On January 17th, students of the Purvi Dilli Nagar Nigam Prathmik Vidyalaya in East Delhi, received a voice message on WhatsApp, instead of the usual worksheet or online lessons.
“Namaste Bachchon… aap kaise ho?” began Vibha Singh, principal of the school. She went on to tell them that the teachers were not able to send the worksheets because they have not been paid their salaries for many months.
“Because the government has not paid us salaries for many months, we are on strike,” added Vibha. “You know, don’t you, that if there is no salary it is difficult to manage household expenses? Ok, children? Till we get our salary, we will not be able to send you the printed worksheets, nor send it to you online,” she said before signing off.
As soon as the country went into lockdown, 35-year-old Mahesh Kumar, a primary teacher at the Delhi Nagar Nigam Prathmik Vidyalaya in Mongolpuri in Delhi — as indeed all his counterparts everywhere — began teaching children online, using a smart phone. Of the 30 children in his class, Mahesh says about 20 have mobile phones, look at the videos, answer the worksheets. Those who don’t have a phone come to school and collect the worksheets.
Mahesh has been going to school from September of last year, as he was in charge of the computer and had to distribute worksheets and notebooks.
But from January 7th, there has been no teaching — online or offline. All of the around 22,000 teachers at the 1800 schools under the capital’s North, South and East Delhi Municipal corporations have been on strike, as 18,000 of them, including about 4000 teachers on contract, from the North and East Delhi Municipal Corporation run schools have not been paid their salaries, ranging from Rs 45,000 to Rs 1.5 lakhs a month, since August last. Only the teachers from the South DMC have been luckier, getting their salaries almost upto date.
Troubles began in 2014
“Till 2012 we got our salaries every month, even if it was towards the end of the month,” said Vibha. “It was in 2014 that for the first time we did not get our payments for three months.” Since then, this has become a regular occurrence, forcing the MCD Teachers’ Association to go to court often.
But even though the court always ruled in their favour, and they have met all the Central ministers, nothing seemed to work for these teachers barring once in 2016, when they were paid arrears for four months.
From 1976 onward, primary education has been with the municipal body. MCD schools teach students from nursery to class five. The retired teachers and other retired employees of these corporations — a total of around 25,000 — have also not received their pension for the last six months.
With other categories of municipal corporation employees in the same boat as the teachers, many roads in the capital are littered with garbage and stinking.
Yet things were not this bad till a few months ago. Dr Brajesh Singh, the finance head of the East Delhi Municipal Corporation said the payments problem began in the second quarter of 2020 when the Delhi government failed to make the payments as its own revenues had taken a 57% hit on account of COVID-19.
“How do we forward an amount we have not received?” asked AAP government’s MCD-in charge, Durgesh Pathak.
A senior member of the MCDTA pointed out that when the Congress was in power at the Centre and in the state, the Centre helped out by giving loans to the MCDs specifically to ensure that salaries of the staff were not delayed.
Now however, with the BJP-led corporations and the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government sparring over their finances, the Centre has kept mum. The Municipal Corporation Teachers’ Association (MCTA) has, over the last many months, written to everyone in power — from the chiefs of the different local bodies to individual corporators, to MLAs in and out of power in the capital territory, Anil Baijal, the Lt Governor of Delhi and Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal, Home Minister Amit Shah and Prime Minister Narendra Modi. But even empty words of sympathy were hard to come by.
Teachers feel betrayed
The teachers are angry, bitter, disappointed, disillusioned, and feel cheated. Many this reporter spoke to don’t want to be identified; they want to still give receiving their salaries a chance. “After all, we are committed to the students,” says Ram Nivas Solanki, General Secretary of the MCTA.
The teachers have every reason to feel angry and betrayed. They have done everything the government — through the local bodies, Delhi government and Centre or the Delhi Disaster Management Authority (DDMA) — wanted them to do, especially being a part of the frontline warriors against Covid-19.
Mahesh, for instance, was assigned the task of distributing dry rations in the schools as part of what the teacher calls COVID-19 duty. “We distributed wheat and rice,” says Mahesh. “So many people used to throng the schools, it used to get very crowded. There was no support, we had to handle everything. Parents of students used to come to collect the rations under the mid-day meal scheme. On an average 250 people came every day. So even after returning home, we used to stay isolated in one room. One day in May, the rations did not come. Parents pelted stones thinking the teachers were not distributing it! It was scary, we locked ourselves in a classroom for safety.”
His next COVID-19 duty was conducting a door-to-door survey of 300 families in Sultanpuri to see who had symptoms and who did not. “The family members used choicest abuses against us, saying you come here every day to malign us (the COVID-19 stigma was at its peak then). It was very traumatic. I had never thought I would have to do all these kinds of work.”
Mahesh’s wife is a home maker. They have two children aged 8 and 6, going to private schools. Out of his salary of about Rs 60,000 per month, he pays Rs 20,000 as EMI towards a housing loan, and Rs 15,000 a month towards insurance linked annuities. Suddenly not getting his salary came as a blow. His parents helped out for a while — the father is a government pensioner, and he had some savings that he used to pay the tuition fees.
“One, two, three months, we managed,” recalls Mahesh. “Now all my savings have been wiped out, and I have reached a stage where I cannot borrow from anyone. The children ask for small things that I cannot get them. We have been getting only two answers from the authorities. The MCD says Delhi government has to give us the money, and the Delhi government says they have released, but the local bodies are not distributing.”
Narendra Kumar, who teaches social studies in a school in the sprawling Rohini area of North Delhi which has 140 MCD schools, is supposed to be paid Rs 80,000 per month. He is a mentor involved in developing videos and worksheets for online classes. Like Mahesh, he has been part of many booth level COVID-19 surveys. His wife is a home maker and his three children go to private schools. He has an EMI of Rs 45,000 to pay—which are now mounting and accumulating interest on interest.
