Tripura teachers struggle to survive a year after over 8,880 jobs were terminated

Teachers who lost their jobs on 31 March 2020 protesting the arrival of SA Bobde, the chief justice of India, to Tripura on 25 December. Since 7 December 2020, the teachers had been holding a peaceful sit-in protest in front of the City Centre, a shopping mall in Agartala. Abhishek Saha / Dinodia
20 April, 2021

In the first week of January, a 32-year-old former school teacher was found dead in his home in the Kamal Kanta Para village in Tripura. The media reported that during his funeral, his wife tried to jump in his burning pyre in grief. She reportedly said that he had killed himself. Multiple news reports said that according to his wife, the 32-year-old was in debt and struggling financially since he found himself without a job on 31 March 2020. Along with him, thousands of government teachers were rendered jobless in Tripura that day. This was the result of a May 2014 judgment by the Tripura High Court that set aside the state government’s appointment of 10,323 teachers between 2010 and 2014. Teachers who lost their jobs told me about the impact unemployment has had on their lives and their campaign to be reinstated.

The May 2014 high court order said that the selection of the 10,323 teachers was “totally unfair” and not done in a transparent manner. The court directed the state government to frame a new employment policy within two months and carry out a fresh selection process by 31 December. Further, in the interest of school students, the court asked the teachers to continue at their posts till the selection process was complete.

The high court order was challenged in the Supreme Court. On 8 December that year, the Supreme Court stayed the order to terminate the teachers till the final disposal of the case. In March 2017, the apex court upheld the high court’s verdict and allowed the teachers to continue on their positions till the end of that year. In December 2017, the Supreme Court allowed the teachers to be employed till June 2018 on an ad hoc basis. But after a few months, the Bharatiya Janata Party-led state government filed a petition to the Supreme Court to extend their period of service further. In November that year, the Supreme Court gave a final extension to the teachers, till the end of the 2019–2020 academic session.

According to the state government, 1,441 teachers had managed to get other jobs by the end of this period. But 31 March 2020 marked the last working day of 8,882 teachers. According to Gautam Debbarma, an executive member of the Joint Movement Committee, most teachers had not looked for alternative jobs since the 2014 verdict. The JMC is an umbrella group of three large collectives that are demanding the reinstatement of the teachers—Justice for 10323, All Tripura Ad Hoc Teachers Association and Amra 10,323. Gautam said the teachers had hoped that the government would not terminate their jobs. “We thought the government was going to do something for us since it is a government job we are selected on government rules and procedures,” he said. “So, we thought we might not be terminated.”

Among the teachers who have lost their jobs is a 34-year-old woman based in Jampui Hills in the North Tripura district. The 34-year-old, who did not wish to be named, said she began teaching in the Sailut Senior Basic School in Jampui on an ad-hoc basis in 2010. Her employment was regularised five years later. “I was so happy when I got my letter of employment. Our whole family celebrated with a chicken feast,” she said. “But now, there is sadness in the house. Living without a salary is very hard if you have to feed a family.”

The 34-year-old said she is the sole earner of her family. “I have to feed my family—my husband, two children and my father-in-law,” she said. Her life had changed since she lost her job. “One day, I was earning Rs 29,000 and then the next day, I had no income.” The 34-year-old said that the family owned a farm, but it hardly helped make ends meet. “It is not enough to pay for my children fees,” she said. “What has happened to us is unbelievable. At least we have a space to grow some crops, but what about the rest of the people, what will they do?”

Like the 34-year-old woman, Hari Debbarma, a 32-year-old former teacher in Dhalai district, was also the sole earner of his family. Hari’s 27-year-old wife, Moharani Debbarma, told me that he died of a stroke in November 2020. Moharani said she believed that it was the stress of unemployment that had killed her husband as he was a healthy man.

Moharani told me that their family relied on Hari’s income to sustain themselves. “We have two children, one is ten and a half years old while the young one is six years old,” he said. “My father-in-law and my mother-in-law are very aged and cannot work. Now it is very difficult because there is no one to look after the children [financially].”

