Tamil Nadu

Jactto-Geo agitation: Lessons from an unresolved protest

Running out of patience: With none of the nine demands met, the State government cannot expect its employees and teachers to accept financial crunch as an excuse for long.

Running out of patience: With none of the nine demands met, the State government cannot expect its employees and teachers to accept financial crunch as an excuse for long.   | Photo Credit: M. Periasamy

While the Jactto-Geo agitation has been temporarily called off, the fact that none of its demands has been met means that the issues raised during the strike continue to simmer. Experts point out that the government will do well to address the grievances, to prevent another flare-up

It has been five days since S. Shanthi* resumed duty at a government middle school in Erode district, after she and her colleagues took the call to go along with the decision to withdraw the indefinite strike spearheaded by the Joint Action Council of Tamil Nadu Teachers’ Organisations and Government Employees’ Organisations (Jactto-Geo).

A sense of failure that their protests ended without a solution to any of their nine demands and guilt that some of her colleagues are still in jail for the agitation, play on her mind. “Do you know that we didn’t ask for a pay hike as is being projected to the public by the government? Either the government didn’t even understand what we asked for, or it deliberately misled the general public,” she says.

Shanthi’s is one of the middle schools that the State government was planning to merge with a few other schools in the district. “One of our demands was only against this kind of merger. When multiple schools are merged, the post of headmaster in all the schools will be abolished and there will be only one headmaster for five or six schools,” she claims. That would put many people out of work.

This time around, in the protests, women teachers were affected as much as the men, as they defied family and societal pressures to take to the streets for their rights, unlike in the previous round of protests. “This time there were more women staff for the protests but the police treated us like criminals. Did we murder or steal? We only asked for what is due to us. I feel so bad to have to join work, without the issues being resolved, and now we are supposed to groom students with courage and determination,” she says, before breaking down.

While the State government and the Chief Minister invoked the sentiment of ‘welfare of school students’ to pressurise Jactto-Geo into withdrawing the strike, Shanthi questions: “Is it in the interest of the schoolchildren to merge over 3,500 schools and abolish headmaster posts in many schools? Why can’t the CM just listen to our demands before saying no?”

But, sources in the government maintain that there is no such decision to merge schools. Personnel and Administrative Reforms Minister D. Jayakumar, in his statement, said such claims are unfounded. However, Shanthi refutes this, claiming lists have already been prepared in the districts, listing out the schools and headmasters, in preparation of the rationalisation exercise.

Timing questioned

The major reason behind popular sentiment turning against the striking teachers was the fact that public examinations are round the corner. Even some in the teaching fraternity, who agreed with the demands, faulted the timing of the strike.

N. Suresh*, headmaster of a government higher secondary school in Madurai, who has previously received the Tamil Nadu government’s best teacher award, says: “I am in support of some of the demands, particularly the demand not to close schools and redeploy secondary grade teachers to anganwadis. However, the timing was absolutely wrong.”

Tamil Nadu Teachers Federation General Secretary and one of Jactto-Geo’s State coordinators A. Vincent Paulraj, however, counters this. “Do you think teachers would have chosen the timing knowing that it would turn against us? We announced protests from December 4 and Minister D. Jayakumar called a meeting on November 30 but the issues are being dragged on. The government pushed this timing and not us.”

Double blow

What hurt sentiments of the teachers the most was the Chief Minister’s refusal to invite them for talks. “We continued the agitation for a few days in the hope that the government will invite the associations for talks to resolve long-pending issues. But, the government not only chose to ignore us, it also projected us in a poor light, implying that we are selfish about our welfare at the cost of society's welfare,” says A. Venkatesan, president, Tamil Nadu Higher Secondary Schools PG Teachers Association.

There are real issues at stake here, he says and points to a submission by the State government before the Madras High Court. It says a total of 11,914 posts of Second Grade (SG) teachers are lying vacant. “When that is the case, how can the government say we are overstaffed and instead divert SG teachers to take classes in kindergarten schools that are functioning under the Social Welfare Department?” asks Mr. Paulraj.

After Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami issued an appeal on January 29 to the striking employees and teachers,urging them to return to work and prioritise people’s welfare over their rights, Jactto-Geo withdrew its strike. “But, what is shocking is that those teachers who joined work after the Chief Secretary’s warning have been spared and those who joined work after the Chief Minister’s statement have been subjected to punitive action, some of them even being transferred. How is this fair? So, you will take action for respecting a CM’s statement?” asks R. Kalyani*, a teacher in Erode district.

