By Mahesh Vijapurkar

When the next round of awards are handed over to teachers, the Government of India should not miss Bhitiprava Patel, a teacher in Odisha’s Sundergah district. She did two things: disregarded the non-payment of salary for six years, and by attending school and continuing to teach, shamed the government.

By media reports, Patel was punished by withholding of her salary because on the day of the inspection of the school, she arrived seven minutes late. It was treated as so grave an offence that she almost paid hugely by not getting her pay for six years – equal to more than a year’s pay for each minute she was late.

It appears Bhitiparva Patel may get her outstandings but there’s a catch. With the issue in the open, the authorities have said her back pay for a year could be paid but for the other five years the teacher would have to wait till special budgetary provisions are made. Because, that’s rules, and clerical mentality in government is hidebound by them.

When they withheld her pay, they did not realise that rules do not allow for such punishments which she bore with fortitude. The silver lining is that during the period of punishment, the teacher was promoted as headmistress. That is, two years after the punishment was imposed. All she would have needed was cutting her pay for a day for late-coming.

Unless there is an entirely different story behind this which we may not know, the teacher was the epitome of respect for the profession she was in. Even if rich, the entitlement of the salary cannot be disregarded in such cavalier fashion. If there is someone to be punished, it is the one who held back the pay. There is a lot to be explained. Paying up is not enough. Someone else needs to be punished.

Teachers, and thereby education of the children, has always been a low priority for the authorities. Parents and the society have been scarcely able to get amends made. State after state have been employing para teachers, paying nominal salaries on contract, and to cover this flaw, used grand names – ‘Sahayak Shikshak’, ‘Shikshamitra’ etc. They are not part-time teachers, but very poorly paid teachers.

The need for employment is exploited by governments which cannot pay ordinary salaries. They may have enough for other sectors where in collusion with contractors, the government resources can be milked. But if education sector is so badly treated, the outcomes in human resource terms can be, and are, tragic. Parents are forced to opt for private schools.

Private schools may be under state’s oversight but the salaries paid may not be as recommended though it cannot be generalised. The form reigns supreme and the content goes for a toss because simply because they are private does not necessarily mean they are better. High fees may not translate into good salaries because schools are set up these days as businesses. And the ‘International’ tag keeps the state boards off their backs.

Assumption that all teachers get the equivalent of the Sixth Pay Commission in our country if not employed by the state or the para-state bodies is false. Some are just grateful to have been employed. That is not a good thing at all for the cause of education. Especially school education, where despite 12 years in it, a student has to take recourse to a high-cost tutorial to make the grade to get a medical or engineering admission.

But Bhitiprava Patel has shamed the system.