The trouble with 'para-teachers'

Print edition : October 27, 2001

Does the large-scale appointment of 'para-teachers' in the school system under the DPEP constitute a silent shift in State policy - a shift inspired by the structural adjustment programme?

KRISHNA KUMAR MANISHA PRIYAM SADHNA SAXENA

A CASUAL, seemingly innocuous, mention in the draft approach paper for the Tenth Five-Year Plan approved by the Union Cabinet recently, indicates the future of teaching as a profession at the primary level of the education system. This sentence in the paper - 'Steps would have to be initiated to fill up all the existing vacancies of the teachers, though in a time-bound manner, with defined responsibility to local bodies and communities, and to remove legal impediments in the recruitment of para-teachers' (page 41) - is unlikely to be noticed. But the fact is that it is a rare record of a major shift in the state policy towards teachers and the system. The shift is related to the numerous changes that the structural adjustment of the Indian economy to the world capitalist system has forced upon public policy in different spheres of welfare.

A primary school teacher at work in a tribal village. Low salary levels, combined with the contractual nature of the job, have been major sources of discontent among para-teachers.-BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Decoding the sentence is no easy task. Apparently, there is a history behind it - a history of 'legal impediments' to an attempt that State governments have made in the context of decentralisation. The history includes a pile-up of vacancies, despite the much-publicised drive to universalise primary education and despite the availability of substantial amount of foreign funds in the shape of loans and aid. This history began in Rajasthan in the 1980s when 'Shiksha karmis' were recruited from among the unemployed village youth to act as teachers in the local primary school under the auspices of a programme financially assisted by the Swedish International Development Authority (SIDA). The idea had several obvious attractions. The involvement of educated unemployed rural youth in primary education sounded socially and politically correct. To those seeking reform in the system, along the lines of decentralisation, it promised 'community involvement'. To the politician, it promised a new means of tantalising the vast body of frustrated, jobless youth. To policy planners and bureaucrats, it suggested an innovative way to spend less money on primary education. And to everybody concerned about the state of education in a vague, generalised sense, it offered an opportunity to show to the full-time teacher that he or she was not indispensable.

This last attraction has its own history and politics. 'Teachers don't teach' has been the standard response of high-level bureaucrats and ruling politicians to any complaint about the functioning of the system of education, especially its failure to universalise literacy and primary education. A stereotype of the rural primary school teacher has got firmly established in the mind of middle-class civil society. According to this stereotype, rural schools do not function because teachers have got hopelessly politicised. Anecdotal accounts of village teachers sub-letting their jobs or going to the school just to put their signature in the register are retold ad infinitum at meetings and seminars. No one asks why the government or any other agency has failed to document empirical data about teacher absenteeism and other malpractices. Similarly, nobody inquires about the numerous non-teaching tasks the government imposes on the village teacher. These tasks range from enumeration for surveys of every conceivable kind to duty in local, provincial and parliamentary elections. As many as 85 days, out of the 150 available for school work during one session in most States, are wholly or partly consumed by such non-teaching responsibilities. The powerful appeal of the rhetoric, 'teachers don't teach', does not recognise this reality.

Other existential and professional challenges that the rural teacher confronts, and usually overcomes in quiet, accommodative ways, are also ignored. Housing, for instance, poses a major problem for teachers appointed in villages, especially women teachers. Many of them living away from the villages spend a substantial part of their working day waiting for buses or travel standing; others who try to stay in the village often face political and physical harassment. The last time a committee looked into the problem of housing for rural teachers was in the 1950s. Challenges of a professional nature include lack of space, compulsion to teach several classes at the same time, lack of teaching aids and crowded classrooms. Some of these well-known features of rural education have been given a deceptively positive gloss in recent years. The phrase 'multi-grade teaching' now officially conceals the frustrating chore of handling more than three or four classes at the same time. International donor agencies and India's own bureaucracy have supported this fanciful rephrasing of a nasty old compulsion. It offers an enormous possibility of financial saving, which is also at the heart of the policy to appoint 'para-teachers' in place of regular teachers.