Funds crunch

The primary reason being cited for not being able to fulfil the demands made by Jactto-Geo is the paucity of funds. Mr. Jayakumar claimed 71% of the State’s funds were being spent only on salaries of government employees, teachers and offices. He went on to claim that only 29% of the funds were available to fund people’s welfare schemes.

Rejecting the excuse, Tamil Nadu Government Employees’ Association General Secretary M. Anbarasu claimsadministrative costs and payment of interests on borrowings are being countedas expenditure, along with salaries and pensions. “It is for the Tamil Nadu government to find its own financial resources. If the government doesn’t have resources, how can it go about building new schools without teachers? You have to pay your employees and teachers and that is what we are asking for,” he says.

On the 21-month arrears, one of the nine demands, Mr. Anbarasu asks how the government is able to pay IAS and IPS officers despite the financial crunch. “You cannot treat them differently from us, saying they are only a few in number. All of us together work for the government,” he says.

A functionary in Jactto-Geo and a government servant Frederic Engels asks how the government is able hike the salaries of MLAs twice when it is in the midst of a financial crunch. The claims about a financial crisis are invoked selectively and mostly when government employees and teachers ask for what is due to them, he argues.

The Contributory Pension Scheme, the revoking of which is among the demands made by Jactto-Geo, requires some explaining. Contrary to claims by the government, several pensioners and employees charge that no one has received their due from the funds. “No one knows how many have retired and how many have died while in service and how many of them got their dues. Even the statement of Minister Jayakumar did not have the details,” says C. Gopalakrishnan*, a teacher.

A statement from the Finance Department issued during the thick of protests clarified that funds collected from employees were deposited with the Reserve Bank of India. “What we want to know is why the government is holding on to the money when it is supposed to intimate National Securities Depository Limited and Pension Fund Regulatory and Development Authority,” asks Mr. Engels.

Poles apart

The general mood in the establishment since the withdrawal of the strike is that the Chief Minister has successfully silenced the protests and their demands do not require any further attention. A senior official, who was part of the team that held talks with the Jactto-Geo earlier, said: “We do not want to say anything more. The Chief Minister and the Personnel and Administrative Reforms Minister have made the government’s stand clear.”

A section of Jactto-Geo believes there is something amiss. “During the talks we held with Ministers, we realised that though the political leadership was willing to listen to our demands, some IAS officers were against heeding our demands. They were misleading the political leadership,” says Mr. Anbarasu.

He also questions why the reports of the panels headed by retired IAS officer T.S. Sridhar, that went into the possibilities of revoking the old pension scheme, and M. Siddique, that went into the pay anomalies, were not made public. “Only in the statement of Minister Jayakumar advertised in newspapers did we got to know what the reports stated,” claims Mr. Anbarasu.

The confusion over the fate of the temporary teachers hired by the government, the departmental action and transfer of teachers to far off places for striking and the mistrust among employees towards the government over the funds deposited in the RBI have been the fallout of the indefinite strike.

“When several lakhs of teachers and government employees were terminated from service overnight when Jayalalithaa was Chief Minister in 2003 [when she invoked provisions of the powerful Essential Services Maintenance Act], everyone knew that their services would soon be restored. This time, systematically designed suppression has smothered the agitation completely. More importantly, the way the official machinery handled the agitation through this strategy has triggered panic and fear among teachers,” said P. Manoharan, general secretary of Tamil Nadu Postgraduate Teachers’ Association.

He claimed that the Chief Educational Officers of two districts (Thiruvannamalai and Ramanathapuram) were taking disciplinary action under Section 17 E of the Tamil Nadu Civil Services (Discipline and Appeal)Rules on the teachers while most of the CEOs were taking action under Section 17 B.

“Under Section 17 E, you can be suspended for six months… Now, the teachers’ worst fear is that other CEOs may also follow this practice. The terror unleashed by the government and its officials killed the protest,” Mr. Manoharan says.

With none of the nine demands of Jactto-Geo being resolved, the State government cannot expect its employees and teachers to accept its contention of financial crunch for long. After all, as the Chief Minister himself said on an occasion in the past: government employees have an equal role in serving the people. The government would do well to bring this issue to a close, to prevent yet another episode of protests and strikes across the State.

