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Recruitment scam: a thorn in West Bengal govt.’s flesh
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A CBI probe into allegations of money being taken for appointments in State-run schools and the arrest of an ex-Minister by the Enforcement Directorate have put the Trinamool Congress government led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in a tight spot. Protests by jobseekers and outrage over the recovery of huge amounts of cash from associates of key TMC leaders have provided fresh ammunition to the BJP and the Left Front to target the government

October 28, 2022 12:37 am | Updated 01:35 pm IST

Fight for justice: Candidates who had appeared for the Teacher Eligibility Test in 2014 stage a demonstration in Salt Lake, Kolkata.

Fight for justice: Candidates who had appeared for the Teacher Eligibility Test in 2014 stage a demonstration in Salt Lake, Kolkata. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

The onset of autumn brings a whiff of sadness in West Bengal as it coincides with the end of Durga Puja festivities. This year, however, it is turning out to be a season of protests against the ruling Trinamool Congress (TMC) government.

On October 8, the government had organised a carnival to celebrate UNESCO’s recognition of ‘Durga Puja in Kolkata’ as an Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, but authorities busy making arrangements to showcase the award-winning tableaux of nearly 100 puja committees on Red Road in the State capital spotted trouble.

Less than 100 metres from the venue of the mega event, beneath the statue of Mahatma Gandhi on Mayo Road, candidates who had cleared the State Level Selection Test in 2016 were staging a protest demanding appointment as teachers in State-run schools. Another group of protesters had camped around the statue of freedom fighter Matangini Hazra next to the city’s iconic Shahid Minar. The police urged them to vacate the spots and not hold protests on October 8 citing “security reasons”. The protesters obliged, but resumed their stir with renewed vigour the day after the event.

A probe by the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) into allegations of money being taken for appointments in State-run schools and the arrest of a former Cabinet Minister by the Enforcement Directorate (ED) have put the TMC government led by Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee in a tight spot.

The wave of protests by jobseekers and outrage over the recovery of huge amounts of cash from associates of TMC leaders have provided fresh ammunition to the Opposition Bharatiya Janata Party and the Left Front to target the government, which is trying hard to shrug off the taint of corruption.

BJP workers protest in Kolkata against the police action on jobseekers agitating outside the office of the West Bengal Board of Primary Education in Salt lake.

BJP workers protest in Kolkata against the police action on jobseekers agitating outside the office of the West Bengal Board of Primary Education in Salt lake. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

Keeping up the pressure

Under the shade of a burflower ( kadamb) tree, near the Gandhi statue, Sahidullah, a protester, speaks into a handheld microphone: “Our jobs have been illegally taken away. Those who got jobs in return for money had submitted blank answer sheets without writing even a word on it. Through this protest we have been able to make this point clear to the people of the State.”

Palash Mondal, another protester, says they have been agitating on the streets for close to 600 days. “Our first demonstration lasted 29 days in front of the Kolkata Press Club. The second one raged for 187 days at Salt Lake’s Central Park. From November 2021, we have been sitting in protest in front of the Gandhi statue,” he says.

Pakhija Khanan, one of the several women protesters, has brought her three-year-old child along in the hope that the government will yield to their demands and give them jobs.

With no trees to protect them from the harsh sun, protesters agitating near the statue of Matangini Hazra have huddled under tarpaulin sheets in groups of 30 to 50. “This is an apolitical movement. Though representatives of all parties come here, this scam has been exposed by students and jobseekers,” says Tuhin Dam, who hails from Bardhaman district. Mr. Dam and fellow protesters Dipak Dutta from Nadia and Rafique Hossain from Bardhaman, all in their 30s, insist that this group of jobseekers should be referred to as ‘2014 Primary TET not included’.

Mr. Dutta says they appeared for the Teacher Eligibility Test (TET) in 2014, but when the results were declared, their names were in the ‘not included’ category on the merit list. They alleged that many candidates who secured less marks were ranked high on the list and received appointment letters. The trio says they earn a living by taking private tuitions but hitting the streets to seek justice has left them with no time to teach.

Agitating at the same spot are candidates who had appeared for exams conducted by the West Bengal School Service Commission (WBSSC) for the recruitment of Group C and Group D employees in secondary and higher secondary schools under the West Bengal Board of Secondary Education (WBBSE). Candidates from remote districts have been taking turns to travel to the protest sites in the capital to ensure that there is no let-up in pressure on the government.

Former Industries and Commerce Minister Partha Chatterjee being produced before a court in Kolkata.

