India has been at war against its teachers, and it will be a great achievement for the new government if it can bring this war to a halt. Started in the early 1990s under the cover of fiscal reforms, this war acquired social approval with the passage of time. The state, meanwhile, found many partners who have helped fight the war on its behalf. Gradually, while the war itself has became largely invisible and routinised, the new system it helped establish-both in school-level and higher education-has gained widespread acceptance.
I remember meeting a young man and woman last year at Chakki Bank station in Himachal Pradesh. I was waiting for the Jammu Rajdhani and they were waiting for other trains to return, respectively, to Meerut and Varanasi. They were among more than a hundred candidates I had interviewed over the previous three days for two vacancies at the lecturer level at a new central university. The young man had a PhD and was teaching on a contractual basis for a monthly salary of Rs. 21,000. He told me that the 19-member faculty in education at Meerut University had shrunk to 2, and the remaining positions have been lying vacant for years. He had attended more than a dozen interviews since completing his PhD a decade ago. He got selected once, but a court case led to the cancellation of the entire process. All over Uttar Pradesh, there were hundreds of vacancies in colleges and universities in which ad hoc teachers were serving for years. The story of the young woman from Varanasi was similar. She too believed that there was a conspiracy to commercialise the entire system. I thought it might console them to know that even at Delhi University, over 4000 teachers are serving on an ad hoc basis.
By the time my train arrived, we had exchanged mutual notes of helplessness over the gloom that pervades higher education in India, wherein teaching has been turned into a vulnerable service industry, support staff have dwindled, and severe budget cuts have hit libraries and laboratories. These are the two essential resources on which the quality of teaching depends.
The story of school teachers is a bit more complex and it varies from state to state. By the mid-1990s, many states had adopted the 'para' teachers' model of cheap appointments to meet the challenge of universal primary education. Madhya Pradesh went the farthest - and paved the way for others - in damaging its schools by downgrading the salary and status of all teachers. It declared the old system of permanent teachers a 'dying cadre', and shifted recruitment to village Panchayats in the name of decentralisation. As years passed, this policy became firm and political change could not alter it. I recall meeting a senior official in Bhopal in the late 1990s who told me that teaching was no more a career option for young people in MP. He was worried that the new system of recruitment would not attract those with the potential to become dedicated teachers.
The pursuit of the 'para' teacher policy - differently named and pursued with varying nuances in other states - attracted both criticism and advocacy, but the latter dominated and ultimately prevailed. An atmosphere of disdain towards teachers already existed. The perception that they lead easygoing lives with undeserved emoluments was assiduously cultivated. A national neurosis set in, marked, on the one hand, by the demand for Indian values -which surely include respect for the teacher's dignity - but on the other, by contempt for the teacher. Low-fee private schools and privately-run medical and engineering colleges had demonstrated how teachers could be turned into wage labourers. Management experts, NGOs and shortsighted economic advisers joined the chorus of accountability, linking teachers' income with outcomes defined in terms of test scores. Motley surveys were marshalled to 'prove' that India's children were learning very little despite huge public investments. Despite this empirical approach, albeit with its own problems, the conclusion that teachers are to be blamed was reached with a surprising lack of evidence. That apex bastion of the welfare state, the Planning Commission, smiled and blessed the activist experts who wanted teachers to be paid less and monitored by devices like biometric attendance and CCTVs.
What will it mean to bring the war against the teacher to a close? To begin with, it must entail an accurate valuation of teachers' labour. Unlike the West, both society and state in India today seem convinced that teaching is not a serious professional activity. Who can persuade civil servants and citizens to see a primary school teacher's daily life for what it is - a struggle against all possible odds? Engaging with young children is an exhausting activity, but this idea feels alien to the educated middle classes and education officers. In large cities, class-sizes have swollen since the promulgation of the Right to Education (RTE), leading to great pressure on the physical infrastructure of schools. The RTE Act has laid down a teacher-child ratio of 1:30. This ratio looks like a fantasy under today's circumstances. Official estimates point to a shortfall of more than a million teachers at the elementary level alone. Where are these teachers to come from and what sort of individuals will they be? Given the plight and capacity of training institutions, many state governments are flirting with the option of distance education, even though a commission appointed by the Supreme Court has stipulated that distance education should only be used for in-service and not initial training. The same commission has recommended that government investment in new training institutions should be urgently enhanced. If the new government at the centre agrees to implement this advice, it will send a positive signal across a sick, hopelessly dysfunctional sector.
In higher education, it will take a lot more effort and will to stop the war against teachers. The University Grants Commission (UGC) has itself to blame for bringing higher education to its present state. It has been fully aware of the radical deterioration of undergraduate education across the country. The National Knowledge Commission (NKC) exacerbated the crisis by misguiding central policy into mixing higher with vocational education. Along with the Planning Commission, the NKC endorsed fancy ideas like the four-year undergraduate course that Delhi University (DU) launched last year. The UGC hailed it as a great innovation but ignored the strange fact that DU was wilfully depleting its permanent faculty strength even as it was launching an ambitious new degree programme. The UGC is also responsible for turning faculty recruitment into a mechanical calculation using the so-called Academic Performance Indicators (API). This scoring device has deepened the crisis that the UGC's earlier step of starting a shoddily designed National Eligibility Test (NET) had started. These two filtering devices ensure that the best available candidates feel discouraged and stay away from India's higher education system, often deciding to teach abroad instead. And common to higher education and schools, teacher recruitment has become an exercise of crude socio-political engineering. Huge armies of contract - ad hoc -teachers are being politically exploited, both by the administration and the leaders of rival groups of teachers themselves. It is a scene that is sordid and chaotic, but difficult to capture in the limited space the media has for education. Instead, only an insignificant indicator garners frequent attention, when we hear how poorly Indian institutions are ranked globally.
Teaching is the heart of education, and that is where the crisis of education has hit India hardest. The general cynicism towards teachers we see in our social ethos today has its roots in a paradox. As a professional workforce, teachers have low, powerless status. The younger the pupils you teach, the lower your status. On the contrary, ironic homilies reminding us that the nation's future depends on teachers are dutifully recited each Teacher's Day. In reality, teachers have no place in India's modern economy and urban landscape, with their modest incomes and lack of authority even within their own professional sphere. As for social prestige, even a lower-level civil servant enjoys more recognition and respect, so that we easily conclude that teaching is a last option in the hierarchy of careers. On the other hand, teachers carry the burden of a loud cultural mythology, according to which they are transmitters of values, shapers of young minds, and architects of a new India. This contradictory state of affairs in the public mind highlights how hard it is for the state to restore any dignity to India's teachers. If the state stops the war it started more than two decades ago, the reconstruction of education can start, and we can look forward to saner planning for the long run. But recovery from the damage inflicted on the education system by the state's war on teachers is hardly easy. Indeed, the decision to bring the war to a close constitutes as major a challenge of political will as does the post-war planning.
Teaching is the heart of education, and that is where the crisis has hit India hardest. Teachers find no place in India's modern economy and urban landscape.
(Krishna Kumar is professor of education at Delhi University and a former director of NCERT)