Srinagar: For the past week, dozens of contractual college teachers in Kashmir Valley have been on an indefinite fast in Srinagar demanding a wage hike. But theirs could be a lost cause at a time when most locals are busy fasting for entirely different reasons.
The teachers` agitation seems to have gone unnoticed as in Mumlim-dominated Jammu and Kashmir, most people are observing a dawn-to-dusk fast during the holy month of Ramzan that began Tuesday.
"For the last six days the hunger strike has been going on in the Press Enclave area of Srinagar and nobody in the government has bothered to even speak to us," said a protester.
"We had been on strike for over two months and after our demands were not even heard, we have now been forced to go on an indefinite fast," he said.
Abid Khaliq, 35, a contractual teacher, who has done his doctorate in sericulture sciences, said: "Many of our colleagues on indefinite fast fainted due to dehydration and hunger and were shifted to hospital in semi-conscious state.
"A contractual teacher draws Rs.8,000 per month while a permanent teacher in the same college draws around Rs.70,000 per month," he said. "Even a peon in the college where I teach draws Rs.18,000 per month," he said.
"What respect would I command among my students despite doing a Ph.D. in sericulture sciences?" Khaliq said.
Around 90 percent of teachers in various government colleges in the valley are on contract. College students continue to suffer as lectures have been hit due to the stir.
"For the last two months the contractual teachers have been on strike, teaching work in colleges has come to a halt. My son goes to the college where he attends just two classes, for the rest, there are no teachers," said Muneer Ahmad, 54, a parent here.
Ironically, the teachers` hunger strike coincides with the traditional month of fasting, Ramzan.
"Basically all of us are fasting in Kashmir these days because of the holy month of Ramzan. Perhaps that is one reason why these poor teachers are not getting the attention they deserve," said Irfan Manzoor, a local photo journalist here.
The striking college teachers allege the government has not implemented a court order which said that contractual teachers should be paid basic salary equivalent to their permanent counterparts, as per the principle of equal pay for equal work.
"They did not implement the court order. We want a job policy for contractual lecturers as the one the government has prepared for doctors and teachers," said Javaid Ahmad, 32, another college teacher.
"A doctor is supposed to serve on contract for seven years after which his services are regularised. A Rehbar-e-Taleem (teacher) serves for three years on a consolidated pay after which he is put in the regular grade," he said.
"Why the disparity with the contractual teachers? Is it because none of us is the son of a minister or a senior bureaucrat?" asked Ahmad, claiming that he spent Rs.150 daily on transport to reach the north Kashmir Kupwara college where he was posted as a contractual teacher.
"I am finally left with Rs.3,500 at the end of the month. How can I support my family in just Rs.3,500?" Ahmad said.
"We are now supposed to take six classes daily instead of the usual four classes as was the norm previously. This has been done only to ensure that more vacancies of teachers at the college level are created," he said.
As a matter of practice for the last many years now, contractual teachers are disengaged Feb 28 each year and engaged again as the academic session begins in April.
"Some of us have been going on like that for more than 12 years now - living in absolute uncertainty and chaos," said a protester.
"We called on an officer in the civil secretariat and we were told that we are an inefficient lot and that is why we have not been able to make it to regular jobs in the government through a process of selection," he said.
"Does this also mean that it is the inefficient and the useless among the educated class who are being engaged by the government to teach college students who are the future of this state?" asked a striking teacher.