Gautam told me that on top of difficulties that come with unemployment, some teachers are also reeling under the pressure to pay back loans. He told me that the JMC has requested some banks to not ask the aggrieved teachers for repayments till they have found new employment. For instance, on 4 January 2021, the JMC wrote to Tripura Gramin Bank, a regional bank. It mentioned the case of the 32-year-old former teacher who died in the first week of January. “In times of our grief and tension, Recall notices are served unceasingly to 10323 teachers without understanding the root cause of our depression and anxiety,” the letter said.

Teachers said that the ruling party had also betrayed them. Ahead of the 2018 assembly elections, the BJP had voiced its support for the 10,323 teachers and promised to help them if it came to power. Even the BJP’s “vision document” for Tripura—released by Arun Jaitley, the then finance minister—mentioned that it would resolve the issues of the terminated teachers “on humanitarian grounds.” The teachers told me that the finance minister of Assam, Himanta Biswa Sarma, who was the BJP’s election in-charge for Tripura, had also promised justice to them.

But after the BJP was elected to power, they were not reinstated. In April 2020, it announced a one-time financial aid of Rs 35,000 for the teachers who lost their jobs. Following this, through a notification dated 5 November, the state government provided age relaxation to the discharged teachers for “appointment to the posts of teachers as well as vacant non-technical posts of Group-C and Group-D” till 31 March 2023. Group C and Group D categories include posts such as those for performing supervisory and operative tasks, rendering clerical assistances and carrying out routine duties. But the teachers said these measures were hardly enough. Dipankar Debbarma, a former teacher at the Komalpur Government English Medium School, told me that the teachers did not think they would get the Group C and Group D jobs. “If we have to compete with this new generation, it will be very difficult,” he said.

Gautam told me that the teachers met Biplab Kumar Deb, the chief minister, twice during the novel coronavirus pandemic to discuss their employment. During their second meeting, dated 3 October 2020, Deb assured them that a solution would be found within two months. “But after two months had passed by, nothing was solved,” Gautam said. According to him, the chief minister’s inaction had propelled them to start an agitation. “We were very hopeful the CM will do something for us,” he said. Gautam, among other terminated teachers, told me that on 7 December, about five thousand teachers began a peaceful sit-in protest in front of the City Centre, a shopping mall in Agartala.

The sit-in came to an end on 27 January, when the West Tripura district issued prohibitory orders under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure to disperse the protesters. Gautam told me that around 4.30 am, the police began forcing the protesters to evict the site. Protesters said that the police charged lathis and lobbed tear gas shells at them. Dipankar, who was among the protesters, said, “Water cannon, tear gas and lathi charge to an extreme level was used. Even the male police lathi charged female teachers. Around sixty teachers were injured.”

Sandhya Ram, another protester from South Tripura’s East Karbook village, said he was among the injured. He told me that when the police beat them while clearing the site, the protesters left the area. “We left and went to a gully on the side where we stood for some time. There also they beat us up,” he said. “They beat me up very badly in around eight places, including my hands and back. They hit above my eyes using a stick and it started bleeding.” Sandhya told me he was taken to the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital, a government hospital in Agartala. “After initial medical investigation, the medical team forced us to get discharged because the state administration wants to prove that the lathi charge was minor and not major,” he said. “I was discharged even though I was unable to open my eyes.” Amitabha Chakraborty, the medical superintendent of the Indira Gandhi Memorial Hospital in Agartala denied the accusation. “Utmost care was taken. Whatever necessary care was necessary was given,” he said.

Sima Debbarma, a 33-year-old who used to work at the Warrenbari SB School, said she was also injured. “I lost my senses because of the teargas and started developing asthma symptoms,” she said. Sima told me that she had to travel to Apollo Hospital in Chennai, Tamil Nadu, for further treatment as her condition worsened with time.

The same day, the West Agartala police station registered a first-information report against 12 leaders of the Joint Movement Committee. The police booked them under eight sections of the Indian Penal Code, including those pertaining to rioting, armed with deadly weapon; being party to a criminal conspiracy; and using criminal force or assaulting a public servant. Dipankar termed this a “false case,” lodged only to “mentally harass” the protesters. I called and emailed the police station, but did not receive a response.

Dipankar told me that he has anyway been struggling to provide for his family since he lost his job. “The hardship I am facing is to handle the family,” he said. “I have a child, wife and mom. Because society recognised us as teachers for so many years, it will be difficult to start different [work].” He added, “We are in mental depression.”