Former Industries and Commerce Minister Partha Chatterjee being produced before a court in Kolkata. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

A major setback

The protests had gained momentum on May 18 this year when the Calcutta High Court ordered a CBI probe into alleged irregularities in the appointment of teaching and non-teaching staff by the WBBSE in government sponsored and aided schools on the recommendations of the WBSSC.

Earlier, on May 13, a panel headed by Justice (retd.) R.K. Bag, which was constituted by the High Court, had submitted a report that said 381 appointments to Group C posts were made illegally by the WBSSC. The report also said the five-member panel formed in 2019 by the Education Department, when senior TMC leader Partha Chatterjee held the portfolio as Minister, for monitoring the recruitment of teaching and non-teaching staff did not have any legal validity.

The TMC government suffered a major setback in the early hours of July 23 when the ED arrested Mr. Chatterjee. According to the Central probe agency, the alleged irregularities in the WBSSC recruitment took place when he was the Education Minister between 2014 and 2021.

The arrest came a day after the ED recovered cash and jewellery worth ₹21 crore from a flat in south Kolkata that belonged to Arpita Mukherjee, a close associate of Mr. Chatterjee.

Mr. Chatterjee was not only a senior Cabinet Minister in charge of four key departments, including Industry and Parliamentary Affairs, but also the TMC’s secretary general. Five days after his arrest, the TMC removed Mr. Chatterjee from his ministerial position and all party posts. A Cabinet reshuffle followed and the party leadership, including Ms. Banerjee, distanced itself from the influential leader, who remains behind bars.

The probe agencies have since then taken several former officials of the Education Department into custody in connection with the scam. Shanti Prasad Sinha, former adviser to the WBSSC, and Ashok Kumar Saha, former assistant secretary of WBSSC, were arrested on August 10, while Kalyanmoy Ganguly, former president of the WBBSE, was arrested on September 15. This was followed by the arrests of Subires Bhattacharyya, former WBSSC chairperson, on September 19, and Manik Bhattacharya, former chairperson of the West Bengal Board of Primary Education (WBBPE) and TMC’s MLA from Palashipara, on October 11. While Mr. Chatterjee and Mr. Bhattacharya were arrested by the ED, the remaining officials were taken into custody by the CBI.

Cash seized by the Enforcement Directorate from the residence of an aide of Partha Chatterjee.

Cash seized by the Enforcement Directorate from the residence of an aide of Partha Chatterjee. | Photo Credit: PTI

Accused set up shell companies: ED

In its 172-page chargesheet filed against Mr. Chatterjee at the Kolkata sessions court on September 20, the ED said he had set up six shell companies through which money generated from the scam was routed to buy property in the capital and other districts in the State. The ED told the court that it had so far seized cash, jewellery and property worth ₹103.10 crore linked to the former Minister and his associate, Ms. Mukherjee.

Documents, submissions, chargesheets and reports filed by the probe agencies have mentioned the involvement of TMC functionaries and estimated that so far 8,163 persons secured jobs illegally: 3,481 in Group C, 2,823 in Group D, 952 in Classes IX and X, and 907 in Classes XI and XII.

The High Court’s scathing observations in the case and revelations by whistle-blowers have dented the image of the TMC government at a time when the Chief Minister is trying to project herself as a national leader who can pose a challenge to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Also read | West Bengal school jobs scam: Primary education board ex-chief remanded in judicial custody till Oct. 28

Upendra Nath Biswas, former Trinamool MLA and retired Joint Director of the CBI, deposed before the court alleging that Chandan Mondal, a resident of Bagda in North 24 Parganas, was offering government jobs in return for money.

In its remand sheet filed after the arrest of Mr. Bhattacharya, the ED said it had recovered a letter that was also addressed to the Chief Minister. “The contents of the letter revealed that ₹7 lakh each was taken from 44 candidates in lieu of jobs as teachers,” the remand sheet said. However, Ms. Banerjee has been saying at public events that “only those who try to work make mistakes”. At an event organised by the TMC’s mouthpiece, Jaago Bangla, she said: “Nobody is a saint.”

Jobseekers demanding appointment as teachers in State-run schools protest outside the office of the West Bengal Public Service Commission in south Kolkata.

Jobseekers demanding appointment as teachers in State-run schools protest outside the office of the West Bengal Public Service Commission in south Kolkata. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

Implications of the scam

“This is not the first time that the TMC has been battling allegations of corruption. Its 11-year rule has been marked by many scams, but what makes the recruitment scam different is the recovery of huge amounts of cash. The people of Bengal have never seen such piles of cash being recovered from political functionaries,” says Biswanath Chakraborty, Head of the Department of Political Science at Rabindra Bharati University.

