When masterji becomes netaji

Education is a mess because politicians refuse to discipline teachers who sabotage primary education. Surveys show that government teacher absenteeism ranges from 20% to 57% in different states, yet they earn thrice or more than private sector teachers,

Some teachers run businesses (shops, transport services). Others skip school in the morning but give paid tuitions to richer students in the afternoon.

No wonder half of all students drop out by Class 7. Barely 30-50% can read the alphabet in Class1, and barely 40-50% can read simply words in Class 2. Millions who complete school emerge functionally illiterate, unable to read simple paragraphs or do simple arithmetic. Yet no political party is willing to discipline teachers or demand performance.

An obvious reason is the power of teacher trade union. These often launch strikes just before school exams, impelling state governments to surrender rather than jeopardize the future of students. Hence teachers get ever-higher salaries while escaping accountability for performance. Teachers’ salaries appropriate almost the whole educational budget, leaving hardly anything for other items such as teaching materials and textbooks. Between 1960 and 1980 in Uttar Pradesh, the share of non-salary pending in education fell from 12% to 3% in primary education, and from 28% to 9% in secondary education.

A seasoned politician gave me a big additional reason for teacher power. You see, he said, government teachers preside over polling booths at election time. So we must cosset them, not antagonize them. Otherwise teachers will help rival parties to rig elections, and we cannot afford that at any cost.

A recent book by Geeta Kingdon and Mohammed Muzammil (The Political Economy of Education in India) throws new light on teacher power in Uttar Pradesh. Teachers are politically strong because they themselves have become politicians in astonishingly large numbers. Masterji has become netaji.

The Constitution provides a quota for teachers in the Upper Houses of State Legislatures. Only large states have an Upper House, but the bulk of the population is in such states.

Second, while the law prohibits government servants from contesting elections, it makes an exception for teachers. Why should teachers be allowed to contest but not doctors, clerks, sanitary engineers or other officials? The only reason is teacher clout.

Third, teachers are often the best educated in rural areas, and so are natural leaders. Hence they are elected in large numbers to the lower houses of state legislatures too. Since they have so much spare time—they only teach in the mornings, if at all—many do political work. Some are really politicians pretending to be teachers in order to collect a regular salary and have an institutionalized position of power

Fourth, politicized teachers help provide the troops needed for rallies and elections. Teachers help organize students in secondary schools to become political campaigners. This in turn produces a peculiar breed of “student leaders” who see a future in politics but none in education. They agitate for an automatic pass for all students, not high academic standards.

Kingdon and Muzammil give some stunning figures about the teacher-politician nexus in Uttar Pradesh. In the Upper House, 8.5% of seats are reserved for teachers, yet the proportion actually elected to the Upper House varies from 13% to 22%. Clearly the power of teachers far exceeds their Constitutional quota.

The Lower House has no teacher quota. Yet teachers accounted for 10.8% of all elected MLAs in the 1993 election, and 8.7% in the 1996 election, far above their 0.9% share in the adult population.

Their share of Cabinet posts was even higher. This share has usually been in double digits since 1985, with a peak of 16.3% in 1991-92. This high share persists regardless of which party is in power—Congress, BJP, Samajwadi, BSP. Mayawati, whose party is tipped to win the next election, is herself an ex-teacher.

This, then, explains why all state governments treat teachers with kid gloves, and in the bargain ignore the mess in education. One obvious way to improve education and teacher accountability is to empower panchayats and parents’ associations to discipline absentee teachers. But despite the Constitutional amendment seeking to devolve primary education to panchayats, all efforts at actual devolution have been sabotaged. The Kalyan Singh government in 1992 tried to give managers of aided private schools greater powers over teachers, but this led to a mass strike, and the government backed down. In the late 1990s the UP government tried to devolve some educational powers to panchayats, but once again teachers went on the rampage and the government caved in.

This is why many state governments prefer to let panchayats hire para-teachers—local people without proper teacher qualifications. These have helped improve basic literacy at a cost one-fifth that of regular teachers. That is a short-term gain, but para-teachers cannot provide quality education. Besides, in some states para-teachers are agitating to be recognized as regular teachers.

What is the way out? Kingdon and Muzammil offer no panaceas. If villagers and panchayats get sufficiently angry with the mess in education, they could create a countervailing political force. That day still seems far off.

What do you think?