An "urgent requirement": Where are the teachers?

Aman Sethi
Burhaan Kinu, Saumya Khandelwal, Ravi Choudhary

When school closed for the summer in May, principal Ashok Tyagi resolved to find a physics teacher. The post had been vacant for four years.

But in July, when the Government Boys Senior Secondary School in Sangam Vihar's C Block reopened, the physics teacher was yet to materialise; the chemistry teacher had retired; and two Sanskrit lecturers, a maths teacher, a Hindi teacher, and the school librarian got themselves transferred out. Most had spent only around half a year at the school.

Tyagi himself was promoted to a desk job at the department of education.

These were departures that the Sangam Vihar school, known locally as the pahadi school, could ill afford. It has already had to reduce the length of the school day and eliminate almost all extracurricular activities to cope with its severe lack of teachers.

Citywide, the number of permanent government teachers is only slightly more than half of the sanctioned strength of the workforce. A tangle of bureaucratic orders prevents the city from hiring more teachers for the neediest institutions, such as the pahadi school. The results are grim: overworked teachers and school officials straining to provide the bare necessities of a decent education.

The pahadi school in Sangam Vihar hasn't had a set of regular teachers since it began offering Class 12 science four years ago.

The pahadi school in Sangam Vihar hasn't had a set of regular teachers since it began offering Class 12 science four years ago.

Studying without schooling

Over the phone from his new office in south Delhi, Tyagi sounded disconsolate over the fate of the science section, which he had brought to the school to begin with. These transfers meant that the 13 boys studying Class 12 science were preparing for their board exams without a teacher for physics, chemistry or maths.

"I feel like a gardener who has left too soon after planting his saplings," Tyagi said. "I worry a storm will drown them. I worry the sun will scorch them. I worry goats will eat them."

At the pahadi school, the mood among the teachers who remained was sombre. This was a familiar script.

"Sangam Vihar is kala paani," said a teacher, referring to the remote colonial-era prison on the Andaman Islands. "At least these teachers taught for six months. When the department assigned us five teachers in 2012, most got themselves transferred without ever setting foot in school."

Sangam Vihar is a sprawling working-class settlement squeezed between the Mehrauli-Badarpur highway and the tattered remains of the forested Delhi ridge. The earliest residents settled on farmland bought from local villagers in the 1960s, but rudimentary sewerage came only in the late 2000s. Piped water remains a work in progress.

On rainy days, storm water floods Sangam Vihar's twisting alleys and seeps into its boxy homes. The wheezing shared auto rickshaws — the colony's substitute for public transport — break down often, creating traffic jams that take hours to resolve. On such days, the 20-minute commute from the highway to the C block school can take over an hour.

Without a physics or maths teacher at school, Anuj Gupta, a student at Sangam Vihar, is relying on private tutors to pass his board exams.

"People say Sangam Vihar is too far, the roads are congested," said Anuj Gupta, one of the pahadi school's science students. "But this is where we live, this is our home."

The start to Class 12 was difficult for Anuj. Days after his maths teacher at school left, the father of the maths instructor at his tuition centre died. "Tuition sir had to go back to his village for a fortnight," Anuj said, "so I just sat with my sums and practised, practised, practised."

Anuj practised so hard that he was using up the family budget on blank notebooks. His father, an auto rickshaw driver, bought him a large slate and some of sticks of chalk. "It's cheaper than notebooks," said Anuj one afternoon he solved matrices and rubbed out each sum with a rag.

His family's home has two rooms. The first has a kitchen counter and a set of plastic chairs; the second has a bed, a television set and stacks of textbooks.

An examination date sheet was pasted on the wall.
"We haven't had a proper physics class this year, but we have a physics test next week," said Anuj. "They told us our previous physics teacher prepared the exam paper before he left last year."

Transfer trickery

Teacher transfers have long been a source of contention between the Department of Education and the teachers union. Transfers are frequent in most government jobs, but Delhi's teachers are assigned a school when they join the service and most are required to move only once in their careers, when they are promoted to the grade of lecturer. Teachers unhappy with their assigned schools, however, may apply for transfers, which are usually accepted if there is a vacancy.

Delhi's schools have only 34,681 permanent teachers for 61,674 posts, so a teacher looking to move invariably finds an empty slot. The city also employs almost 17,000 guest teachers on short-term contracts, meaning that there are around 10,000 real vacancies. But since the posts held by contract teachers are counted as "vacant" for the purposes of a transfer, permanent teachers assigned to overcrowded, inaccessible schools like Sangam Vihar often try to leave at the first chance they get.

