(To translate for non-Hindi speakers, “teachers…unions…what nonsense is this, my friend?)
Terrible translation, but you get the gist. Those who have spent any time in Delhi University will immediately recognise the picture I paint now…imagine a long-haired, loose-jeaned youth of about twenty, casually lounging against a wall, sipping a banta (lemon soda) and occasionally scanning the horizon for that pretty girl from his business studies class…his friends will agree, “teacher-veacher union-shunion, kya bakwas hai yaar?” These are serious students lets assume, with dreams of MBAs post-graduation and eight-figure salaries. One of them might then say, “Mittal sir, he is the best, yaar; he never goes on strike, and his notes got us first divisions.”
I mean lets face it; as stereotypes of the teaching profession immortalised on screen we have the hot teacher (Main Hoon Na, and millions of others – usually involves a seemingly prim woman suddenly taking her glasses off, and shaking her bun open in slow motion), the radical teacher who inspires his students to question the system (Dead Poet’s Society), the truly inspiring teacher who turns students’ lives around (To Sir With Love) and the cool teacher, who is the students’ best friend (too many to recount). But the teacher who is an employee, joins a union and goes on strike??
I remember my first strike as a college lecturer about six years ago; it was my first year as a lecturer, and I joined hundreds of teachers from Delhi University on the road outside Jantar Mantar (official site of political protests in Delhi)…caught up in the unique thrill that comes with being able to publicly stand up for something you believe is right, I didn’t notice a large bunch of news reporters boredly but determinedly clicking away with their zoom lensed cameras. There I was with my colleagues, splashed all over the newspapers the next day, sweaty-faced, my expression declaring war and my fist raised in solidarity with other teachers. I should have felt proud; instead I felt caught. Red-handed. It reminded me of the time when I was in school and had ridden in the boot of a Maruti 800 with four friends, the door of the boot wide open above our heads, our legs swinging out over the back bumper, the breeze on our faces…exhilaration. The next day there was a photo of my friends and me in the front page of The Hindu supplement with the caption, “Alarming Lack of Safety on City Roads: Schoolchildren on a Joyride”.
My parents weren’t pleased then, when I was 13; I suspect they had the exact same reaction this time around. They may have even gone on a round of anguished self-questioning, of the ‘where did we go wrong?!’ variety. To be fair to them, as far as they were concerned, this was evolutionary regression. My grandfather had run away from home, fleeing his tiny village to reach the city, living on the streets and putting himself through college. He made it finally as a draughtsman in the British government; and married his only daughter off to an English-educated army officer. My parents in turn sacrificed the best years of their marriage to the cause of a decent education for their two daughters, living apart so we could attend public schools in bigger cities.
After all this, I was back on the streets, and they were in all likelihood mortified. I blame cinema. As I said earlier, no images or icons exist for the striking, protesting, angry-employee teacher. It isn’t a coincidence I think. Teaching is supposed to be a noble profession, which is the reason HRD Minister Kapil Sibal feels it is alright to chide striking IIT faculty for ‘unbecoming’ behaviour. In that sense, university teaching has a somewhat unique status in this country; it is one of very few ‘respectable’ middle-class professions to be publicly unionised (government doctors, and now airline pilots being two of the others). It is not a surprise however that teachers need unions – a survey of the history of government regulations regarding higher education since the 1970’s clearly reveals how low education is on national priority. Notwithstanding the hype about the brave new knowledge economy, higher education in India is ruled by an arbitrary and hierarchical decision-making structure, an ongoing apartheid between central and state universities; and at various other levels (A fact noted by Vrijendra in his post on Kafila), and continuous fund crunch especially for the humanities, arts and social sciences. With the latest HRD dispensation, there now seems to be a massive push towards universitiy departments raising funds for their courses directly from the market, a move that will mean a slow death for ‘unprofitable’ courses like say, Sanskrit. In the absence of a real commitment to improving the number, diversity and quality of universities, improving research facilities and investing in faculty development, the easiest tactic on the government’s part is to tap into popular perception about non-performing, lazy teachers, and justify absurdly low pay packages for them. Further, every single pay revision has been accompanied by compulsory new service conditions for teachers, unlike any other sector of government; an unjustified exceptionalism.The recent Pay Commission has greatly redressed the issue of pay, a fact that has been repeated ad nauseum in the media, but the little known fact is that the substantially higher pay applies only to senior faculty (those who in government parlance are called Pay Band 4), whereas younger faculty in Pay Band 3 have seen only a marginal increase in pay. More disturbingly, the arbitrary and punitive service conditions introduced by the UGC make promotions dependent on acquiring a certain number of points in your career, which in turn are dependent on conditions that are for the most part only very remotely concerned with college teaching and academics, and more importantly, nearly impossible for the average college teacher in India to fulfl. Explaining the full contours of this awful new monster the UGC has created, and what it will do to a profession I love more than anything in the world will require a full-length post in itself.
The main point here is, as far as the government is concerned, the combination of the sudden yawning gap between Pay Band 3 and 4, and the new service conditions together add up to a political and financial masterstroke. By giving a huge bonanza to Pay Band 4, the government has ensured their full support and acquiescence, and created a difference of interests between them and younger faculty. This was important from the government’s point of view, since it is the senior faculty who have been the most vociferous in the teachers movement, given their greater bargaining power and experience. Not surprisingly, they have dominated teachers’ unions in order to unanimously agree to the new pay package offered this time. As for service conditions regarding promotion especially, most Pay Band 4 teachers are past their final promotion, and many near retirement. So it is difficult to imagine that they would be unduly concerned; so effectively, those affected by the new service conditions are new and younger teachers in Pay band 3. The younger teachers have always been more vulnerable; most have taught as ad hoc or temporary faculty for many years, a humilating and debilitating experience…more so if one is in a state university, where contractual employment is very common. They will be rendered even more vulnerable and fragmented by these new conditions (one of whose principal effects will be to pitch individual teacher against individual teacher in order to acquire points for promotion). Hence, they will find it difficult if not impossible to mobilise themselves politically in unions to oppose any unjust moves by the government. The long term calculation of the government seems to be this – get rid of the political threat represented by the older faculty by giving them more than they expect, then bring in near-impossible conditions for promotion, so that very few of those currently in Pay Band 3 make it to Pay Band 4, ensuring that the loss of revenue incurred in the dramatically increased salary of Pay Band 4 will be more than offset in coming years with these older faculty retiring, and most of the younger faculty langushing at Pay Band 3 for the remainder of their careers.
However, none of these facts will ever make it to the front pages or the television scenes. Because, hidden beneath upper class and middle class notions about teaching as a noble profession and of ‘becoming behaviour’ and so on is scant understanding of the real reasons for the rot in education in this country and barely concealed contempt for college and university teachers. This contempt increases dramatically if you do something as unbecoming as going on strike – how uncouth! To get a grip on the politics of higher education in this country, we will need to let go of middle-class notions of propriety and start thinking of teachers as employees and as a class seriously. Now more than ever, since higher education is on the verge of a very wrong turn, for which the only option may be more strikes and unbecoming behaviour. So no thank you Mr. Sibal, if you are determined to slowly squeeze the life out of us, we will NOT behave ourselves.
(To be Continued)