Delhi’s mission impossible: hiring a school teacher

Aman Sethi
Saumya Khandelwal, Burhaan Kinu

The guest teacher awakens at 6:30 each morning, does fifteen minutes of yoga, and sits down on a thin mattress laid out on the floor of his room to prepare for the teacher recruitment exam that has been scheduled and re-scheduled for two years now.

"I'm 34, but I'm still living like a student," he said, gesturing to a battered duffel bag that serves as a wardrobe for his clothes, a small camp stove for brewing tea, and a plastic stand stacked with test-prep books and sample questions papers.

His colleagues have rented rooms adjoining his, along a narrow corridor on the third floor of a house not far from the Government Boys Senior Secondary School, known locally in Sangam Vihar as the pahadi school, where they teach from half-past noon till half a half-past six in the evening.

They awaken together, share meals and tea, and make the short walk to school and back.

These men, all in their late twenties and early thirties, are just a few of Delhi's 15,000 temporary teachers, colloquially called guest teachers. They are employed on daily wage contracts and tasked with sustaining Delhi's government school system during an unprecedented teacher shortage.

Most have come from towns and cities across north India, carrying binders full of certificates and qualifications, to live on shoe-string budgets so they can send most of their salaries to their families.

"Our neighbours back home think we have government jobs," he said, asking for anonymity out of fear of disciplinary action for speaking with a reporter. "They don't know that we can be dismissed at a moment's notice."

Delhi's 1,009 government schools have a shortfall of 25,337 permanent teachers against an officially-sanctioned staff strength of 66,736 posts, according to the latest figures provided by the Directorate of Education (DoE). The DoE has compensated for the shortfall by periodically hiring guest teachers to fill in until their replacements are hired. This system, intended for provisional fixes, has become the new status quo: no new permanent teachers have been hired for almost five years.

Delhi's inability to hire permanent teachers is a consequence of both decades-old litigation and a more recent tussle between the Delhi government, led by the Aam Aadmi Party, and the Central government, led by the Bhartiya Janta Party.

The result is a messy tangle of political manoeuvring, bureaucracy and jurisprudence. Besides creating a class of nervous and harried workers without job security, the teacher troubles have also meant that thousands of students across the city must prepare for their career-defining board exams without much help from their schools.

Delhi's teacher shortage has meant children, like Anuj, who from the city's poorest families yet to finish their course despite pre-boards scheduled for January.

Historical baggage

The well-documented stand-off between the Delhi government and successive Lieutenant Governors, appointed by the Centre, is far from the only cause of the problems with teacher hiring.

In the 2009-2010 school year, Delhi's schools were short by only about 1,500 teachers, against a sanctioned strength of about 42,000. Thereafter, 23,514 new posts were created by the Delhi government in two large tranches, in 2011 and 2016, to improve the student-teacher ratio from about 42 to 25 students per teacher. (The number of students in Delhi's schools has declined by 2% in this period as parents increasingly favour private schools.)

Only a third of these new posts have been filled by regular teachers, either through new hires or the promotion of junior teachers, who fill 75% of vacancies per recruitment rules.

"The idea is to offer teachers career growth through promotion," said a senior bureaucrat who handled recruitment for several years.

Since 2013, however, the promotion of teachers has been blocked due to legislation from a quarter of a century ago. In 1992, in the case of Indira Sawhney versus the Union of India, the Supreme Court held that an existing policy to reserve a proportion of all promotions in government jobs for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes was unconstitutional.

In 1995, parliament amended the constitution to allow reservations for promotions in instances where SCs and STs were not adequately represented, triggering off a flurry of litigation by dominant-caste lobby groups, including a 1997 case filed by the All India Equality Forum, who opposed the reservation policy.

Dalit groups have defended the policy. "The notification was necessary because while reservation means Dalits get government jobs, they are almost never promoted to senior positions due to discrimination," said Dr. Lalji Prasad Nirmal, convener of the Ambedkar Mahasabha.

In 2006, the Supreme Court upheld the validity of the constitutional amendments favouring reservation in promotion, but stated that state governments would have to prove that SCs were inadequately represented. As state governments dragged their feet on providing the requisite data, litigation moved to state high courts.

In Delhi, the DoE said in a court affidavit, this legal limbo over 10,000 teacher promotions went from 2013 to 2017. In August this year, the Delhi high court said there could be no reservation in promotion until the government produced comprehensive data to prove that scheduled castes were inadequately represented in senior positions.

Now the DoE is awaiting instructions from the Department of Personnel and Training, the central government agency that lays down procedures for hiring, before promoting anyone.

By providing teachers, regular assignments and tests, private tuition centres, like this one in Sangam Vihar, are performing many of the tasks that schools are supposed to do.

Part-time teachers

This lack of promotions has most affected students in higher classes, as middle-school teachers are not graduating to teach senior school.

