Supriya Chaudhuri writes: Who failed West Bengal’s students?

In September 2021, K V Mohandas, chairman of the Eleventh Kerala Pay Revision Commission (PRC), took official note of the practice of collecting money from teachers for appointment in state-aided schools and colleges by comparing it to dowry. “Like dowry, demanding money for appointments in aided schools and colleges is considered evil by everyone and still the practice is allowed to continue,” he said. While the PRC Report recommended some measures to end this evil, given that teachers’ salaries in aided institutions were paid by the government from the public exchequer, there was also an undercurrent of hopelessness about the situation, even sympathy for managements that needed funds for infrastructure and maintenance. Nevertheless, the practice was corrupt and illegal, and it was suggested that handing over recruitment to the Public Service Commission (PSC) or constituting a statutory Kerala Recruitment Board for Private Schools and Colleges might help to end it.

Soon after the publication of the Kerala PRC report, I attended a meeting with members of the Commission for Reforms in the Higher Education System of Kerala, who were looking for pointers from our own experience in West Bengal with special reference to the research and teaching excellence of Jadavpur University, where I taught for most of my working life. When the discussion touched upon payment for teaching posts in higher education in West Bengal, I said that while influence and politics obviously played a part, I was not aware of money changing hands for appointments under either the state PSC or the College Service Commission (CSC). For school teachers, I admitted, it had long been a different story, despite the existence of a state School Service Commission (SSC).

As it turns out, I could not have been more wrong on the first head. The discovery of over Rs 50 crore in cash and gold jewellery in flats belonging to an associate of West Bengal’s former industries minister (and former education minister), Partha Chatterjee, as well as numberless properties allegedly jointly owned by them or their families, has unplugged a flood of disclosures at every level, from the serious to the salacious. The Enforcement Directorate’s (ED) investigation of Chatterjee and his associates followed successive high court judgments regarding recruitment scams during his tenure as education minister. From 2016, the appointment of school teachers qualifying the SSC’s State Level Selection Test (SLST) had flagrantly violated the merit list, for reasons of nepotism, money or political clout. Second, there were irregularities in the recruitment by SSC of Group D staff in state-aided schools, after the tenure of the original panel of appointees for 13,000 posts had expired. Third, at least 269 primary school teachers in government-aided schools were ineligible for appointment. The clear implication was that during Chatterjee’s term as education minister, a system had been put in place such that all school posts, of teaching and non-teaching staff, were sold for money. Additional Solicitor General Suryaprakash V Raju, appearing for the ED, declared that they were looking for at least Rs 120 crore in the SSC recruitment scam, more than twice the sum they had found in cash.

Moreover, despite the Trinamool Congress Party (TMC)’s panic-stricken distancing of itself from their tainted ex-cabinet minister and former secretary-general, it is obvious that this massive exercise in monetising posts in the education system (and in other services too) was carried out by a vast number of functionaries who set prices and collected the loot. Chatterjee has already said that the money is not his, and this is true in more than one sense — he was allegedly a collector as well as an individual profiteer. In fact, for all the shock and horror about the SSC scam being expressed by the left parties in Bengal, it was they who started the process. Those of us who were in the teaching profession during the Left Front rule in Bengal know how many of our own students were asked to pay substantial sums before they could join as teachers in schools to which they had been appointed through the SSC (set up in 1997). The same was true of lower-level jobs in government and public-sector industries. All one might say is that the scale of demand was not as high, and so far as I knew, college and university posts, or those of vice-chancellors, were not sold, though most appointments were politically influenced.

Under the TMC, this system appears to have been developed to a point where it could serve to fill, not just party coffers, but the pockets of every greedy profiteer. It was extended into the higher education system, with the minister, as soon as he assumed office, dismissing out of hand a proposal for a centralised online undergraduate admission process. Soon after this, I recall a young second-year student sitting next to me in the bus, busy on his phone working out the rates at which seats in several of Kolkata’s colleges were to be sold. When I expressed amazement, he said that with the exception of some leading institutions and “first-list candidates,” the lower half of the admission table was decided by payment, with political parties, students’ unions, teachers’ associations and other functionaries either raking in a handsome profit, or looking the other way. Unsurprisingly, it is now alleged that lakhs were extorted for college appointments and, so the rumour goes, for vice-chancellorships. As one commentator put it, education, like the construction industry, was rapidly passing into the hands of powerful “syndicates” functioning at the ruling party’s behest.

Should one be surprised? After all, such practices, together with the “leaking” of examination papers and forging of marksheets, are common all over India. Stories of the huge sums paid for vice-chancellorships in states from Punjab to Tamil Nadu circulated freely when, many years ago, I was an active member of the National Assessment and Accreditation Council’s exercises. What is remarkable, instead, is the shock expressed by many as the scale of Chatterjee’s alleged depredations unfolds. After all, such a system required collaborators and participants at every level. On TV today, reporters have no problems finding, and interviewing, ordinary people who paid money for jobs to local functionaries, and operators whose task was to collect it. Most appallingly, the public has witnessed with apparent indifference the eight-year-long struggle of the cheated SSC candidates who had qualified in the merit list, protesting illegal appointments to posts that were rightfully theirs. No one — least of all the state government — can say that they did not know what was going on.

The problem with corruption, like disease, or the coronavirus by which we were recently struck, is that it infects society as a whole. India is placed at 85 out of 180 countries in the global corruption perceptions index reported by Transparency International. Most of us experience corrupt practices daily, often in helpless acquiescence. The buying and selling of jobs in the education sector in West Bengal is just another instance of the breakdown of the civil contract, with those in power assuming the right to monetise and profit from what is actually funded by taxpayers. For a state that prides itself on the high rankings of its educational institutions, as well as the public benefits of welfare programmes like Kanyashree and Swasthya Sathi, that have drawn so much popular support, this is an uncomfortable admission. Whether the rot can be checked is another question.

(Supriya Chaudhuri is Professor Emerita, Jadavpur University, Kolkata)

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