by Hana Shams Ahmed
[Daily Star, September 20, 2007]
(L-R): Hasina Khatun, Saleha Khatun, Abdur Rahim and Jahanara Begum
Jahanara Begum is too ill to hold a pen steadily. But for 35 years, that steady hand helped shape many of the best doctors, lawyers, teachers and engineers of today. This 67-year-old woman has been a primary school teacher since 1962, and retired from service in 1998. Her place of work: Bhajahuri Shaha Street Government Primary School in Dhaka’s Sutrapur area. After the disappearance of her husband, a freedom fighter who never returned home after March 25th, she single-handedly brought up her two sons and daughter. After toiling away for so many years for a meagre pay of about Taka 4000 a month, Jahanara looked forward to her retirement.
But a government order in 1999 has resulted in her being refused her pension and other benefits to date. In fact the order went one step further, saying that certain primary school teachers — those who were ‘not matriculated and not trained’ — were ineligible for certain payments including increments they had been receiving over the years, and would have to return these amounts to the government as soon as possible. Those, like Jahanara Begum, who retired after this order was passed and applied for their pensions and other benefits were told that these could not be paid out unless they returned the ‘excess payments’ made to them during their years of service. Jahanara Begum is one of more than 450 retired primary school teachers who have found themselves stuck in this situation. They are now trapped in an implausible nightmare — the outcome of apparent administrative callousness.
These 450 retired teachers have been teaching since before Independence. After the birth of Bangladesh, in 1973 to be precise, all primary schools across the country were nationalised. In 1977 all the non-matriculated, non-trained teachers were brought under the national pay scale as fourth-class government servants, the same pay scale as security guards, sweepers, cleaners and gardeners. And although all these people are receiving their rightful pension payments and gratuities, the helpless primary teachers have been refused theirs.
According to the government’s primary education division, the non-trained and non-matriculated primary teachers have been receiving increments and timescales ‘illegally’ over the years. The Service Books of these primary teachers have meticulously catalogued all the increments that they have received, year after year. Every single increment, every revision of scale, every introduction of new scale of pay is marked, dated, signed and given a seal of approval from authorised government education officers. If it is proved ‘illegal’, it is obviously an administrative glitch, for which the investigation needs to be carried out on the officers who approved the payments. Unfortunately, those who are suffering in all of this is a group of elderly, underprivileged people who don’t know who is going to provide them their next meal.
“I am a dependent on my children now even though I have my own money,” says Jahanara, “I even had to ask for the money for the rickshaw fare to come here. If it wasn’t given to me, I couldn’t have even come here and talked to you.”
In the absence of her husband and successive desertion from his family, Jahanara spent her days in terrible insecurity with her three young children. Despite being aware of the importance of education, she had to marry her daughter off when she was only 11 years old. “Only one of my sons is earning,” says Jahanara, “it is not possible to make ends meet with his earning alone.” Jahanara should have rightfully received about four-lakh taka in pension by now. “Now that Ramadan is here,” says Jahanara, “we will only be able to break our fasts if God gives us some water on our tables.”
In 2000 one of the teachers filed a writ petition against the 1999 government order in the High Court Division of the Supreme Court. The High Court passed a stay order on the government order. But due to various administrative complexities the hearing of the petition was delayed. At various points the teachers themselves tried to plead with the Education Ministry to reach a settlement of the matter. The teachers gave petitions to both the Education Ministry and the Prime Minister’s Office. The PMO and even Mosaddeq Ali issued letters asking the Ministry to look at the matter from a compassionate angle but somehow there was no further follow-up.
Saleha Khatun, another retired teacher from Usha Government Primary School in Lalbagh has been dealt a double blow in life. Her only son who lived and worked in Singapore died when he fell off from the roof of a 13-floor building. “If they had told us twenty years ago we would have tried to have given the exam to become qualified,” she says, “now I can’t even remember where I have kept my glasses sometimes.”
Abdur Rahim, a retired teacher from Islamia Government Primary School in Tejgaon Railway Colony is also finding it difficult to make ends meet with a wife, two sons and two daughters to support. “I have been teaching since 1965,” says Rahim, “we have been teaching all our lives and this is how we’re being repaid.”
Sara Hossain, one of the lawyers who is now handling the case, suggests that the best way to deal with this case at this point would perhaps be for the government to look into the teacher’s claims and settle their dues. “We went to see the Education Adviser this year and requested that a settlement be considered from a humanitarian point of view, since the teachers affected are few in number and the amount of their claim not very substantial,” says Hossain, “and they are not really demanding anything unreasonable, just the bare minimum to lead their lives with some amount of dignity.” Although the Adviser spent a lot of time listening to the dilemma we have not yet received any further response, and will try to pursue the matter.”
In the meantime the case got to Court about one and a half months ago. “The Court gave us more time to try to pursue the government authorities,” says Sara Hossain, “we are still trying to do that.”
“What ever has happened, whatever errors have resulted in this situation, it does not seem reasonable or fair to insist that these elderly teachers, who have given so much to our society, and who are now at the end of their lives, should bear the brunt of it,” says Hossain.
A press conference was arranged on May 9 of this year at Dhaka Reporters Unity but did not gain much attention. “We found out that trying to resolve a problem like this to really help people in distress requires drawing the attention of everyone concerned, and that takes a massive co-ordinated effort,” says Hossain, “but we need to do this for the teachers affected as they don’t know how and why they have fallen into this quagmire and don’t even understand the legal intricacies that have held up their claims for so long.”
Whether the 1999 Government Order itself is legal is of course for the Court to decide.
Whatever the legal technicalities might be, the consequences are being suffered by a group of innocent, respectable senior citizens of our country. The administration might have all the time in the world to take this crucial decision. But for these former teachers, time is running out. None of them have any savings from the meagre salary they received throughout their lives. Many of them are ill and unable to pay their medical expenses. All of them are having to live off their children’s money despite having diligently served the nation for the promise of a basic if not comfortable retirement. Added to all this they must go through the trauma of being caught in delayed procedures that have pushed them further into uncertainty and despair.