Prof. Chakraborty says the political ramifications of the scam can only be compared with the 2013 chit fund scam in which lakhs of depositors lost their money when the Saradha and Rose Valley group of companies went bust. “Even in that case, the beneficiaries were TMC leaders, but we did not see so much cash being seized,” he says, adding that it will be tough for the government to provide “retrospective justice” to the jobseekers.

Subhomay Moitra, professor at the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata, says while the chit fund scam hit the poor, the recruitment scam has shaken the confidence of the educated middle class in the ruling establishment. “The SSC recruitment under the Left Front regime was somewhat transparent and corruption was not as rampant as it is turning out to be this time,” he says.

The scam has not only sunk the education sector into crisis but also shaken the faith of society in teachers. A few weeks ago, a matrimonial advertisement seeking a groom in a popular Bengali daily that said “schoolteachers are not eligible” created an uproar. In Cooch Behar district’s Mathabhanga II block, a major talking point was a groom’s refusal to marry a schoolteacher who had lost her job after the High Court found irregularities in her appointment. The woman staged a protest till the suitor agreed to the marriage.

Candidates who had appeared for the Teacher Eligibility Test in 2014 stage a hunger strike in Salt Lake, Kolkata, on October 20, 2022.

Candidates who had appeared for the Teacher Eligibility Test in 2014 stage a hunger strike in Salt Lake, Kolkata, on October 20, 2022. | Photo Credit: PTI

Government’s biggest fear

The biggest fear of the TMC government is dealing with the chaos that will erupt when the probe agencies book all those who have illegally secured jobs. Since the party stormed to power in the State, 56,000 candidates have been appointed as primary teachers and recruitments across categories could be in excess of one lakh.

In several cases, the High Court has intervened to strike down illegal appointments. On May 20, Justice Abhijit Gangopadhyay dismissed former Minister of State for Education Paresh Chandra Adhikari’s daughter Ankita Adhikari from her job at a government-aided school and asked her to return the salary she had drawn as a teacher after it was found that the merit list was tampered with. The court also directed that Babita Sarkar, the petitioner in the matter, be appointed as a teacher and the WBSSC pay her the money returned by Ms. Adhikari. On September 23, the High Court ordered the WBSSC to appoint a candidate named Priyanka Sahu, who said she had secured high marks in the merit list but was not given an appointment letter.

Justice Gangopadhyay, who has been hearing cases related to the scam, has directed the CBI to probe irregularities in at least 12 cases since September 2021. In an interview to a TV news channel, he said he was committed to weeding out corruption in the recruitment process and ensuring that deserving candidates secure jobs.

Education Minister Bratya Basu has said the government doesn’t want anyone to lose their jobs, but the High Court can take the final call on whether those who secured appointments illegally can keep their jobs. Last month, Justice Gangopadhyay had directed the CBI to separate illegal appointments from the legal ones.

Job aspirants protesting against alleged irregularities in the West Bengal School Service Commission recruitment of teachers and other staff in State-run schools.

Job aspirants protesting against alleged irregularities in the West Bengal School Service Commission recruitment of teachers and other staff in State-run schools. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

Fresh protests erupt

On October 17, hundreds of “2014 TET qualified not included” candidates laid siege to the office of the WBBPE in Salt Lake. In the early hours of October 21, the police evicted them, prompting the Opposition parties and members of civil society to take out rallies in protest. This was the first time after its 2021 Assembly poll win that the TMC government was facing criticism from prominent members of civil society. The same day, the WBBPE issued a notification for recruitment of 11,765 primary teachers. It said candidates below 40 years could apply for these posts, but no preference was given to the protesting jobseekers, triggering fresh demonstrations.

On October 24, at the height of Deepavali and Durga Puja festivities, protesters held placards that read: “ Aloheen Deepawali (Deepavali without lights)”. One group of protesters performed a skit based on Satyajit Ray’s film Hirak Rajar Deshe (In the Kingdom of Diamonds). A jobseeker dressed as a king went around the crowd saying those who pay money will secure jobs even if they have submitted blank answer sheets in the recruitment test. After the play, a protester, expressing hope, sang “those who secured jobs by giving bribes will be behind bars in November”.

The next day, the CBI filed a chargesheet in a city court in connection with its probe into illegal appointments of assistant teachers in Classes IX and X. It named 12 people, including four candidates who had allegedly got jobs by paying cash.

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