In the last week of November, Class 12 students in the pahadi school, where the harried guest teacher works, finally got what they had waited for since school began in April this year: teachers for physics and chemistry. A teacher for mathematics was expected soon.

But physics, chemistry and maths classes will be held only on Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays. For the rest of the week, their teachers will be deputed to other schools that also need qualified science teachers. The pre-board exams begin on January 8, which means the pahadi school students have 15 short classes to start, finish and revise everything from electromagnetic waves to the photo-electric effect.

"Our new physics teacher is very good," said Anuj Gupta, one of the Class 12 science students. "I wish we had had him for the whole year. I wouldn't have needed tuitions."

It has been a hard year for Anuj, who wants to go to medical school as a way to escape the relatively hopeless circumstances of Sangam Vihar. It is a sprawling, crowded settlement in south Delhi. His father, who plies an auto-rickshaw in the neighbourhood, earns only around Rs 10 per trip.

School hasn't given Anuj much encouragement. His physics teacher retired before school even began in April. When schools closed for summer the following month, his chemistry teacher retired. In July, when school re-opened, his mathematics teacher got himself transferred to another school, and the school principal was promoted to an administrative position in the DoE. In October, after the application to extend his tenure was lost, the vice principal retired. None of these teachers were replaced.

The dearth of teachers at the pahari school illustrate one of the major costs of the lack of new hiring. Children like Anuj, who come from some of the city's most marginalised families, are not getting enough decent instruction before they attempt board exams, which will determine their academic future.

Sangam Vihar's pahadi school is currently without a fulltime principal, vice principal, and Class 12 teachers for physics, chemistry and mathematics.

Legal limbo

The current Delhi government has been constrained in its ability to help.

When Hindustan Times first asked Atishi Marlena, advisor to Delhi's education minister Manish Sisodia, about the lack of teachers at Anuj's school in June, she said recruiting new teachers was taking time, but the government was in the process of hiring more guest teachers to hold the fort while the permanent teachers were recruited.

In August, officials at the DoE said this list of eligible guest teachers had been drawn up and the teachers were days away from being deployed. But on September 28, the Delhi high court put a stay on the hiring of any more temporary teachers.

Ironically, the court made these orders in response to a petition filed by Social Jurist, a legal advocacy organization, to urge the Delhi government to hire more teachers.

"The judge felt that the government was hiring temporary teachers as a way to avoid hiring permanent teachers," said Ashok Agarwal, a lawyer and a member of Social Jurist. The stay on recruiting guest teachers, Agarwal said, would force the government to hire permanent teachers.

But hiring permanent teachers would take at least six months, government officials said. With the board exams scheduled in March, the fate of students like Anuj on the pre-boards was sealed.

The problem, Agarwal said, is that the Delhi government is focusing its energies on regularizing the current crop of guest teachers, which they had promised to do in their election manifesto in 2015. To this end, the government wants to give guest teachers 2.5% extra marks in the recruitment exam to account for their years of teaching experience.

The extra-marks policy of the Delhi government, however, was rejected last year by the Lieutenant Governor, whose office argued this was against recruitment norms. The Delhi government says that a subsequent Supreme Court judgement in a similar case in Rajasthan supports their position. Delhi's education minister has written to Lieutenant Governor in this regard, but is yet to hear back.

The Delhi government says they want to help guest teachers because they have proved invaluable to the city's school system.

"Many of these teachers have been teaching at their schools since 2010," said Marlena. "They have gained valuable experience over the years." These teachers had been trained in new teaching methods by the government and were necessary to improve the city's school system.

The government can't act without the governor's consent because an August 2016 decision of the Delhi high court held that Delhi's unique status as a city state meant that all appointments — including school teachers — must be cleared by the office of the city's Lieutenant Governor.

So "Delhi's elected government cannot hire a school teacher," Marlena said.

Guest teachers at Sangam Vihar work long hours at a fraction of the salary of regular teachers.

Prabhanjan Jha, coordinator of the Dilli Atithi Shikshak Sangh (DASS), an association of the city's guest teachers, said that, despite not having sat for the recruitment exam, many were still sufficiently qualified to teach full-time.

"Delhi's guest teachers have been selected through an online application process that ranked applicants on the basis of their school and college marks. Those with the highest marks were selected," he said. "The recruitment also followed all guidelines of regular appointments, with the exception of a test."

Most guest teachers, Jha said, have also passed the Common Teacher Eligibility Test, a centrally-administered test for middle school teachers that was cleared by only 11 percent of all applicants in 2016, which suggests that the teachers are qualified for their posts.

DASS has sent several representations to the Chief Minister and the Lieutenant Governor, but for now, there is little clarity on when this situation will be resolved.

In the meantime, children like Anuj will have to make do with teachers who come for only a few days in the week, while guest teachers divide their time between teaching their students and preparing for their own recruitment exams.

"It is all up to the courts and the governor now," said a senior official who, till recently, used to oversee the education department's hapless efforts at recruitment. "The work of government takes time."