The intermittent sit-ins organised by non-government school teachers demanding they be listed in the category of MPO had been a common sight in Dhaka not long ago. The common venue was the footpath and its adjacent areas in front of the National Press Club. Teachers of non-government schools from all parts of the country would come all the way to join the assemblages voicing their demand. Normally, those nonstop sit-ins would continue for weeks. On occasions they dragged on for even a month. Large numbers of firebrand female teachers would also join the event.
The acronym 'MPO' stands for Monthly Pay Order scheme, a special employment status which enables school teachers to get much higher salaries compared to that they get under the existing pay scale. The sit-in strikes would be normally spontaneous and widely participated. At present, it is the lower and higher secondary schools with different types of curricula, a few colleges and specialised institutions which have been made eligible to be among these schools and colleges. Thanks to their resolve, teachers at a considerably large number of schools now enjoy the benefits of the MPO scheme. Many teachers remaining deprived of the monetary benefit are said to be preparing to wage movements to realise their demand of eligibility for the MPO facility.
The MPO benefits sound quite generous. But the education authorities have also set strict prerequisites for making teachers eligible to the pay rises. As a result, many educational institutions, theoretically ineligible to the scheme, have managed to avail of their MPOs through different types of maneuvering. What follows is teachers far below the qualified teachers at schools but having links to influential quarters are enjoying the state patronage in their monthly salaries. Many such schools have students appallingly less than the required number specified by the authorities. Ironically, a lot of such schools have more teachers than students. The reason is implied. On the other hand, teachers at the schools having a ramshackle structure --- with miserably inadequate class rooms and sitting space, remaining submerged during floods --- are getting their considerably bloated monthly pay checks.
Many education experts, academics and civil society members have brought into question the rationality of pampering the teachers at these schools. What startles sections of socially aware people is that a large number of these schools continue to run with just a handful of students. Due to the schools remaining flooded for weeks, and even a month, students, mainly the girls, find it hard to attend school.
Besides a negligible number of students who brave the inundated roads to reach school on foot, many others use banana-tree or bamboo rafts. They deserve plaudits for their love for school-based academic exercises. But these are exceptional scenarios, as many schools remain shut as long as the flood water stays in class rooms or on the school compound. Moreover, continued forecasts of fresh onrush of flood water remain in place throughout the season of monsoon. This year's havoc wrought by the onrush of flood waters coming down from the upstream rivers has yet to be over. The threat is feared to loom throughout the rest of the monsoon. Human settlements, including schools and colleges, are yet to be declared completely free of more bouts of flooding caused by excessive localised rains.
The seemingly incredulous aspect of the prevailing state of flood and erosion-stricken schools is the teachers' full salaries remain ensured. In case, they cannot make it to their schools personally during the floods, they will get their arrear MPO-scale payments in full, including the Eid bonus, after the flood waters subside completely. That will be a great windfall centreing the profession, traditionally viewed as a 'poor man's employment' in the greater Bengal.
A print media report has recently quoted the World Bank as having expressed its reservations about the teachers' MPO project. Academics and education experts in Bangladesh have highlighted the latent disparity between school teachers in enjoying the benefit. This may spark the embarrassing issues of nepotism, different types of biases, activities resorted to by pseudo-political syndicates; and many other irregularities. A sensational media report on the underhand dealingsaimed at persuading the officials concerned in charge of giving the seal of approval to the MPO listings has sparked a heated row. According to the report, a section of so-called school managing committees are allegedly getting the names of their schools, mostly obscure and improvised, approved for MPO benefits. In the vile network of these corrupt practices, hundreds and thousands of Taka are allegedly being transacted. Those are used in bribes. The whole activity results in the highly deserving schools being deprived of their legitimate right to the MPO benefits.
Notwithstanding the irregularities plaguing the government's MPO project, upon an in-depth analysis it emerges as one promoting non-government school-level education. The policy has been formulated to elevate the socio-economic status of the teachers, which in the long run will strengthen the infrastructure of school education. But like with almost all the noble and well-intentioned state-sponsored programmes, this one, too, has been overshadowed by the agents of opportunism and greed. These vested interests have the least concern to see a teaching community free of poverty-related anxieties. It's only them with their basic needs fulfilled who can impart the proper lessons of life to their students. Teachers preoccupied with meeting the basic needs of their family members continue to lose their moral strength to appear before students as tutors.
The state of education at schools hit by the recent spate of floods in the northern and north-eastern region has proved once again the extent to which the MPO backings for teachers have been squandered. They are set to be profusely benefited, as they'll get their salaries in arrears. It's the students who'll finally suffer.