As the results of 2021 poll elections are set to be declared within hours, the death of a 27 years old assistant teacher from UP has exposed a massive and highly ignored loophole in the so-called ‘system’ of India.
27 years old Kalyani Agrahari, was a newly appointed assistant teacher and was only in the first month of her job. Agrahari was eight months pregnant and did not want to join the panchayat election duty held on 15th April.
On 9th April, along with her husband, Agrahari travelled nearly 30 kilometres from Pataila gram panchayat to Jaunpur Vikas Bhavan to submit an application declaring that she would not be able to report on election duty.
A copy of the application that The Print accessed read, “I am a primary school teacher posted at Moina Composite School in Khutahan block. I am assigned at the Panchyat Polls and my code number is 24146. Due to my critical pregnancy, I will not be able to come on duty. Therefore, it is my humble request to the district election officer to relieve me from my duty.”
However, all the attempt of this to-be-mother proved to be futile. Agrahari was allegedly told that she would face an FIR, and also lose salary, if she did not report to duty.
Fifteen days later, Agrahari died in a Jaunpur hospital even before receiving her first salary. As per her family, her death certificate said she was Covid-positive.
Speaking with The Print, Agrahari’s husband Deepak said, “She was having anxieties that she would not be able to sit for a long time on poll duty. I accompanied her to the Vikas Bhavan but we were told that an FIR would be registered if she refused to come on duty. We both came home disheartened. Unhone kaha nayi naukri hai, salary nahin milegi (they said it’s a new job, you won’t get a salary).”
“She was forced to travel 32 kilometres to reach the polling station on 15 April. She spent more than 12 hours on the field. She had been feeling unwell since she came back home. After two days of fever, her condition started worsening,” Deepak added.
“She kept saying, ‘save me please’. Maine doctors ke pair pakde, gid-gidaye, par wo nahi rahi (I pleaded with the doctors to save her, but she didn’t survive). Around 11.30 am, the doctor finally came and told us that she is no more. The officials killed her. They all should be booked for criminal negligence,” Deepak said in a broken voice.
Agrahari’s 52 years-old father, Suresh Kumar also talked to The Print over the phone. A devasted and heartbroken Suresh Kumar said, “Maine usey itna padhaya likhaya ki kuch banegi, lekin system se kya mila? Ek maut. Meri beti ki jaan panchayat vibhag ke adhikariyon ki vajah se gayi (I sent her to school and college so she could do well in life. But this system only gave us death. My daughter died because of the officials at panchayats department).”
Agrahari was not the only victim. Though there is no conclusive nationwide number, as per a report by UP state teachers’ union, as many as 700 government teachers on poll duty died in UP alone. The number is enough to give an idea of the massive number of government teaches who might have died across the country during this year’s election duty. This also gives an idea of the horrible loophole that lied in front of our eyes for decades but failed to attract our attention.
Though Agrahari died silently, far removed from the eyes of the country, her death has given rise to a long-standing question about the place of government teachers in the country and the extent they are pushed to in the name of duties and responsibilities. Agrahari’s death asks the question that for how long government teachers will be the scapegoats of this ‘system’?
For decades, government school teachers have been unsung heroes during elections in India, putting their lives at stake in every single election. The death of government school teachers during election duty is not something new that has emerged as a result of COVID-19. For decades, in every single election, countless teachers have died across the country while fulfilling their duty of conducting fair and just voting, especially in Naxal areas such as Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
The difficult role of teachers during election duty was neatly portrayed in the 2017 National Award-winning Hindi film Newton. In the film, Anjali Patil played the role of MalkoNetam, a school teacher gripped in for polling duty in a Naxal ridden village of Chattisgarh.
However, the real situation in such voting duty is sometimes even worse than what Malko faced. For example, while Malko left in the evening in the film Newton, thousand of teachers have to work till midnight as they have to queue up to deposit the EVM machines and submit the paperwork of voter IDs matched with voter lists.
Amit Das (name changed), a primary school teacher from Karimganj recalls his bitter experience during an election duty. Mr Das said, “As far as I remember the year was 2007. I was posted in a remote village of Karimganj for poll duty. I have performed my duty as a polling agent in several elections but I remember that year as the worst. During that time, we had only one mobile phone in our house and I left it with my wife so that I could talk to her and my children during my duty. Upon reaching the destination I realised the situation was terrible. The first issue we faced was the lack of network coverage, I wanted to inform my wife that I have reached safely but there was absolutely no network. Even after trying for hours, I could not contact my family. Soon we discovered that there was no drinking water, no place to sleep, no sanitary facility, absolutely nothing. Everyone was worried, we were exhausted from the long journey but we had to manage somehow.
I remember the locals were very kind. They cooked for us and gave us some water. Finally, at around 2:00 in midnight, we had some food. Though it did not satisfy our hunger, at least we ate something. The next challenge was sleeping. We joined the old, rickety desks and breaches and lied down at around 3:00 in the morning. Voting was scheduled to start the next morning so we had to wake up early no matter what. However, waking up late was never the tension as none of us managed to sleep in the first place (laughs). The classroom was filled with mosquitoes, naturally, it was a completely sleepless night.
The next morning, I was feeling very dizzy. I had a long trying journey the previous day, did not have proper food, a single hour of sleep. In short, I was in a complete mess. However, I told myself that I am on national duty and I have to complete it by any means. Though the voting process ended peacefully, we faced the worst thing on our way back home. While we were returning with the vote boxes a group of local goons blocked our way and commanded us to get off the vehicle. They were 6 to 8 people with sharp weapons. Though we had security forces with us, I was really scared. I thought the whole trip was terrible and I did not want anything worse to happen.
