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Minister on the trail of truant teachers

Lucknow, June 28: Uttar Pradesh primary education minister Ramgovind Chaudhary is knuckling down for a fight.

He has set himself the task of getting teachers, who have been acting naughty, back to class.

That’s easier said than done: he has to, by his own reckoning, first yank them back from big cities. No wonder the minister recently confessed that he was “not happy” with the way things are.

“I am not happy with the state of affairs in primary education,” he told the Assembly on Tuesday. “Instead of teaching students, many teachers in government primary schools stay in cities like Delhi and Mumbai and yet draw salaries. Many of them are doing side business.”

NGO workers, too, painted a grim picture. In a survey last year, the research wing of Pratham, one of the largest non-government organisations in India working in the field of basic education, found a high enrolment rate (94 per cent) and good infrastructure but confirmed a common pattern: missing teachers.

Sunil Yadav, a member of the Pratham research team, recalled that during surveys in Etawah, chief minister Akhilesh Yadav’s home district, and Auraiya, an adjoining district, he came across the same reply in schools every time he asked about the “missing” teachers: “Block me office ke kam pe.”

“That was the refrain. I wonder how so many teachers together could be in block towns on official duty,” he told The Telegraph.

Other members in his group said out of five teachers in a primary school on average, two or three were often absent at a given time.

The immediate fallout of the absence of teachers in government schools seems to be the increasing number of students in private primary schools. According to the 2013 survey by Pratham, the 94 per cent enrolment figure in 1,95,089 schools includes 49 per cent in private schools.

A recent report submitted to the Union human resource development ministry and the Samajwadi Party-ruled state government by ECIL, an education research group, bears out what the NGO workers say. In Uttar Pradesh, the report said, a primary school teacher is “on an average absent from school for 57-58 days” out of “214 working days”.

Minister Chaudhary has now set himself the challenge of bringing these teachers in line. “Either you come back or give up the job will be my challenge to them,” he told this correspondent. A list of absent teachers is being prepared, he added.

Officials in his department said the minister’s mission — a takeoff on Akhilesh’s “back-to-basic” policy to improve primary education — wasn’t going to be easy. A senior official said most of these absent teachers have been getting away as they are members of the Uttar Pradesh Prathamik Shiksha Sangh, a powerful body of teachers with political links. “Most of these teachers thus escape punitive action while the students suffer.”

To get around this problem of patronage, Chaudhary has sought the cooperation of legislators cutting across political hues. He appears to have got his point across. “If we don’t improve the state of affairs, children of poor parents would suffer and that is bound to create a new social divide,” said BJP legislator Surendra Khanna. Congress and BSP leaders too have supported the government’s resolve to discipline the teachers.

“It is now up to the political will to get this done,” Chaudhary said.

Coming up next: roll call for teachers.