The struggle of contract teachers is a struggle for the future of India’s education.
On my way from New Delhi to Chandigarh in May 2015, returning after a short visit to the capital, my bus approached the township of Karnal where police cars and riot-control vehicles had blocked the highway. The Volvo bus was allotted an alternate route, a smaller pathway through decrepit villages; every few minutes the bus would stop at a sharp turn, its bulk making it difficult to turn in a single spin.
The next day, while browsing for news on the internet, I read about how the blockade was imposed by the police after it clashed with protesting teachers on the Karnal highway. The incident revealed a familiar story and one reported tepidly by India’s media. In fact, chronicles of such protests by teachers have now become trifling news. Only, in its first instance, in Karnal, had the protests boiled over and served tabloids with the grist that makes for sharp headlines. Nearly 15,000 teachers, it has been claimed, protested in Karnal, of which almost 100 got themselves tonsured in a desperate attempt to get the attention of the Ministry of Human Resource Development.
The protests in Karnal followed what was a larger, though peaceful, strike in Bihar on 10 April 2015, where an estimated two lakh contract teachers were on strike. Many primary and secondary schools in the state were left in a limbo. In the months following the strikes in Bihar, contract teacher groups have sprung up around the country; their aim was to push the government to regularise contract teacher jobs. In the age of social media, mobilisation has become easier, and there were agitations in Kashmir, West Bengal, Haryana, Chandigarh and New Delhi – a collectivism that is coincidental rather than premeditated.
What has been common in these protests is the demand for regularisation of positions held by contract and guest teachers and implementation of provisions that would bring them on an equal standing with permanent teachers. At present, a contracted teacher teaching primary, or upper-primary is paid between INR 8000 to 11000 (USD 121 to 167) per month, while permanent teachers get thrice that amount and are included in provident fund schemes – as stipulated by the Sixth Pay Commission, implemented in August 2008. The pay commission did not cover contractual labour.
The government gets a teacher at a third of the price of a permanent teacher in the form of guest teacher. Why would they hire permanent teachers then?
Though always less than permanent teachers, payment to contract teachers vary as each state has been given a free hand over operations and funds to achieve the targets set by the central government. For instance, as of 2011, a contract teacher in Delhi earned nearly five times the salary as a contract teacher in Andhra Pradesh. Indeed, the minimum qualification required to be hired as a contract teacher also differs from state to state. In Maharashtra and Gujarat, for instance, the minimum qualification required for becoming a contractual teacher is the same as that for a permanent position. In Bihar, on the other hand, the bar is low – a basic high school education till class 12 will suffice. That said, the broader issues remain the same: contractual teachers are underpowered and undernourished as far as the feeding lines of governance and economic remuneration goes.
The Contract Teacher’s Welfare Association (CTWA), is one of the organisations that has been fighting for the rights of contractual teachers for almost a decade. Through the efforts and agitations by organisation, such as the CTWA, authorities have been compelled to raise salary caps of primary school contractual teachers in Delhi, from INR 5500 to 11,000. Contractual tenure has also been increased from a minimum of three months to a full academic session of 10 months. The Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), in 2011, also included the provision of casual leaves for contractual teachers. And as of 2012, the corporation has introduced a 3-month maternity leave for women teachers hired by the corporation. The CTWA however is still fighting for the right to maternity leave for guest teachers, a category of teachers created by the MCD after the promulgation of the Right To Education Act in 2009 – one among many of its make-shift policies. Unlike contract teachers, these guest teachers were paid a daily wage, making their situation pitiable. Consequently in 2012, under the leadership of Praveen Tobadia, the All Guest Teacher Association came into being. The association has been at the centre of most protests in and around Delhi in the last few months.
In early 2015, when the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) sworn into power in New Delhi, went silent on its promise to regularise teachers after it came to power – an unrealistic promise to start with – thousands of contractual teachers (including guest teachers) were left disappointed by the political manoeuvring. A number of protests erupted, and agitations were staged across Delhi including at Jantar Mantar. Praveen Tobadia told me over the phone that in Delhi the situation is complicated because teachers are under different categories. “We come under the guest teacher tag, some 17,000 of us in the Delhi area. And we are considered daily wage workers. We don’t have privileges like casual leaves or maternity leave and are paid on a per-day basis,” he said. Being paid on per-day basis also means that festival seasons are usually the harshest on these teachers.
