Azad Mohammad (name changed) has been working as a bell-ringer in a madrasa in West Bengal's Birbhum district for the past seven years. The school, called Alinagar Jalil Samana Bibi High Madrasa, pays the 43-year-old a monthly remuneration of Rs 5,000.
Strangely, two crucial aspects of his job are missing – the school and the students.
In an intriguing case of corruption that has come to light in West Bengal's Birbhum district, locals have claimed that the teaching and non-teaching staff of the said madrasa have been drawing their salaries for the past seven years, but there is no trace of the school.
Barren Land in the Name of School
Alinagar Paschimpara village in Birbhum district, located roughly 220 km from Kolkata, has a population of around 1,000 people, mostly belonging to a minority community.
Locals claim that in 2005, Azad Mohammad wanted to start a school on his six-cottah land (one cottah = 720 square feet) in memory of his parents. He took the help of a person named Kabirul Islam, a civic police volunteer, who locals allege has political links.
The school was made out of bamboo – but it was what they called a "makeshift" arrangement.
Kabirul joined the school as headmaster and purportedly taught students for free.
"Our village has no school after Class 5 and our children have to walk for at least 1.5 km to the nearest school. We thought it would be good if a school was started here," 45-year-old Rabi Alam, who lives 50 metres away from the land where the school was allegedly built, told The Quint.
But until 2015, hardly any classes took place.
Then, in 2015, the school was registered with the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education. Eight teaching staff joined and started drawing their salaries.
"But the structure came down within a few months after a thunderstorm. Since then, the land has been lying barren with no activity. But Azad and the other teaching and non-teaching staff have been drawing their salaries," Rabi Alam alleged.
'No Knowledge About It'
Speaking to The Quint, Azad Mohammad confirmed that he had been "receiving Rs 5,000 every month for the past seven years."
Villagers alleged that Kabirul Islam had used his power to get all the necessary formalities of the school completed by 2015.
"He became the headmaster and recruited his relatives and accomplices as the teaching and non-teaching staff. The school had classes 5-8. But the reality is different," alleged 55-year-old villager Samirul Sheikh.
On the website of the West Bengal Board of Madrasah Education, the school is listed among the junior high madrasas under the affiliated, unaided madrasas in Birbhum.
When The Quint contacted Kabirul, he admitted that he has been receiving the salary, but claimed that he quit the post of headmaster a year ago. "I resigned as a headmaster in August last year, and since then, I have had no connection with the school... The staff has been getting their monthly salaries. We were running the school from a small room but it was closed a few months ago after the students stopped getting mid-day meals."
The senior officials of the Madrasah Education Board, meanwhile, told The Quint that they had no knowledge about the existence of the school.
"We do not have information on any such school, and we are not giving them any funds for salaries as our board does not give any assistance to unaided madrasas. We will certainly look into the issue as it has been brought to our notice. But this is in no way connected to us," said Abid Hussain, Director of Madrasah Education, West Bengal.
'Kids Risking Their Lives To Study'
Beyond the salaries, what's concerning for the villagers is the lack of a proper school for their children. Sending their children to far-off schools would mean navigating dangerous potholed roads frequented by stone-laden trucks.
"The village is surrounded by mines that extract stones and load them in trucks to send them to different areas daily. Our children are forced to bicycle and walk on the dangerous and narrow roads where trucks ply and have the risk of suffering from accidents," said 41-year-old Kalam Hossain, who has a daughter studying in Class 6.
Hossain's fears are not unfounded.
Around four years ago, there was an accident involving a teenage boy.
"My teenage son (Sidrul Seikh) was mowed down by a truck, and he suffered severe injuries on his ankle. We rushed him to a hospital where he was operated on. But he still limps and has severe pain in his ankle foot," 38-year-old Rezak Seikh, a resident of Alinagar Paschimpara village.
Rezak Seikh works in a stone-crusher factory near his village. He earns Rs 300 every day.
"It is very difficult to arrange money for his treatment," he added.
Villagers Live in Perpetual Fear
Villagers alleged that Kabirul has threatened to book them under false cases if they dare to open their mouths.
"We are strongly against him and want a school here. But he threatens to book us under fake cases if we dare to speak to government officials. The fear has been keeping us quiet as we are poor and our family would not be able to bail us out of jail," added Kalim.
The district education officials said they were 'surprised' that this was happening.
"I have already informed the senior officials about it. We have 31 aided madrasa schools in the district and this school is not on the list. We have launched an investigation to know from where and how the staffers have been getting their monthly salaries. The villagers should approach us with their grievances," said Chandra Sekhar Jaulia, District Inspector of Schools (Secondary education), Birbhum district.
(The author, Gurvinder Singh is an independent journalist based out of Kolkata. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)