The politicisation of transfers has undermined teacher accountability
Three recent headlines related to government school teachers in Tamil Nadu, Uttarakhand and Rajasthan have put a much-needed spotlight on one of the most venal aspects of India’s government school system: transfers and the posting of teachers.
The Tamil Nadu story was a heartwarming one: photographs of a recently transferred government school teacher surrounded by weeping students expressing their affection that had Bollywood stars and even the education secretary tweeting in appreciation. This is exactly the kind of student-teacher bond that our school system ought to aspire to. But hidden behind this heartwarming story is a crucial failing – schools have no control over teacher transfers and can do precious little to retain good teachers.
The Uttarakhand and Rajasthan incidents expose the deep politicisation of the teacher transfer system. The Uttarakhand chief minister, Trivendra Singh Rawat, found himself in an ugly spat with a government teacher seeking a transfer. The row ended with an order to arrest and suspend the teacher. That a teacher needed to speak to a CM on what ought to be a routine administrative matter is itself telling of how important politicians are to transfers. This was even starker in the Rajasthan headline in which two ministers allegedly came to blows over recent teacher transfers. In public comments following the incident, the education minister referred to the need to accommodate the demands of all public representatives in matters related to transfers.
The politician-teacher nexus is a well-documented fact in India. Economist Tara Beteille’s work offers a fascinating account of the complex dynamics of this nexus. Teachers wield enormous electoral power. They meet voters on a regular basis and can serve as informal campaigners. More important, they control polling booths and are thus critical allies for politicians. Teachers, on their part, need politicians for transfers and postings, creating a perfect cocktail of mutual dependency. Beteille surveyed 2,340 teachers across three states (Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka) between 2007 and 2008 to find that over 50% teachers believed that political connections were necessary for getting transferred.
In Betteille’s documentation of the transfer market, politicians and bribes hold the key. Nearly a third of surveyed teachers in Karnataka requested transfers but only half were transferred. Moreover, transfers can take anywhere from two months to two years to materialise. Connections and bribes, ranging from Rs 50,000 to Rs 2,00,000, paved the way for speedy transfers.
Politicians hold the key to transfers because transfer policies are opaque. A 2015 World Bank study led by Vimala Ramachandran surveys transfer policies in nine states to find that with two recent exceptions, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, there are no consistent policy guidelines. Rajasthan, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh have no policy at all. Transfers are invariably linked to elections. In fact, the Rajasthan ministers’ row was precipitated by a recent move to lift a longstanding transfer ban. With elections in mind, 12,000 teachers were transferred.
The politicisation of transfers has inevitably undermined teacher accountability. Networking and building relationships with politicians is for teachers a necessary survival tactic and therefore a legitimate activity, relegating teaching to the background. Teachers, on their part, have used their access to politicians to game the system. High salaries (regular government school teachers earn an estimated 20 times higher salary than their private sector counterparts) coupled with high rates of absenteeism that characterise the teaching profession are directly linked with political clout.
But this is not a relationship of equals. Beteille’s work shows that despite mutual dependency, teachers are routinely harassed by politicians. This has created a culture of victimhood among teachers. This culture is reinforced by teachers’ experience in the classroom. My own, ongoing research with Vincy Davis and Taanya Kapoor on teachers in Delhi schools, highlights the degree to which syllabus completion, maximising pass percentages and paperwork imposed by their bosses, dominates teachers accounts of their professional lives. Teachers argue that they are victims of a system that has reduced their role to that of a clerk. Viewed through this prism, the crisis of learning in classrooms is a crisis caused by a broken system in which teachers have little agency. Holding teachers accountable for teaching in this culture is near impossible. After all, from a teacher’s perspective, the system has undermined their ability to teach and behave as professionals.
It is easy to dismiss this culture of victimhood and narrative of weak agency as a deliberate strategy of an apathetic workforce. Indeed, the fact that government school teachers are often overpaid and persistently absent is a testimony to this fact. But dismissing these perspectives merely serves to reinforce them. There are, as this account of transfers and posting highlights, critical policy failures that legitimised this culture of victimhood. Teachers can only be held accountable for teaching when these institutional failures are tackled head on.
Yamini Aiyar is president and chief executive, Centre for Policy Research
The views expressed are personal