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Chandigarh: From unemployed teachers, to health workers, contractual employees, truck operators and professors in colleges and universities, different sections in Punjab are protesting against the Congress government in the state for its failure to meet their various demands.
At many places over the past two weeks, protesters were gagged, dragged and even lathi-charged, with the opposition accusing the Charanjit Singh Channi government of apathy and high-handedness. These claims were only strengthened when unemployed teachers were literally dragged into police vehicles before Channi’s rally in Sangrur on December 15.
The government also seems to be keener on drowning out the protesters’ voices rather than engaging with them. On December 9, the government issued a bizarre order to cops in the state to play Gurbani and religious songs outside venues that Channi was facing to stifle sloganeering. Facing public outrage, Channi withdrew the order.
While the ongoing protests have crippled the education and health systems in Punjab, it did not stop Channi – who succeeded Amarinder Singh in September – from celebrating his 100 days as CM on January 1.
The major worry for people is that as COVID-19 cases rise, 12,000 health workers recruited under the National Health Mission (NHM) have been on a total work strike since November 12. As NHM staff members were on frontline COVID-19 duties, Punjab’s testing capability has subsequently dropped.
Punjab is trailing even in terms of vaccination coverage. While 64% of the eligible Indian population is fully vaccinated, Punjab’s coverage was just 45% as of December 30, 2021.
NHM president Dr Inderjeet Singh Rana told The Wire that the health workers should not be blamed for the indefinite work strike as they have been demanding regularisation of services for over five years.
“We gave several representations when Amarinder Singh was the CM and now to Channi as well, but all in vain,” he said.
He said In Himachal Pradesh, health workers recruited under the NHM are automatically regularised after three years of service. In Haryana, all NHM employees get the same salary and service benefits as regular staff. In Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and half a dozen other states, NHM health workers are fully regularised.
“Why is there disparity in Punjab? While a regular doctor in Punjab is drawing over Rs 1 lakh in salary, a doctor recruited under the NHM gets paid only Rs 20,000. Many have left jobs because of low allowance. We have as many as 41 cadres working under the NHM in Punjab and each one gets just one-fourth the salary of regular health workers. This is despite NHM workers doing even more work than a regular staff member,” said Rana.
He added they had several meetings with the Channi government in the past two months but no progress was made.
“The NHM staff is the backbone of the state health system, working as specialised doctors, paramedics, nurses and even clerical staff. Over 100 NHM workers died due to COVID-19. The state’s response to our demand is shocking,” he said.
Teachers on indefinite strike too
Meanwhile, teachers in universities and colleges across the state have now been protesting for over a month after their salaries were not revised as per the latest University Grants Commission pay scale. Punjab is the only state in the country that has not yet revised the salaries. Since December 1, teaching staff in over 180 government colleges and all six universities in Punjab are on an indefinite protest under the banner of the Punjab Federation of University and College Teachers Organisations (PFUCTO).
Teaching staff in Panjab University, Chandigarh are also protesting. Panjab University Teachers Association (PUTA) president Mritunjay Kumar told The Wire that it is unfortunate that the Punjab government remains unmoved despite all academic activities across universities and colleges being suspended for the past month, affecting over 50,000 students.
“The onus is on the government to act fast and take appropriate measures to end the impasse,” he added
He said, “We never wanted to go for an indefinite protest but what options are we left with? All states in the country have revised the salaries of college and university staff since 2018 onwards.”
30 lathi charges, two dozen police cases
Meanwhile, unemployed school teachers seem to have faced the brunt of the government the most. Protesters have been lathi-charged over 30 times and around two dozen police cases have been registered against the teachers.
Deep Banarasi, state press secretary of Unemployed ETT-TET Pass Teachers Union, Punjab, told The Wire that more than 20,000 eligible teachers are waiting for jobs in the state.
The Congress had promised the teachers before the 2017 elections that if they complete the elementary teacher training (ETT) and teacher eligibility test (TET), they would surely be given jobs.
But with the government failing to live up to its word, unemployed teachers have been protesting.
“So far, we have faced as many as 30 lathi-charges across the state. Over two dozen cases have already been registered,” he said.
The state government argues that it had advertised 6,635 vacancies for candidates who have ETT in August 2021 but the selection process was stayed by the Punjab and Haryana high court. The matter is still sub-judice.
Deep, however, claimed that the state is deliberately delaying the matter in the court by seeking adjournments time and again. “With the election code of conduct just around the corner, the current state government is basically trying to skirt the issue. But we will not let it happen and keep fighting,” he said.
Apart from teachers who have ETT and TET, those who have qualified B.Ed and TET are also protesting.
Sukhjinder Singh Dhillon, the state convener of Unemployed B.Ed-TET Teachers Association told The Wire that as many as 30,000 B.Ed and TET pass teachers do not have jobs in Punjab at present and another one lakh aspirants just appeared in TET recently. But ever since the Congress government came to power, just 3,700 posts of BEd teachers were filled.
“We are permanently on protest in Jalandhar near the residence of Punjab education minister Pargat Singh since October. Yet the government is silent on giving us jobs,” he said.
He said, “We did a survey of four districts alone in Punjab where it was found that as many as 12000 B.ED teachers posts are vacant. But education, it appears, is not a priority for any government. They are just promoting private school education at expense of government schools. Where will poor students go in such a situation?”
While Aam Aadmi Party leader Arvind Kejriwal came out to support the unemployed teachers by joining the protest in Mohali last month, Punjab Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu reciprocated by joining the protest of guest teachers in Delhi.
Dhillion said that while leaders are good at pulling off gimmicks, when it comes to providing jobs, none has a roadmap. “It is important to fill up teachers’ vacancies in government schools since the level of education is already very bad,” he added.
Contractual staff in other depts also up in arms
Harkesh Kumar Vickey, president of the PRTC Contract Workers Union, told The Wire that there are close to 8,500 contractual employees working on different wings of government transport companies – PRTC, PUNBUS and Punjab Roadway.
“We had suspended our protest on December 22 after the state government assured us that the decision to regularise our services has already been taken. But the matter is still pending. We are holding a meeting on January 5 to take a call on resuming our protest since the present establishment is not serious about our demand. They are fooling us with false promises,” he said
On this issue, CM Channi put the blame on the Punjab governor. He said the state government has already passed legislation in the special session of the assembly after thoroughly working out all the modalities to pave the way for the regularisation of contractual employees. But the governor has not given it his nod.
Channi said the chief secretary and even he had personally met the governor to get the file cleared.
In a statement issued on Sunday, Punjab governor Banwarilal Purohit hit back at Channi, saying the latter’s claim that he was deliberately stalling the regularisation of contractual employees was “factually incorrect.” A statement issued by the Punjab Raj Bhawan said the file concerned had been sent back to the Chief Minister’s Office with six queries for clarification.
“This file was duly received by the CMO on December 31, 2021, and the reply to the queries is awaited… Once the reply comes, the Bill will be re-examined at the Governor’s Secretariat,” the Governor said.
Meanwhile, truckers’ unions in Punjab are also up in arms against the state government for its failure to fix minimum carriage rates.
Sukhwinder Singh Brar, convener of the All Punjab Truck Ekta Union told The Wire that Punjab currently has over 1.5 lakh small and big trucks. All operators are facing huge financial losses due to competition from other states, he said.
“We demand that the state either restore the truck unions it dismantled a few years ago or fix carriage charges,” he said.
He said in order to complete, several truck operators are forced to overload their vehicles against the rules. “This will stop if the state implements a fair price policy, he added.