Swapna Lekha VB joined Al Ameen Public School in Kochi in 2012 as an English teacher. Her salary on paper — as per Central Board of Secondary Education (CBSE) guidelines — is Rs 22,600. This amount is credited to her account on the first of every month. Some amount from this goes towards Employees' Provident Fund (EPF). However, a parallel transaction has been happening in her account as soon as her salary is credited.
An amount of about Rs 8,000 gets debited from her account within hours or minutes of her salary being credited, every month. “This amount is being debited by the school,” she alleged. After this alleged unauthorised deduction, Swapna takes home an amount of about Rs 14,000 every month. “How can I have savings for my family with this amount?” she asked.
According to a few teachers from the school, whom TNM spoke to, the school has been taking blank cheques from the teachers every month. “They encash the cheque on our behalf. The (Al Ameen Education) Trust is using this amount as unaccounted money. We don’t know where our money goes. But the management has been using our money to go on trips, purchasing new cars and renovating the school premises,” alleged Swapna.
On January 7, Swapna was terminated from service after she tried to flag the issue on numerous occasions.
While Swapna has been terminated, two other teachers, who recently started fighting the salary misappropriation, are allegedly being threatened by the school management. “All the teachers are frustrated and indignant. But no one is ready to speak out in fear of termination or other harassment from the school management,” said Swapna.
The dubious blank cheques
It was only in the second year of her tenure that the management started demanding blank cheques from her, Swapna said.
“They didn't say anything about the cheque practice. It started happening like a custom of the school,” she alleged.
According to Meera*, another teacher who has been vocal about the financial irregularities of the school, the teachers are made to sign an acquittance roll, a record of payment of salary to each teaching staff.
“In order to cover-up the malpractice of withdrawing cash from our accounts through blank cheques, the school makes us sign this roll. The amount mentioned in it is our actual salary, but it has no mention of the amount that is deducted, other than the EPF. Hence, that amount remains unaccounted for,” she told TNM.
On January 3, when the teachers were called to sign the acquittance roll, Swapna decided to record some evidence. She took a video of teachers signing the roll, which a staff member noticed and informed the management.
“The school’s manager Siyad Kokker started threatening me, saying I am going against the school. I am not against the school but am with the law,” she alleged.
Three days later, the school banned mobile phones on campuses. On January 7, she was terminated.
When TNM spoke to AA Siyad Koker, Chairman and Manager, Al-Ameen Educational Trust, he claimed that Swapna was terminated for misusing cell phones on campus. “She took photos of teachers and some school documents. She even entered the principal’s office in her absence and clicked pictures of some files,” he said. Siyad Koker is also a film producer.
Regarding the blank cheques, he said, “This institution has been running for the last 40 years. How can we take blank cheques from teachers?”
Why they decided to wait
“If I had reacted to this in the early years of joining, I would have been terminated then. I had to wait for five years, as after this period, I could get my gratuity and other allowances,” said Swapna.
She waited and finally, last year, she decided to flag the issue. In October 2019, she approached the Chief Minister ‘s Office. A complaint was registered at Elamakkara police station in Kochi.
“But inquiry didn't go forward as the police officials spoke only to the management. They somehow fabricated evidence against us. Also, some select teachers were made to give false statements,” alleged Meera, who said she is being humiliated and threatened by the management for speaking out. “We know it because after giving statements, these teachers tell us that they had no option but to speak in favour of the management.”
With no hope in sight, Swapna said, she decided to take some video evidence on her own.
Some of the teachers alleged that the school terminates about 10 teachers every year and appoints freshers, who would be paid lower salaries. “Last year, about 40 teachers left the school. Out of this, some were terminated and more than 10 resigned out of frustration,” said Meera.
“If the teacher is good in her subject, why would we terminate her? We need quality teachers,” reacted Siyad Kokker.
Many teachers, according to Meera and Swapna, stay back to get their gratuity. “Female teachers, especially, are scared to speak out fearing threats. They take whatever salaries they get and go home," said Swapna.
(*name changed on request)