Anarchy, violence, political meddling

Print edition : August 07, 2015

Debasish Sarkar, teacher of economics at Jhargram Raj College, Paschim Medinipur. Photo: SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADHYAY

Interview with Dr Debasish Sarkar, eminent educationist.

DR DEBASISH SARKAR is a reputed academic with over two decades’ experience. At present teaching economics at Jhargram Raj College in Paschim Medinipur district, Sarkar is the national executive committee member of the All India Federation of University and College Teachers Organisation (AIFUCTO). In an exclusive interview with Frontline, he spoke about the major issues that have affected the education sector in West Bengal in recent years. “The biggest accusation has been that the degree of interference of political people in the education system has increased significantly,” he said. Excerpts:

You have been worked in practically all sections of the education sector. What do you think is going wrong in the present set-up in West Bengal?

The essential problem in all four segments of the education system —primary, secondary and higher secondary, college, and university —is that since 2011, there has been a qualitative shift in the governance. We have seen democratic systems being replaced with nominated systems, particularly in areas of decision-making. This increases the scope for political interference.

Now, if this nominated system worked well, then there would be no complaints and things would continue. But we have seen that in the last four years the biggest complaint, from the primary level to the university level, has been that the degree of interference of political people in the education system has increased significantly.

But would not all political parties want their own people in key places?

Absolutely. While it is true that whoever comes to power will want to place his/her own people in key positions, one thing that needs to be looked into is the manner in which these appointments or nominations are carried out. Also, it needs to be examined whether those people who are being placed in important positions are indeed suitable or competent for the job. If not, then things will collapse; and it is collapsing now in West Bengal.

What did you mean when you said all four segments of the education system have been affected by a qualitative shift in governance in the sector?

Let us look at the situation at the primary level. Earlier, was there ever any major fiasco regarding the recruitment of primary schoolteachers? In the past, the recruitment was done in a decentralised manner starting from the district level. However, a change came about after 2011, and recruitment started taking place in a centralised fashion from Kolkata. The result was absolutely chaotic. Nearly 45 lakh people had applied, of whom many could not even reach the examination centre. The situation was so out of control that people got hurt on their way to write the examination; one person even died. There were allegations of the use of money power, gross mismanagement centred around the whole process, leading to numerous court cases. This naturally raises questions about whether a tendency can be detected in trying to control the entire primary level of education through the recruitment of teachers.

Let us look at the secondary and higher secondary school education system. The School Service Commission (SSC) was set up in 1997, and since 1998 around 11 examinations for the post of schoolteachers have taken place, and 1,34,818 teachers have been selected. Again, I ask, in the past was there ever any controversy like the one in 2012-2013 over SSC recruitments? Even the SSC chairperson resigned, and the Calcutta High Court was flooded with cases, some of which went even to the Supreme Court. Numerous allegations were raised on the recruitment process.

Then, take the case of the Madhyamik [State board school finals] and higher secondary examinations. There will always be some students who will try to cheat and use unfair means in exams. But never have we seen such rampant cheating on such a large scale. Cheating, in fact, became fodder for the media. This is a source of huge concern and is very damaging for the reputation of the education system here. Ultimately, it is the students who will suffer.

Let us say, for the sake of argument, that there has been no political interference in these cases. But it cannot be denied that these systems that once functioned smoothly are not doing so any more. Who is responsible for it? I am not pointing fingers at anyone; but a glance at print and electronic media reports will give the answer.

Now let us talk about higher education, specifically college education. We can break it up into four separate sections: admission, students’ elections, examination, and the regular curriculum. There is a significant tendency of late to recklessly demand money from students at the time of admission. It is a kind of black market culture that has developed during this period. One good thing is that the State government has directed all the colleges to distribute forms online. But this is a stand-alone system, and in spite of that there is still pressure from outside. What needs to be done is to put in place a centralised counselling system for admissions.

Secondly, there has been a tremendous rise in violence during students’ elections. In fact, the government was forced to keep in abeyance students’ union elections for some time. There seems to be violence and extortion at every level and lawlessness and anarchy at every step.

During examinations, we have seen teachers being attacked and thrashed, not just by students but also by outsiders with political affiliation, for not allowing cheating. Local political bigwigs have been seen entering examination halls and turning out invigilators in order to make things easy for some family member or the other. At the college level, it is clear that those who are condoning cheating belong to a particular political party. Everybody knows which party it is.

Now for the universities. In 2011, the Acts governing the universities in the State were amended. A lot of controversy followed. Even after four years, no statute has been framed. As a result, ordinances and regulations cannot be put in place, and so the universities are functioning through the nominated structure instead of the usual democratic structure where elected representatives of teachers, non-teaching staff and students play a role in decision-making. This in no way can be good for the overall system.

So where do you think we are heading with this kind of a system in place?

The conclusion we can come to is that some words and expressions are dominating the education sector: “minimum democratic functioning”, “anarchy”, “violence”, and “extreme interference of political force” at all levels. It is clear that a force is emerging which is taking the system away from the teachers. Somehow we have to get out of this situation, and for that all members of society should come out and establish a united democratic voice. Otherwise, our children will suffer. If this continues, it will be a huge setback and it might take years for the State to recover.