According to Tobadia, there has been no recruitment of permanent teachers in Delhi since 2011. “The government gets a teacher at a third of the price of a permanent teacher in the form of guest teacher. Why would they hire permanent teachers then? Also, they have kept a maximum age cap of 30 for regularisation of guest teachers. Some of us who have been working on contracts for more than five, six or seven years are already past that point. What options do we have left?” Tobadia warned that if things do not change soon he would join hands with other contractual employees of the government – such as bus drivers and conductors – and widen the scope of his agitation.
The protests by contract and guest teachers come at time when the gap between the number of teachers required in schools and number of teacher actually hired is growing. In 2010, the then Human Resource Development Minister Kapil Sibal told the Rajya Sabha that India had a shortage of 1.2 million teachers. In 2014, a shortage of 5.86 lakh primary-level teachers and 3.5 lakh upper primary level teachers was reported across India. A paper released by the UNESCO Institute of Statistics (UIS) and the Education for All Global Monitoring Report in October 2014, predicted that to fulfil the UN’s ‘Education for All’ initiative by 2030, India needed a staggering three million teachers. That number is higher in some reports released by NGOs such as Pratham and Azim Premji Foundation, aided by the World Bank.
Like a number of other epoch-defining moments in the modern history of India, the roots of the current problem can be traced back two decades ago to the period of economic liberalisation of early 1990s. The inception of the idea of the contract teacher, however, can be traced back to the Shikhsa Karmi Project implemented in the north-western state of Rajasthan in 1987. Carried out with the assistance of the Swedish International Development Agency (SIDA), the programme proposed the recruitment of ‘Shiksha Karmis’ (substitutes), since permanent teachers refused to relocate to rural areas as per their transfer policy or would remain absent.
The model was soon picked up by other states. In the aftermath of the economic liberalisation, hiring contractual labour became easy and the code for success in private and public schools alike. As a result, a spurt of contractual recruitments followed and unqualified or underqualified graduates (and in some states, only high school graduates) found their way into the schools as teachers.
What therefore, seems like a punch-up moment in the system today, has actually been a gradual development, unreported or un-emphasised by the media over the past decade or so
During the 1990s, the hiring of contractual teachers was propelled by the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP), and the decentralisation movement which authorised local bodies – Panchayats – to hire teachers. This reduced the ambit of jurisdiction and allowed for unrestricted corruption. Simultaneously, the rush to improve enrolment in schools – and not necessarily retention or quality of education – was symbolised by acts like the National Planning Nutritional Support to Primary Education (NP-NPSE) or more popularly known as the ‘midday meal’, passed in the year 1995. The act, automatically, resulted in a spike in enrolment where meals were provided. But while it became easier to enrol larger numbers, retention and the drop-out rate of students became a grave issue. As children dropped out or failed to climb the education ladder, many contact teachers were removed from their positions, falsely accused of ‘non-performance’.
The simultaneous delegation and expansion of power (from centre to state and further down to the Panchayat levels) has been particularly stifling for teachers. Alleged corruption and mismanagement stems right from the grassroots. Positions that ought to be filled remain vacant, while the money allotted for those is pocketed by the local authorities.
Post-2000, contract teachers, who were bystanders to these developments, sought the intervention of the judiciary. A World Bank report from 2011 puts regularisation as the most common case of labour dispute brought to the court’s desk by contractual teachers. While the numbers are difficult to enumerate, the percentage of cases decided in favour of the teachers, dipped drastically through the late 1990s and then hit a stone wall in 2006, when Supreme Court in State of Karnataka vs Uma Devi, stated that regularisation as an appeal before the court, would be considered only sparingly. An exception was however made in this judgement for employees having served for more than ten years, and has since been evoked on a number of occasions. The judiciary, thus choosing to look away, left contractual teachers with no other option than taking to the streets. What therefore, seems like a punch-up moment in the system today, has actually been a gradual development, unreported or un-emphasised by the media over the past decade or so.
