The national media, perhaps, has not been paying enough attention to the corruption scandals that have been plaguing Mamata Banerjee’s government in West Bengal for more than a year now. The revelations are still coming in every week, fast and furious. And they are shocking.
Digitisation may have brought petty corruption down significantly in the last few years, but most of us in India still assume a certain level of it as a way of life. We coolly reach for our wallet when pulled up by a policeman for a traffic violation and most of the time it works. The man who brings your new passport to your home grins obsequiously and asks for some “chai-paani” and you give him some money; you are thankful to him for doing the basic minimum work that you, as a taxpayer, are already paying him for.
We also take it for granted that many of our politicians are corrupt. We get agitated — or even mildly excited — only when the sums involved have more zeroes than we can count on two fingers. Yet, even by all our pretty low standards, the alleged corruption in West Bengal is quite amazing. And a very large number of Bengalis are riled up now because it involves something that they value above almost anything else — education.
Over the years, the people of West Bengal have not been too bothered about their politicians being supposedly involved in smuggling sand, coal and cows. They have also accepted extortion in various ways as normal — hardly anyone even talks about it any more. “Cut-money” — a bribe or a kickback for getting anything done — is a unique word that is now an integral part of the Bangla vocabulary. In fact, after the Trinamool Congress (TMC) did not do as well as it expected in the 2019 Lok Sabha election, Mamata Banerjee publicly ordered her party members to return the cut-money they had collected from citizens. But corruption in school education may have been a red line that TMC crossed.
It is now more or less proved that in the last 10 years, the government appointed thousands of teachers in government schools not on merit but for cash. The actual results of the mandatory tests that applicants took for the posts were junked and even people who submitted blank answer papers were hired. The rates that were charged are now known — from Rs 5 lakh to Rs 10 lakh, depending on whether it is a primary school job or a secondary or a higher secondary one.
Much of the credit for exposing this goes to Abhijit Gangopadhyay, a Calcutta High Court judge who pursued the matter with zeal and courage and called in the Central Bureau of Investigation and the Enforcement Directorate. The rot goes astonishingly deep and amazingly high. Many of the top members of the state school board are now in prison, awaiting trial. Also a former education minister; central agencies seized more than Rs 50 crore in cash and heaps of jewellery from the home of an actress who was his “close friend”.
Rs 50 crore is, in fact, a very minor amount in the scale of things. Small-time TMC politicians whom hardly anyone outside their neighbourhood had ever heard of have been arrested for amassing Rs 30-40 crore of illicit money directly related to the teacher recruitment scam. One can barely imagine how much the more senior people in the party and the government may have made. The Calcutta High Court has already declared appointments of thousands of schoolteachers as illegal and even ordered these hirees to pay back the salaries they have earned till now.
There are several issues here and the Pandora’s box has possibly been opened only just a bit. One, there are several videos of that which have gone viral and show that teachers in primary schools in West Bengal cannot do basic arithmetic. They cannot, say, add 11 to 26 on the blackboard and get the correct answer at the first try. What will be the fate of the children whom these idiots are teaching?
Two, are these people even teaching, that is, coming to do the jobs they paid so much to get? The schoolteacher has a protected government salary and can go to work whenever he pleases to and also run a business or an extortion racket on the side. It is now known that the daughter of a now-in-prison TMC leader was a schoolteacher, never went to work, and had her attendance register marked at home, where school clerks came every morning to get her tick.
Three, every investor has some sort of expectations of the returns he will get from his investment. If thousands of people have been betting all that their parents saved in their lives to get employed as a teacher in a government primary school, it is obvious that they believe it’s a worthwhile investment. For instance, the male schoolteacher can ask for a much higher dowry. He will also gladly become part of a pyramid scheme where he recommends other people for jobs and take his own cut of the cut-money.
In fact, there seems to be also a nice funding network for the bribes. You can get a high-interest loan to pay the bribe, get the job and then generate your revenue streams to pay it off. All of this triggers a self-perpetuating process of extreme venality that can have no end.
For anyone living in West Bengal who does not have the means to send their children to private schools, their very future is at stake.
More importantly, there is no reason to believe that the corruption was limited only to the school education space. A few days ago, a minor TMC politician was arrested for allegedly getting at least 5,000 people recruited illegally by 60 municipalities in the state. It is quite possible that government jobs in every category were up for sale. If a person is willing to pay Rs 5 lakh to be employed as a teacher in a primary school, how much can you get out of someone for a police constable’s appointment? The potential return on investment for a constable’s job is far higher than a schoolteacher’s. All that one has to do is to harass random innocents, take their money and look the other way on actual crime committed by members and associates of the party in power.
Imagine a society where the teachers in the school that you send your children to, the nurses in the government hospitals you go to when you are ill, the police who are supposed to protect you, the fire brigade men whom you call to rescue whatever little assets you have left, have all got their jobs through bribery and are propagating a system that has no regard for any competence.
This is the dystopia that West Bengal may be hurtling towards.