“Friends, parents and relatives helped, but how long can they?” asks Narendra. According to him, 80% of teachers who have not received their salaries are in the same predicament. “The authorities don’t want to initiate any move towards a solution. We continued working despite not getting our salaries all these months, it was only on January 7th that we launched this strike.”
The blame game
Solanki, the teachers association general secretary, says the corporations’ stock reply is they have a financial crisis, there is no income, and that the Delhi government has to release the funds.
In June 2020, the MCTA wrote to Home Minister Amit Shah saying three months’ salary of teachers in the schools of North Delhi MC was due. A series of letters to all and sundry later, they wrote to Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal on November 27th pointing out that 90% of the teachers under the three local bodies, including those who were over 50, were on COVID-19 duty, and have not yet received their salaries. On December 15th, they wrote to Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
Not one letter has got a response.
Many MCD employees and pensioners finally appealed to the Delhi High Court. On January 22nd, even as the High Court received an application in which the teachers sought their salary “as per their fundamental right under Article 21”, the Court expressed disgust and wondered how the Delhi government had money for full page advertisements in all newspapers but not enough to pay salaries.
The reference was to periodic full-page ads on a range of subjects, from microbial spray to manage paddy stubble burning to launch of Plasma Therapy, to information on achievement on the COVID-19 front, to celebrating Diwali without fireworks.
“Grievances of employees have been reduced to a political slugfest, there was no real sense of concern or sympathy for the employees; all of you are behaving completely irresponsibly towards these employees and pensioners,” the bench of Justice Vipin Sanghi and Rekha Palli observed.
Strangely, the MCD budgets do not have any kind of entry under the head ‘education’. “Our main demand has long been that the MCDs should create a head for salary of teachers and other employees,” said Vibha Singh. “The MCDTA believes that things will be smooth if the local bodies decide, through a resolution, that they will pay all the salaries out of their internal receipts.”
As of now, all employees of the local bodies are clubbed into four categories. The A class are the officers, teachers fall under B class. The clerical and other staff come under category C and the peons, sanitation workers comprise class D.
The MCDTA says that in December, the civic bodies got some funds, but decided to pay the Category D and C only, and exhausted the funds. “That is what they do every time, even though the High Court has directed them to pay all the categories, even if for fewer days” rues Vibha.
Claims and counterclaims
On January 21st, East Delhi Municipal Corporation had told the court that Rs 320 crore was required for release of November and December salaries and Rs 87 crore for release of pension of three months. The North MCD has a much higher amount of unpaid salaries and pensions. The Delhi government said a sanction order was passed for release of Rs 337 crore to MCDs and other local bodies for January-March 2021.
On January 13th, Delhi Health Minister Satyender Jain told a press conference that the Kejriwal government was releasing Rs 938 crores to the three municipal corporations specifically to pay salaries. But MCD employees say, the Rs 938 crores will not be enough, as salaries of staff have been pending for three to six months.
“The Delhi government released some money on January 17th and 18th, and one month’s salary–that of Sept 2020– has been paid to some employees,” said the teachers association.
“The MCDs are not transparent about their finances, so we do not know who all will be paid and for how many months,” added a teacher.
In another application before the High Court, the teachers’ association sought a special economic relief package from the Delhi and Central governments for smooth running of the municipal corporations, and urged the court to “otherwise recommend dissolution of the corporation.”
Now, Solanki and his colleagues are knocking at the most powerful door they can think of — the parents of the children they teach. At their recent rallies, they have been appealing to the parents, who are voters too, to bear with them for not sending worksheets and online lessons because they have not been paid their salaries by the MCD bodies.
Never-ending tussle over money
At the centre of this controversy over non-payment of salaries to teachers and other employees of local bodies in Delhi is the more than a decade old complex and unresolved issues surrounding the finances of the Delhi government and the MCDs.
Ahead of the budget last year, Kejriwal and Sisodia had met Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and pointed out that while the budget of the Delhi government had increased from Rs 8739 crores in 2001-2, to Rs 60,000 crores in 2019-20, its share in the Central taxes remained frozen at Rs 325 crores even though Delhi contributes around Rs 1.5 lakh crores as income tax revenue.
Besides the problems the Delhi government has with the way the Centre funds it, it also has issues with the way it is expected to fund the civic bodies.
The municipal corporations are funded partly by the Delhi government, while they have to raise the rest through property tax, transfer duty, toll tax, vehicle tax, electricity tax, revenues from advertisement sites, education cess, car parking etc.
Under the existing formula based on the recommendations of the Delhi Finance Commission, the Delhi government is expected to give the civic bodies a 12.5% share of its net tax revenue. The formula was working more or less fine till the trifurcation of the MCD ten years ago (in 2011) leading to inequalities in the funding each MCD got.
Interestingly, while local bodies all over the country get a Central grant at the rate of Rs 485 per person, the Delhi MCDs do not receive this. The government of the National Capital Territory instead has to give them 12.5% of tax receipts. The Centre merely gives the MCDs loans. The AAP government has many times pointed to this discrimination, and the MCDs too have urged the Centre to transfer the money directly to them.
Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia last year worked out the arithmetic of this thus: Delhi has a population of 2.5 crores, and this works out to Rs 1150 crores a year, making it about Rs 12,000 crores in the last 10 years. He had demanded the Centre release a Rs 1,100 crore “basic and performance grant” in July last.
In all of this, the losers are honest, hardworking citizens who are merely asking to be paid the rightful dues for the work that they do.