: Endless Woes of Kashmir’s Private Teachers

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Representational Pic By Reuters

In Kashmir’s classroom-deprived education system, private school teachers remain hanging in balance. Underpaid and unpaid, they’re still being used and thrown as per the wishes and whims of their “arrogant managers and masters”.

By Bisma Bhat

IN an early September day in Srinagar, sunbeams from her small kitchen window shone Ruksaan Ali’s furrowed face. Her worried and woeful appearance made her look more than her actual age of 40. Apart from a personal tragedy, she’s equally grief-stricken over her “thankless” job.

This Srinagar-based private school teacher has been religiously preparing video lectures of Urdu subject for 1st and 2nd class students since Covid lockdown crippled the already discord-dented educational calendar of the valley.

But despite doing what she calls a desperate-for-living job, she stays unpaid for last three months.

“Most of us don’t grumble about it anymore now,” said the teacher donning the mantle of a matriarch for her strife-torn home. “Despite sustaining the private education sector with our sweat and blood, most of us are being dismissed as expandable at the end of the day, and are literary forced to beg for our hard-earned salaries.”

The lady who’s a “moody madam” for her gossip-loving locality keeps fighting her own silent battles of life.

Apart from being an underpaid, and equally an unpaid, educator, Ruksaan is the breadwinner for her family. Her husband is bedridden since 2018 when he suffered a paralytic bullet-injury, followed by a major heart attack in 2019. His lifesaving drugs cost the private teacher around Rs 15000 every month.

“It’s too much to bear with my holdup Rs 5000 monthly salary,” the teacher, who’s graduate and specialized in physical education, voiced her woe.

Despite students paying their full fees every month, many private schools today face charges of forcing teachers to work without salaries.

Schools and other educational institutions in Kashmir have been shut since the August last year when New Delhi revoked Article 370 and the region subsequently faced the communication clampdown.

In March 2020, when the first case of coronavirus was reported in the valley, educational institutions were once again closed after resuming class work for just few weeks.

As education in the valley shifted to 2G-driven online mode, private school teachers were instructed to conduct the online classes from home.

But despite working hard, these unsung educators—like Saima Bhat—are today facing salary hassles and sudden job terminations.

In August 2020, the 27-year-old private school teacher was sacked along with 29 others from a well-reputed private school of the valley.

A B.Ed degree-holder, Saima had joined the school in January and was teaching lower primary department through online mode.

“We were simply told that they don’t need us anymore,” the distressed teacher said. “Before sacking us, the school authorities told us they’ll clear our pending salaries within a month.”

The ouster came as a rude shock to Saima and her ilk—who worked hard to complete school assignments despite grappling with pestering and pathetically slow internet to conduct regular online classes.

“In addition to video lectures,” the jobless teacher informed, “we submitted PPT presentations and other assignments to the school every day. We worked double than our normal classroom routine and yet we were dumped as if we never mattered.”

Like others, Saima said, she also received salary of March and April only, and was charged Rs 1200 as bus fee, without availing the service.

Decrying job insecurity, the sacked private school teacher said her tribe faces discrimination despite toiling hard for excellent school result and progress.

“But at the end,” she lamented, “no one is talking about it. Even government is equally silent over the issue.”

However, Dr. Asgar Samoon warned a strict action against private schools for paying half salaries to their teachers besides terminating them.

“I’ve instructed parents to pay tuition fee only because the private school teachers will get their salaries,” Samoon, Principal Secretary School Education, told Kashmir Observer. “But if schools are harassing their staff they will face dire consequences.”

But such warnings are hardly working, as the axe of termination is ceaselessly falling on the private school educators.

Since the Covid-plagued spring, Rifat Ara, 29, had been working tirelessly in Srinagar’s prominent private school. Her toil was driven by her escalating destitute situation back home.

“My father is about to retire from his job and I wanted to give him some relief and respite by becoming his helping hand,” anxious Rifat detailed her family compulsion for doing what she calls a “thankless” job.

After completing around 80 percent of her school syllabus, she received a terse text: ‘Stop it for now’.

“Almost every student in our school has paid tuition fee till now,” the teacher said. “I fail to understand why school terminated me and my colleagues?”

Such self-styled decisions taken on wishes and whims of the private school consortium have already drawn massive flak from the campus-deprived community. While the repeated and unaddressed issue has already become an irritable noise for some, many still seek the administration’s attention towards the plight of Kashmir’s private school educators.

As a remedial measure, Dr. Samoon said, Right to Education will address most of these issues  in the coming days.

“Once this measure is implemented,” he said, “schools will have to submit audit report of their yearly expenditures to the government.”

But as of now, he asserted, any harassed private teacher can send him ‘grievance message’ on his Whatsapp number.

“We’ll act accordingly,” he assured. “Besides, we’ll engage Labour Commission to ensure that these private teachers are paid their well-deserved dues.”

However, Afshan Younis, a sacked private teacher from Srinagar, strongly contradicted the top official’s assertions.

She lately lodged a complaint in Director Education’s Office regarding her sudden sacking, but so far, she said, nothing has been done.

“There’re no rules and regulation set for the private schools with respect of their staff,” Afshan told Kashmir Observer.

“Government has not even made any job policy for us. Teacher is said to be a building block of the education system, but in Kashmir, private teachers don’t have any respect or value. We’re treated as labourers. Our society is also silent on this discrimination against their own children’s tutors!”

Afshan was recently sacked after she demanded her pending salary. Barely 12 hours later, she received her termination letter.

“But I am not the only one,” she informed. “The private school management follows its own whimsical hire and fire policy in Kashmir.”

As Eid was approaching on July 11, she had demanded her pending salary during an official online meet.

“We could not manage family expenses with half salary,” Afshan said. “But when I raised my genuine issue, I was abused, taunted, with strong obnoxious words by the school authority, who insisted me to resign, there and then only, without regarding my long and loyal association with them.”

Two days later, she received her sacking notice from the school management, stating that she has been relieved from her duties and all her dues will be cleared when her other colleagues will receive it.

“I gave my youth to that school,” Afshan lamented. “After ten years of my life, they handed a termination letter and asked me to go. For the sake of that school, I worked beyond office hours, and did not even give enough time to my two-year-old son who was my priority.”

Meanwhile, at her rundown Srinagar residence, Ruksaan Ali was getting anxious about her husband’s falling health and rising home expanses.

“Despite uploading regular video lectures for students during pandemic, the school management never bothered about my salary,” she said.

“I could’ve resigned long back, if only I had an option. I’ve an ailing husband and two kids to sustain. Only my Allah knows how I’m managing with such a small amount!”

Despite some NGOs taking care of her ailing husband’s medical bills, the private school teacher’s world stays woeful.

“My children have not worn new clothes from many years now,” she rued. “I hardly cook a good food for them. I’m not able to provide a good life to my family. What have I achieved by serving that school all these years? Nothing, a big zero! This is a life of a private school teacher who does not care for her own children but gives her time and youth to others’ children only to live such a deprived and distressed life.”

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