A male Upper Primary School teacher with a baby girl cradled his crying daughter and said, “It’s been five months now that I have not been paid, but even if I do, I think three months’ pay would immediately have to go towards paying off my accumulated debts.”
The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) teacher in a small village in Siaha district is not only the man of the house, but also the only one with a salary, however irregular that may have become, since his wife is a home-maker.
“I am lucky in a way because my parents are still alive and in good health and have some money to lend me on occasion. But then, I work and live in a small village and so have to take most of our daily necessities from the shop here. So practically, I am supporting my wife and child on credit,” he said.
Almost 2,200 SSA teachers and an unspecified number of staff under the Central education scheme across Mizoram have not been paid their monthly salaries since August last year, and many of them have the same story to tell; that they have either been borrowing money from their relatives or opening credit lines with local shops. Some count themselves among the lucky ones since they are still single or without families to support, while others handle the daunting task of supporting young families, most with little children.
The Frontier Despatch spoke to more than half a dozen SSA teachers in various parts of the state, some of them stationed in far-flung villages, to try and understand what it is like to be engaged in a profession where one has to keep working yet have no idea when or how much one will be paid.
All these teachers spoke on condition of anonymity fearing reprisals from the government, especially since the issue of their pending salaries has become a political issue in recent weeks.
“I have been living in a rented house on credit. I have been eating my meals on credit. To top it off, I have to keep travelling in the vicinity due to work, and I borrow money for that. Fortunately, I am still single, and there is some solace because I can still depend on my parents to an extent,” said a female SSA teacher posted in a village in Champhai District who said half of the five months’ salary the government owes her would go in paying off her debts even if she was paid in the near future.
“I am single, and I don’t support anyone. I can’t imagine what it must be like for my colleagues who have families to support. But still, it gets more and more awkward every time I go to the grocery shop to ask the owner if I can take some more wares on credit,” she said.
“The shopkeeper occasionally asks me when I’m getting paid. So I am not the only one who is concerned about when I am getting paid. In fact, I think the shopkeeper is even more concerned than I am,” said another female SSA teacher posted in Mamit District, laughing self-deprecatingly at her predicament.
The situation is no better for those teachers posted in their own home-towns and living with their families.
One female teacher posted in Aizawl still lives with her parents.
She had been able to contribute to the household budget earlier, but is now completely dependent on her parents for not just pocket money but also for commuting expenses.
“It’s very different from simply sitting idle at home. If that was the case, then my parents would be inclined to accept they have to support me completely. But right now, I step out of the house every morning to go to work, with basically nothing to show for it,” she said.
Another male teacher posted in Aizawl with a wife and three small children, said it was simply “impossible” to support his own family.
“There is nothing that can be done. We borrow money not just from our parents but from other relatives. And we don’t just borrow for the basic essentials like food. We borrow for medicines when the children fall ill. We borrow for doctor’s fees sometimes too. If I was to get the five months’ worth of salaries the government owes me in one instalment, there will be practically nothing left of it once I repay all the people I owe money,” he said bitterly.
And then there are some rather unique cases as well.
One female teacher who recently had a child said she was unable to get an extension on her maternity leave because of medical complications and resorted to hiring a substitute on her own, an unlawful practice common in various government offices and known locally as “aikal.”
It was agreed that the substitute would get a percentage of her monthly salary.
But as things have turned out, the delayed salaries have meant neither the teacher nor her substitute have ended up getting their salaries for five months now.
EXPLAINED: What the recent controversy over non-payment of SSA salaries is about, and how it began
Although the routine delays in payment of salaries to SSA teachers in Mizoram have been regularly reported in various newspapers, it snowballed into a major controversy that assumed political overtones when a man known as Renga Kawlni posted images of several SSA documents on social media on January 3; the posts indicated the teachers had not received their salaries despite the government already having the money to pay them with. It created an outrage.
Two days later, SSA State Project Director (SPD) Lalhmachhuana filed a complaint with the state’s Crime Branch asking police to investigate how the documents went public and who leaked it. When Renga Kawlni, a local politician once actively involved with the ruling Congress party, presented himself before police, opposition MLA Lalruatkima of the MNF turned up to accompany him.
The issue immediately became political, with Education Parliamentary Secretary Joseph Lalhimpuia calling a press conference in his office on January 10 to deny that the government was delaying payments to SSA teachers and staff despite money being available, stressing that the state disburses funds as soon as they are allocated by the Central government, which foots a large majority of SSA funds since it is a Centrally Sponsored Scheme.
MNF MLA Lalruatkima called a press conference on January 14 to counter Lalhimpuia’s statements. Demanding that the government release the funds already available with it to pay SSA employees their salaries, he alleged the government was in possession of funds necessary to pay the SSA teachers and staff at least a month’s more worth of pay.
SSA SPD Lalhmachhuana called a counter press conference on January 17, stating that the images in Renga Kawlni’s social media posts appear to have been “altered” when it fact the accounts were in order and there were no delayed payments.