By Rishi Majumder in Punjab
AS SHE looked down at thousands of people below, and at news cameras broadcasting her story through the country, Kiranjit Kaur Attwal, 27, knew she would have to die. She had reached the end of the road.
She, along with 369 other teachers under a Punjab Government’s Education Guarantee Scheme (EGS), had asked the state to allow them to take their Class 12 examinations again, so they could try and qualify for an Elementary Teachers Training (ETT) course that might land them a government teacher’s job. The EGS paid them Rs 1,100 a month. After ETT they might earn Rs 20,000 a month. Their Class 12 marks were below the cut-off required for the ETT. But because they had put in years as EGS teachers, they wanted another shot. The government refused.
So, on February 7, 2010, Kiranjit and three other teachers climbed an 85 feet high water tank tower near Education Minister Upenderjit Kaur’s home at Kapurthala. They threatened to immolate themselves if their demands were not met. The government did not respond. DSP Bahadur Singh, who was in charge of the 100-odd policemen around the water tank, abused them and told them to stop their “naatak” (drama).
There was no going back now. The teachers doused themselves with petrol. They tried to light a match, but the wind blew it out. So they lit a shawl they would set themselves afire with. As the shawl burst into flames, the teachers jumped back in horror. But Kiranjit was already ablaze. She was holding the bottle of petrol in her hands, and the flames engulfed her.
The next day, Kiranjit died. But in death, she spawned a trend. An inquiry against Bahadur Singh was ordered. Kiranjit’s family was given Rs 10 lakh compensation, and her brother a policeman’s job. Most importantly, 369 EGS teachers were allowed to take their Class 12 examinations again to try and enroll in the ETT course — and move closer to employment.
What employment? Since Kiranjit’s death, there has been, on an average, one water tower suicide attempt every week. “Water tank suicide threats would happen earlier as well,” says Pavan Kumar, Vice-President of the Unemployed ETT Teachers Union, Punjab. “But after the Kiranjit episode, these threats are taken seriously.” Kumar’s union has teachers who have completed the ETT course Kiranjit sought to enter. But they’re still unemployed. They’ve demanded that the government reserve government teacher’s posts for those who have done their ETT from Punjab, not other states.
So, teachers from the ETT Unemployed Teachers Union were next to climb a water tank tower, at Sunam zon February 24 — because the same education minister was visiting a college there. There were three more water tank tower suicide attempts at places where the minister was present. After continuously agreeing to and deferring a decision on the demands for reservation, the government finally agreed to reserve 70 percent seats for those who have done their ETT from Punjab. This came after a water tank tower suicide attempt on May 30.
This was at Sangrur, next to the district court. This is where Pavan Kumar and the boys who climbed this tower are talking to us. Seeing them, the constable guarding the tower radios in for reinforcements. The tower is soon surrounded by policemen on motorcycles — some with lathis, some with machine guns. This is how terrified the Punjab Government is today — of unemployed youth climbing water tank towers. Sangrur and some other districts have issued orders for demolishing the open staircases of water towers six feet from the ground. In still other districts this height is up to the level that a local fire engine ladder can reach. Till this is done, some staircases have been walled in from all sides and a locked door put up at their entrance.
SOME HAVE constables guarding them. Even water tanks in rural areas have been temporarily secured with thorny bushes stacked along the staircase. For new water tank towers, the government is planning to pass a law that they will be built with staircases enclosed in a concrete column. Also, safety nets are being procured for keeping near water tanks, to avoid embarrassments like in Sangrur and Bhatinda. In Sangrur, a net was borrowed from a nearby army camp and in Bhatinda, the police had to procure theirs from a visiting circus.
But why are these suicide threats being made for government jobs? Says Paramvir Singh, who threatened suicide from the water tank at Sangrur: “Private jobs are not available in small towns, and we are not qualified enough for jobs in cities.” He says the courses in small towns and rural areas — like the ETT course — qualify them only for government jobs. Even if there were professional courses like, say, engineering in Sangrur, they are barely recognised in the cities.
On June 15, members of the Veterinary Pharmacists Union climbed a water tank at Bhatinda to procure employment for 400 members. Four have already killed themselves. One of them was Jagdeep Singh, unemployed since 2003. He returned home from a hunger strike on July 22, 2009. The next night, his mother Salinder Kaur remembers having the following conversation.
JAGDEEP: I should get a job soon.
SALINDER: You’ve cut your hair very well.
JAGDEEP: We had a hunger strike today. If they still don’t give us jobs, some of us will climb a water tank tower and threaten suicide.
SALINDER: Why risk your life?
JAGDEEP: Don’t worry. I won’t die. The police will bring a net. If I have to jump, I’ll jump on that.
The next afternoon his body was found in a reservoir. There were no wounds. The police registered a case of suicide by drowning. The most recent suicide threat from a water tank tower in Punjab is by members of the AIE (Alternative Innovative Education) Teachers Union on June 21. Like Kiranjit, five teachers climbed a 90 feet tall water tank tower at Bhokhra village, near Bhatinda and threatened to immolate themselves.
And like Kiranjit, they wanted admission into the ETT course so they could be employed as government teachers in future. One of them is Rekha Bains, 25, from Tehuthian Wali village in Mansa district. Separated from her husband, she lives with her parents and fouryear- old son Armaan. “A job is the only security one can hope for a daughter today,” says her father, Balwant Singh. “Not marriage.” But will completing this course guarantee them employment in Punjab? Or will they have to climb a water tank again? Kiranjit did not live to answer this question.