The 'Shiksha karmi' scheme received widespread attention in the wake of the District Primary Education Programme (DPEP) launched in the early 1990s under World Bank guidance and assistance from several other donor agencies. The basic objectives of the DPEP were to expand the system and improve the quality of instruction. Since DPEP funds, received from external sources, were only an additionality to state allocations, it was the responsibility of State governments to fill up existing and new vacancies according to the prevailing norms of recruitment. However, one after the other the State governments sought to fill up vacancies in confident disregard of official DPEP guidelines. Instead of making full-time appointments as per the prevailing norms of permanent service, they chose to make contractual appointments at one-fourth or one-fifth the regular salary, disbursed from DPEP funds in most cases. These contract-teachers were given a variety of fancy names - such as 'Vidya Sahayak' in Gujarat, 'Vidya Volunteers' in Andhra Pradesh, 'Guruji' and 'Shiksha Karmi' in Madhya Pradesh and 'Shiksha Mitra' in Uttar Pradesh - obviously to hide the meagre emoluments and insecurity of service.

Some of them were posted in 'alternative schools', devised for the poorest sections of village society. The 'education guarantee scheme' of Madhya Pradesh was, and continues to be, the largest scheme of this kind. Far from being criticised for the abysmally rudimentary facilities it offers, it has been praised for reaching the unreached. So successful has been the publicity that the abnegation of recruitment norms, the poor quality of teacher training, and the exploitative cycle in which it places primary-level teachers are completely overlooked.

This kind of politics of ethos-building applies to all the other para-teacher schemes as well. The placement of poorly qualified and even more poorly trained (in most cases the training lasts 21 days) para-teachers in place of permanent, properly recruited teachers in regular schools has got buried under the vast rhetoric and data released in the name of Education for All.

The official strategy has been to appreciate para-teachers for their regularity and enthusiasm. They are bring held up as a model for the full-time teachers who receive a far bigger salary and allegedly work less. Parallels are being drawn between para-teachers and the 'barefoot doctors' who served as people's friends during China's cultural revolution. The glory of para-teachers is supposed to reflect on panchayati raj institutions of which these teachers are already a part in many States. The claim that they are performing far better than older, regular teachers also legitimises the slogan of decentralisation which, in turn, covers up the policy of state withdrawal from spheres such as education and health. This policy is one of the pillars of the structural adjustment programme (SAP), and it has successfully remained in the dark. The ultimate objective of SAP is to increase the scope for privatisation in every sphere. Handing over of primary schools to the so-called 'local communities' has enhanced the role of personal patronage, and it can be seen as an early step towards the eventual privatisation of a substantial proportion of primary schools.

The argument that para-teachers are more dependable than regular teachers has been belied in a study made under the auspices of the DPEP itself. This 1999 study refutes almost every claim made on behalf of the new, restructured system of rural primary education. The study gives data on the number of para-teachers appointed between 1994 and 1999.

The total of some 2,20,000 para-teachers cited in the table has more than doubled now, and the number is going to increase further with Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar having announced new schemes to hire para-teachers.

Source: 'Para-Teachers in Primary Education - a status report', Ed. Cil.

Perhaps the biggest irony is that the para-teacher policy has surfaced at a time when the Union government has barely begun to tighten the norms of school teaching as a profession. This process has been undertaken under the auspices of the National Council for Teacher Education (NCTE), a statutory body set up with the specific purpose of raising the standards of teacher training, recruitment and supervision. The policy of appointing para-teachers violates the NCTE Act, both in letter and spirit. The policy has been followed on so rampant a scale and by so many State governments that the NCTE appears to have been rendered helpless. The procedures used for the localised recruitment of para-teachers and their appalling salary belie the NCTE's resolve to raise the status of school teaching by upgrading the various practices associated with it. The NCTE was constituted to check the malpractices of private entrepreneurs and the raise of poor-quality correspondence programmes of teacher training. In the case of para-teachers, the NCTE's objectives are being subverted by the government itself. The inclusion of the para-teacher policy in the approach paper of the Tenth Plan and the new Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan indicates that the government is determined to promote it at all costs. The attempt made at a meeting of the joint review mission of the DPEP to call for field research on para-teachers and to review the policy to use them as a means of universalisation of education met with stiff resistance from civil servants representing the Ministry of Human Resource Development. The need to overcome 'legal impediments' mentioned in the Plan approach paper arises from this larger, come-what-may resolve to pursue the para-teacher policy, and not from the vain attempts made by some para-teachers to seek legal redressal for their pathetic plight.

Krishna Kumar is Professor, Department of Education, Delhi University.

Manisha Priyam is Lecturer, Department of Political Science, Gargi College, New Delhi.

Dr. Sadhna Saxena is Senior Fellow, National Institute of Adult Education, New Delhi.

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