In 2011, only 40.21 percent of the teachers in India had received formal training. By 2014, that number had plummeted further, down to 22 percent, as recruitment of guest teachers continued apace.
According to the 2011 census, there were around half-a-million contract teachers in India. Of the permanent and contract teachers already employed, the astounding difference in qualification and training of the two groups was clear. In 2011, only 40.21 percent of the teachers in India had received formal training. By 2014, that number had plummeted further, down to 22 percent, as recruitment of guest teachers continued apace. Of these numbers, the only positive indicator – in teacher training – is largely accounted for by private schools, which are considered to be considerate employers of financing such training.
A surprising trend since India passed the monumental Right To Education Act in 2009 is regarding the performance of contract teachers. In two studies – conducted by Paul Atherton and Geeta Kingdon, Karthik Muralidharan and Venkatesh Sundararaman – the contract teachers did better than permanent teachers on a number of parameters such as pupil performance, absenteeism, target fulfilment etc. Regardless of the false allegations of incompetence, both studies found that contract teachers were likelier to teach in schools with adverse conditions. The studies found that not only were contractual teachers expected to perform better, but also elicit better performance from their students under more difficult circumstances.
The reason for this efficiency, of course, lies in the nature of contracts that are periodically renewed. Most teachers therefore push themselves to the brink to ensure job security.
The RTE Act has proved to be a windfall for some, and a whirlwind for most. The basic tenets of the RTE Act were guidelines that made education free and compulsory for children between the ages of 6-14. But perhaps for the first time, the stress was on quality education. The most important clauses were related to attaining standard teacher-pupil ratios across primary and secondary schools in India. The primary level pupil-teacher ratio (PTR) as prescribed by the RTE act was 30:1. For upper-primary level the ratio was 35:1. The target date for these prescribed ratios to be normalised was 31 March 2015. But 3.5 crore children were still out of school till that date and vacancies in the teaching department are still not fulfilled. This meant that PTRs are nowhere close to being met even five years after the RTE act was rolled out. RTE Forum, a group of people and organisations that came together in 2010 to monitor the progress of the act, in their report in April 2015, stated that apart from the five lakh teachers required, an additional 6.6 lakh, who were working, were severely untrained, or under-qualified.
In 2011, the age limit, under the Act, was extended from 14 to 16, to include the matriculation level as well. But what the Act did for children in general, it undid for contract teachers. The Act mandated the taking of the Teacher Eligibility Test (TET), which was established along with the RTE Act as a prerequisite for teachers to teach in a government school. Any teacher previously contracted or otherwise, has to now take the TET to be able to continue teaching. Yet a caveat was added: standard baseline qualifications were made mandatory for regularisation, whereby many contractual teachers who had been hired over the past two decades, on varying levels of selection metrics (different for different states) were under attack.
The RTE effect has not only restricted itself to the individual, but has extended to institutions as well. In 1997, the southern state of Kerala started the indigenous Multi-Grade Learning Centres (MGLC) which provided education via one-teacher schools in tribal areas of the state. The RTE Act, though, directed these centres to be converted into primary schools, which meant following certain policy guidelines, a budget and output. Most learning centres in the state – after they had gained yearly extensions – had to eventually shut down. So in place of finely functioning micro-schools, primary schools, were set up. Now, besides sharing the problems that primary school children face across the country, tribal children also have to contemplate going long distances as opposed to the learning centres that had been erected considering the convenience of students.
As long as people think that anyone can become a teacher, and therefore deserves less, things won’t change
Balaji Sampath, founder of AID INDIA (now in its 20th year of existence), and someone who has been working in the space of teacher training and community participation in southern India, said that RTE’s standards are artificial. While it makes a passing mention of quality, there is little method attached to it. “How do you ensure quality? I worked with 13,000 teachers during a ten-year project, and I realised that most permanent teachers lacked motivation. Many contractual teachers performed just as well (when we worked in villages), if not better, despite their relative handicaps vis-a-vis qualifications and other parameters. How can teacher-student ratios be the proof of quality?”