The group engaged in an argument with us claiming that the voting process was not fair. However, nothing unfair had happened. They just wanted to confuse us and fulfil their agenda. I remember the argument between the forces and the goons continued for over an hour. It was only after the security forces warned them of firing, the group agreed to retreat.
When I returned home the next day, I discovered that my wife had lost hope that I would return (laughs). When I did not call for two days she thought something terrible had happened. She cried for a long time and even made me vow that I will never attend any election duty in future (laughs). But obviously, we are government servants, we can not keep these promises. I was deployed in multiple election duties after that but 2007 was undoubtedly the worst year.”
Research from a government body that was ordered by the government but not made public, revealed that teachers spend less than one-fifth of their work hours in teaching while election duty remains one of the mandatory tasks which eats into teaching.
When the report was published, Amitabh Kant, the chief executive of NITI Aayog said that Aayog has nothing to do with such as job data. The Election Commission called Kant’s intervention attempting to contain teachers’ role in polls “unwarranted”.
In a letter written to the Election Commission, Kant had said, “Interacting with chief secretaries of some states in the context of educational learning outcomes, it was brought to my notice that deployment of teachers in non-teaching activities is one of the reasons of poor learning outcomes and academic environment… Deployment of teachers as booth level officers leads to long absenteeism from classroom activities and provides a needless alibi for truancy among teachers.”
The report titled ‘Involvement of Teachers in Non-teaching Activities and its Effect on Education’ was published in 2018 which revealed that teachers, who are considered the backbone of the society, actually manage to spend a mere 19.1% of their total working hours in teaching. In the remaining 80.9% time, government teachers have to fulfil additional duties such as election duty, carrying out surveys, pulse polio campaigns and maintaining mid-day meal registers and other additional works inside the school. To be precise, the remaining 81% of teachers’ time is split as “42.6% non-teaching core activities,” 31.8% in non-teaching school-related activities,” and “6.5% on other department activities”.
The study was conducted by the National Institute of Education Planning and Administration (NIEPA), an autonomous body under the Ministry of Human Resource Development in select states like Gujarat, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Orissa and Uttarakhand.
Anamika Deb (name changed), the headmistress of a primary school in Karimganj said, “I am in my late 40s now. I love teaching and always excited to be with my students. However, nowadays I spend most part of the week doing works outside of teaching. I am getting old now, but even at this age, I have to run to the office almost every other day and do laborious works such as arranging for vehicle and bringing rice to the school, buying grocery items for MDM every other day. Somedays, I have to wait for hours in queue to buy grocery items for my school.”
Apart from additional duties, teachers also have to do clerical work such as distribution of school uniform and maintaining the mid-day meal register. Moreover, their BLO duties too do not have fixed timing.
“I remember, when a couple of years ago the government granted a new building for my school, I had to do everything from buying cement, metal rods etc., to travelling in a mini truck for almost 20 KM. For several days, I used to return home as late as 7:00 or 8:00 in the night. As it seems the government thinks of us as a labour force,” Anamika Deb added.
According to the 2018 report, while the Right to Education (RTE) Act mandates yearly 220 days for teaching, teachers actually spend merely 42 to 25 days doing their teaching duty.
Similarly, under the provisions of the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, 2009, classes I to V (primary) must have 200 working days while classes VI to VIII (upper primary) should have 220 working days per academic year, with a 45-hour work in a week.
However, when teachers involved in the study recalled their yearly activities, it was discovered that they spent as much as 81% of their time working as Block Level Officers (BLOs), conducting surveys and duties in the election year.
The report emphasises how every year one or the other state has elections and how the system finds potential resources for the elections through government school teachers. During this period of election, the non-availability of teachers greatly affect student achievement level. Similarly, teachers end up spending a great amount of time fulfilling census duty.
During this study, the Commission also undertook a desk review about the implementation of section 27 of the RTE Act 2009 and the involvement of teachers in non-academic activities.
In the review, it was discovered that since substantial academic time is lost during the elections, the provision of a minimum of 220 academic days as per the Schedule u/s 19 of the RTE 2009 remains unfulfilled, which is a clear cut violation of a crucial provision of the Act.
In the report, the NCPCR said, “Most of the total 9,28,237 polling stations in 2014 general elections were located in school buildings. For this, both private and government school buildings were acquired. Due to this, 10 days are spent in preparations, security measures and inspection. During the period of election duties.”
After the death of Kalyani Agrahari attracted national attention, on 30th April, several teachers’ unions in Uttar Pradesh, including one affiliated with the RSS, have announced that they will boycott their poll duty on 2nd May 2.
Speaking with TOI over this step, UP Shikshak Mahasangh president Dinseh Chandra Sharma said, “They (the government) are not at all bothered that we lost 706 teachers due to elections duty. The number could increase. After a final meeting, we have decided to strike work that day. They can take any decision they want. The lives of the teachers are more important than anything else. Nearly 75% of polling staff are teachers. How can they work inside the polling room where the chances of getting infected are higher. Unlike policemen, teachers were not covered under the initial vaccination drive.” The unions also claimed that roughly 60,000 teachers have joined them in this decision.
Today, when thousands of political leaders engage in victory celebration and occasionally boast of the beauty of Indian democracy, thousands of families of the likes of KalyaniAgrahari will mourn in ignorance. Today, when we engage in the celebration of our democracy and the mandate of the people, let’s ask once, for how long will government teachers bear the burden of the world’s biggest democratic process? For how long will they put their life at stake even with critical health conditions? For how long will the government teachers be the scapegoat of the government?