*Names changed on request

(With inputs from P. Sudhakar in Tirunelveli, S.P. Saravanan in Erode, Pon. Vasanth B.A. in Madurai and Rohan Premkumar in Udhagamandalam)

Of panels, reports and inaction

 

February 19, 2016: Following protests by Jactto-Geo, then CM Jayalalithaa announced in the Assembly that an expert committee would be set up to examine the demand for reverting to the old pension scheme

 

February 26, 2016: A committee was constituted under retired IAS officer Santha Sheela Nair (following her resignation in March, 2017, retired IAS officer T.S. Sridhar took over the panel in August that year) as per the statement of the then CM

 

February 22, 2017: Govt. constitutes an official committee to examine and make recommendations on revision of scales, based on the decisions of the Centre in keeping with the recommendations of the 7th Central Pay Commission. The panel submitted its report on September 27, 2017

 

October 11, 2017: Based on the recommendations of the official committee, the govt. issues a G.O. stating that the Tamil Nadu Revised Pay Rules, 2017 shall be deemed to have come into force notionally with effect from January 1, 2016 and with monetary benefit from October 1, 2017

 

February 19, 2018: Government constitutes Staff Rationalisation Committee under retired IAS officer S. Audiseshaiah to evaluate staff structure in various departments; on the same day, it also constitutes a panel under IAS officer M.A. Siddique to rectify pay anomalies and make recommendations

 

November 27, 2018: Panel led by IAS officer T.S. Sridhar, which examined the demand for revoking the Contributory Pension Scheme, submits report to the CM

 

January 5, 2019: Panel headed by IAS officer M.A. Siddique that went into the complaints of pay anomalies submits report to the CM

 

January 22, 2019: Jactto-Geo launches indefinite strike, pressing for nine demands

January 29, 2019: Chief Minister Edappadi K. Palaniswami appeals to striking government employees and teachers to return to work

 

January 30, 2019: Jactto-Geo announces its decision to 'temporarily withdraw' strike; urges CM to hold talks with it

Protests spearheaded by Jactto-Geo in the past:

February 10 to 19, 2016

June 2 to 6, 2003

October 22 to November 1, 2002

June 2 to 30, 1988

(*Though there have been strikes by several other associations, the above dates are when all the associations of Jactto-Geo took part in the strike)

No.Demand of the JACTTO-GEOResponse from State government
1.Revoke the new Contributory Pension Scheme and revive the old pension schemeA total of 174 countries in the world and most of the State governments in the country have dropped pension scheme. Government would be forced to borrow funds from agencies, in additional to tax collected from the people, to pay pension to pensioners
2. Pay the 21-month arrears of the Seventh Pay Commission recommendations from January 1, 2016 to September 30, 2017 and do not treat it as notional benefit for this periodEven during the implementation of the Sixth Pay Commission recommendations, the notional benefit was given from January 1, 2006 till December 31, 2006. Govt. would have to borrow funds to the tune of Rs. 20,000 crore to pay arrears.
3. Pay the second grade teachers in line with their counterparts in the central governmentSecond grade teachers in central government are fewer in number than those in Tamil Nadu government. Increasing SG teachers’ pay would affect the horizontal and vertical parity
4.Settle some of the issues in the pay revision that was implemented from October 1, 2017No specific response cited by government; But, the report submitted to the government in this regard by IAS officer M.A. Siddique has not been made public yet
5. Convert the misleading ‘special’ time scale presently given to noon-meals workers, anganwadi workers and assistants, who are working for over 25 years, to time scale pay, no daNo specific response given by government other than general reason about financial crunch suffered by the State exchequer
6. Cancel the G.O.Ms.No.56 Finance (CMPC) Department dated 19-02-2018 that constituted the Staff Rationalisation Committee under retired IAS officer S. AudiseshiahNo specific response given by government but the Staff Rationalisation Committee has been collecting details of headcounts in all government departments
7. Regularise the services of several hundred teachers, who were recruited in 2003-04 and were paid consolidated pay in these yearsNo specific response given by government; regularising the period of their services would mean more funds needed to pay them
8. Drop the plans to ‘attach’ over 3,500 schools that would reduce the number of headmasters, which would lead to one headmaster to multiple schoolsMinister for Personnel and Administrative Reforms D. Jayakumar maintained such claims were false
9. Drop the plan to redeploy over 4,000 second grade teachers to the new kinder garten schools which are newly opened; instead hire teachers with training in Montessori educationNo specific response from the government. CM recently launched nursery classes, which would be conducted jointly by the School Education Department and the Social Welfare Department. The schools would be under the administrative control of officials of the Integrated Child Development Scheme and second grade teachers would teach them

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Printable version | Jun 6, 2020 5:02:58 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/tamil-nadu/lessons-from-an-unresolved-protest/article26163777.ece

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