In Sampath’s experience, the lack of motivation to teach stems from a lack of respect for the profession as well. Be it permanent or contractual, teachers are not respected enough. As a result the indifference towards student performance and learning abilities becomes an attitude. Teachers, therefore look to be private tutors, where they can earn more and get some respect for their work as well. Of the RTE Act, Sampath is severely critical: “Nowhere does it mention in the document that quality (measurable) is a key ingredient. The RTE act is just a clamp-down on private schools, which the government believes, hinder education. But it is not taken into account that most poor private schools are the only way children in rural areas can receive education of any kind. The rich private schools are an anomaly here. But the government doesn’t want to differentiate. If you want the RTE to be inclusive, then policies should be the same for rich and poor,” he said. “As long as people think that anyone can become a teacher, and therefore deserves less, things won’t change,” he concluded.
Stepping outside the collapsing structures of the Indian education system, an anthropological approach to understanding the present condition can show that not all is wrong with what has been done on paper
In a broader sense, when the RTE act pushed for inclusion – by eulogising the need for education being free without compromising on quality – it did so without sound planning. As of the March 2015 deadline for complying with the RTE regulations, less than 10 percent schools in the country were found to be RTE compliant.
Stepping outside the collapsing structures of the Indian education system, an anthropological approach to understanding the present condition can show that not all is wrong with what has been done on paper. The popular presumption is that teaching is a social service, rather than labour. Not only does the weak economic backing of the profession justify this belittlement to an extent but also justifies the apprehension of students in most developing countries today – their “look abroad” mentality for good education.
The flagship course for attaining a basic qualification for becoming a school teacher in India is the Bachelor of Education course. As per a 2011-2012 report by the Ministry of Human Resource and Development (MHRD), enrolment into the glorified engineering courses, the BE and BTech, almost touched the three million mark for that calendar year. In comparison, the enrolment to the BEd programme was as low as half-a-million, coincidently the same number of teaching vacancies to be filled in the year 2011. Ideally, the enrolment should have accounted for the deficit, and the target for the RTE Act should have been met. But then, there are other issues that remain unaddressed.
BEd courses are usually a phenomenon of townships, suburban cities or rural areas. Closer to India’s megacities, are the sprawling culture of India’s corporations and the slew of engineering and management courses and colleges it has spawned. Even in rural areas, a great number of engineering and management colleges are being set up as the ‘golden ticket’ that eventually leads to a MNC job. The shifted priority of middle-class families towards serving this growing private sector has skewed education and student ambitions. Most are not willing to become educators. As a result, the pool of potential teachers and their subsequent absorption into the public education sector is dismal.
In 2014, the government as part of a drive to improve the quality of teachers being produced through the one-year BEd course, increased the duration for the course to two years. The fee structures, however, remained the same and so do the opportunities. Unsurprisingly, in 2015, enrolment to the BEd course across the country dipped alarmingly. For instance, as of September 2015, in the north-western state of Punjab alone, 55 percent of the seats in private colleges remained vacant after three recruitment cycles. The resultant losses will be borne by these private colleges, and eventually, of course, by India’s children.
But there are some stories that bring hope, mostly from the NGO sector working in the space of primary and upper primary education in India. One such organisation, directly addressing the issue of teacher shortage in India, is the Teach For India programme that was started in 2007. Modelled on Wendy Kopp’s Teach for America, the project started a fellowship programme in 2009, in which willing graduates selected from across the country were trained to teach in India’s schools for a minimum of two years. Most importantly, though, the project pays its fellows a handsome stipend, almost at par with what a permanent teacher draws in similar schools.
Alankrita Khera, manager of communications at TFI, talked to me about the programme. Khera says that apart from providing teachers, their emphasis has always been on quality. “Our primary objective is to not just address a shortage of teachers but to strive to provide an excellent education to all children irrespective of their social or financial background. It’s not the environment or the society in itself that pulls these kids down – but the unexplainable low expectations that most of us have of them,” she said.
The absorption rate of applications at TFI is ‘impressively low’, underlining their stress on quality teachers. TFI fellows are trained before they are deputed for field positions. In its first year, the TFI programme received 1200 applications. In 2014 the number rose to more than 13,000, with people from diverse backgrounds – employed and unemployed – willing to make a difference.