Earlier this year, the government identified the 311 "urgent requirement" schools where the shortage of teachers was so acute that teachers would be assigned there on a priority basis. Any teacher sent to such a school would have to stay for a minimum of two years before seeking a transfer, and any request for a transfer into these schools was to be automatically granted. The situation in C-block Sangam Vihar is so dire that the school is part of a special subset of 11 most "most urgent" schools in all of Delhi.

Yet Bhram Dev Sharma, Anuj's maths teacher, was assigned to the pahadi school in February this year and transferred out just five months later.

"That is because I transferred to another 'most urgent' school," Sharma said. "Transfers between most-urgent category schools are permitted." Senior officials in government admitted they had not foreseen this loophole when they framed the rules.

Sharma said he enjoyed teaching in Sangam Vihar but found it impossible to commute to the school. "I would spend two hours a day on the road," he said. "My mother is old; I need to look after her."

His new school, in Malviya Nagar, was also short of teachers, Sharma said. "Are you telling me that only Sangam Vihar's students deserve a maths teacher? That the students of Malviya Nagar don't deserve a maths teacher?"

Other teachers were more sceptical of the transfer process. "The one with a stick controls the buffalo," said one teacher at the pahadi school. "If you have good connections, you never get posted to Sangam Vihar. If you have some connections, you get posted here but get transferred out.

"And if you have no connections, you end up here and your transfer request is declined because Sangam Vihar doesn't have enough teachers."

Delhi's education department is struggling to assign teachers to the Pahadi school, despite designating it a "urgent requirement" category school.

Teacher trouble

Why doesn't Delhi have more teachers?

Atishi Marlena, special advisor to Delhi education minister Manish Sisodia, said the reliance on contract teachers and the dearth of teachers overall were consequences of the fifth pay commission of 1992-93. It substantially raised salaries of all government employees, leading successive administrations in Delhi to hire contract teachers, who could be paid lower wages.

The current government does not want to hire any more contract teachers, but it does want more permanent teachers. In 2015, the city raised education spending to 25% of the annual budget and sought to hire 9,623 regular teachers from the pool of 16,747 contract staff on their rolls. But government rules mandate that recruitments be done through an entrance exam open to all eligible candidates. When the posts were advertised, 140,000 people applied. The government realised that serving contract teachers, who work long shifts, would struggle to compete against the legion of young Indians who devote the first few years of their working lives to applying for government jobs.

"We asked the selection board for a points-based weightage for contract teachers based on their years of service," Marlena said. The proposal was initially turned down by Delhi Lieutenant Governor Anil Baijal, but it is now under consideration once more after the Supreme Court upheld the validity of giving weightage to contract employees in an unrelated case.

In the meantime, the Delhi government is looking for provisional fixes. Saumya Gupta, the city's director of education, said the government was forming a panel of guest teachers who could be deployed anywhere at short notice and establishing a shuttle service to help teachers commute to the eight most inconvenient schools — including the pahadi school.

The shortage of teachers has forced Sangam Vihar to shorten the school day and eliminate all games periods.

Fun once a year

When a school is short-staffed, each teacher must fulfil numerous roles. Because the pahadi school has 25% fewer teachers than it is supposed to, it has reduced the length of the school day and the number of periods from eight to six, making the class schedule denser and simpler.

A middle school social studies teacher has been drafted to help teach physical education. But the school is already short one social studies teacher, so the drawing teacher is teaching social studies to help out. Which means the school doesn't have drawing classes either.

"We've made a separate extracurricular timetable in which we try to ensure each students gets at least some time to play every once in a while," Yadav said.

Anuj, the science student, and his brothers have wildly divergent experiences in the same schooling system. His elder brother, Atul, who went to a similar school, discovered a love for painting. Where a student in an elite school would be mentored for a possible future career as an artist or a designer, Atul was told not to waste his time.

"Our school didn't have an art teacher either," he said. "Whenever there was an art competition, the teacher would chose her favourite student and send him. The rest of us were given no training."

Jatin, the youngest of the brothers, studies at a government school in Saket, a prosperous residential area. His experiences offer a glimpse of all that is possible when the misaligned gears of government schooling click into place.

"Our school has everything," Jatin said one morning as he dressed for school. "We have a cricket ground, we have basketball courts, we even have hockey coaching."

Two weeks ago, Anuj's physical education teacher set aside his textbook and took the boys out to a dusty courtyard that stands in for the school playground. It was the class's first games period of the year.

"We played volleyball," Anuj said, "It was amazing. Last year, we didn't have a single games period."

"I study," he said. "But sometimes I wish we had something to keep our minds fresh. To relax, and not think of our exams."