When I asked Khera about the importance to reimburse any effort, despite its philanthropic genesis she said, “As Teach For India expands to more cities and recruits a large number of fellows, funding becomes a challenge. While Teach For America corps members receive their compensation directly from the schools they are placed in, Teach For India Fellows are paid by Teach For India itself. The funding required for Teach For India, when it places 1000 Fellows in schools across India, will be over Rs. 50 crores a year,” she said.
But the real problem is sending teachers to rural areas. Most of TFI’s fellows work in cities. Working on a similar cause in rural areas is a completely different ball game. While an education degree is more respected in rural areas as compared to the urban, paucity of teachers remains an issue.
In 2011, the Azim Premji Foundation, a pioneer in educational research and training methods in India, was amongst the first to advocate for the need of contract teachers as part of the Muralidharan and Sundararaman study that professed that contractual obligations not only made teachers more efficient but also likelier to have a positive impact on the performance of their pupil. In a recent article Anurag Behar, CEO of Azim Premji Foundation, reiterated his support for contract teachers as significant contributors – despite their meagre training – and asserted that the need to train these people was immediate.
The contract teacher scheme is employed by a number of developing countries. But for this vital component to function properly, a number of things have to be ensured. First, and as stated in the report by Francis Teal & Geeta Kingdon, mere unionisation of teacher bodies is definitely not a solution as it leads to lowered performance in both teachers and students. While incentive or performance based structures are favourable, they have to be institutionalised by the government and not independent bodies, like NGOs, which is the case right now. Second, for stability, a flexible reading of what problem students’ face has to be understood and implemented. For this to happen, there are examples that we can take our lessons from.
The PACES program in Colombia, where higher education is provided on a subsidised rate to performing students via vouchers, is a success. A similar voucher programme has been in place in Chile, where nearly 93 percent of the children study on funds provided by the state, attuned to their attendance and performance, thus ensuring a necessary balance in quality and state provisions. The Magnet schools of America is another idea where state schools with special curricula are set up to attract students, who for various reasons are alienated from mainstream education.
Then there is the very basic approach of Mexico’s PROGRESA( now known as OPORTUNIDADES), which was started in 1997, as a conditional cash transfer scheme for families, in exchange for enrolment, attendance, healthcare and of course performance of their children. While none of these programmes – as studies show – have been able to completely resolve the problem, some, if not all, have made significant progress, especially in the case of Colombia and Chile. Population and diversity often become the highlighted problem. But what needs to be understood is that the nature of problems is different in different parts of the country.
There are countless examples that reinstall faith. Primary education, though a national priority, runs on the engines of good-hearted initiatives. But most NGOs are supported from outside India, and the recent attitude of the government to dial-down cross-border funding may only proceed to undo what has already so sparingly been done.
Will the privatisation-friendly attitude of the current government have a bearing on the role of private schools when the new policy comes out?
The present government, sworn into power early 2014, had rolled out a consultation drive where it sought suggestions and fostered consulting at all levels of the state and invited citizen participation as well. While formulating the New Education Policy, however, there has surprisingly been no in-depth study of the failure of the RTE Act. Among the sparse information available on the government’s websites about the New Education Policy, little is known apart from recorded video sessions of the Minister of Human Resource and Development – Smriti Irani – chatting with state and district officials. From these sessions alone, one can deduce that RTE is already, in the eyes of the government, nothing but a point of recourse if things don’t mix well in their own recipe.
The questions that emerge in the wake of such attempts is about the ultimate fate of the RTE Act. What, if anything, is the government prepared to learn from mistakes made in RTE? How will ‘quality’ (another thing missing from the consultations) be defined? Will the privatisation-friendly attitude of the current government have a bearing on the role of private schools when the new policy comes out? And what about contract teachers who are holding their breath over the government’s imminent policies?
If the government wants to streamline of private rural schools, it should regulate rich ones in urban areas as well. On the surface of it, the problems may look simple, but given the complexities of demography and psychology, not to mention the infestation of corruption, the issue is far more complicated.
~ Manik Sharma is a freelance journalist and poet based out of Shimla, Himachal Pradesh.