In June, Tamil Nadu played Haryana at the finals of the 2023 Senior Women’s National Football Championship in Amritsar. By the fifty-sixth minute, Haryana led 0-1. Soon after, Tamil Nadu player Priyadarshini S rose over her peers in the opponents’ penalty box and guided a powerful header into the bottom corner of the goal. Her teammates rushed to her and swallowed the player into a joyful embrace.

Almost 3,000 km away in the town of Mannargudi in Tamil Nadu’s Thiruvarur district, a group of young children huddled around a tiny cell phone also erupted in celebrations. These were 20-year-old Priyadarshini’s juniors and former classmates, who watched the match online between their football practice sessions. Tamil Nadu went on to win the championship that day, beating Haryana with a second goal.

After the match, Priyadarshini’s first call was not to her parents, but to the physical education teacher at the Adi Dravidar (Scheduled Caste) Welfare High School, in the village of Savalakaran, in which she had studied. “I told him excitedly that we had won the final and that I had scored a goal,” Priyadarshini recalled, as we sat at a roadside tender coconut water stall in Savalakaran, on a bright and sultry day in September. “He told me that he had just watched it all happen and that everyone was very proud of me.”

Overhearing our conversation, the curious stall owner asked us what we were talking about. “About Muthu Kumar sir,” Priyadarshini said. Immediately, the woman said that Muthu Kumar had brought great pride to their little village of Savalakaran. “It is only because of him, that people know about our village,” she said. “They recognise it as the village where all the children play football.”

In June, Priyadarshini S scored a goal at the finals of the 2023 Senior Women’s National Football Championship. This helped Tamil Nadu beat Haryana and win the trophy. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

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The pride that Kumar’s work brings to Savalakaran belies the struggles that teachers like him undergo to impart physical education to their students.

For one, they are often unable to find secure jobs, despite a significant shortage of such teachers in government schools in the state.

The highest posts for teachers in the field are of physical directors, who can only be appointed to higher secondary schools, which have grades up to the twelfth. Of 3,877 government and government-aided higher secondary schools in the state, only 749 have a post for a physical director, according to the Physical Education Teachers and Physical Education Directors Association of Tamil Nadu. Teachers can also be appointed in posts one rank below, as physical education teachers, in both higher secondary and high schools, which have classes up to the tenth. Of the total of 7,577 such schools in the state, there are 6,500 posts for physical education teachers – that is, more than 1,000 do not have a teacher.

The situation is worse at lower levels. The state has around 9,000 government and government-aided middle schools, which enrol students up to Class 8 – there are only 40 posts for physical education teachers in these schools. Of the state’s 29,459 government and government-aided primary schools, in which students up to Class 5 study, there is not even a single post for a physical education teacher.

In administrative terms, physical directors hold “grade one” posts, for which candidates must have a master’s degree, while physical education teachers hold “grade two” posts, for which they need a bachelor’s degree. Below these are “secondary grade” posts, for which candidates only need to have a teacher’s training diploma.

“Those hired in this category make over 10,000 rupees less than their counterparts,” Suresh said. He added that many of them have bachelor’s degrees, and some even have master’s degrees, but they are unable to apply for a position with higher pay simply because there are no posts available.

Suresh noted that this third category of posts had been dispensed with for other subject teachers, but remained in place for physical education teachers. “Some tried for 30 years to get a better-paying position and eventually retired as second-grade category teachers,” he said.

Some teachers are only given part-time appointments. In 2011, teachers like Kumar were recruited as part of a combined initiative of the Centre and state governments to hire more special subject teachers, to provide students with the opportunity to acquire different skills. These teachers, of subjects such as music, sports, and arts and crafts, were hired on a part-time basis for a salary of Rs 5,000.

For over a decade now, these part-time teachers have been demanding that their positions be made permanent. “They have been persistent in their demands,” Suresh said. “But nobody is lending them an ear.”

Though Muthu Kumar has helped bring recognition to the village of Savalakaran, physical education teachers like him continue to struggle for resources and for their own financial security. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

News reports suggest that the low priority assigned to physical education is not a problem unique to Tamil Nadu. In Karnataka, according to one report, in 2015, only 11,447 of the 26,953 government higher primary and high schools had physical education teachers. In 2016, physical education teachers in Uttarakhand went on strike to demand the creation of 7,000 posts in government schools. In Delhi in 2017, one report noted that 50% of the posts in government schools lay vacant.

The vacancies perhaps reflect the lack of social recognition for physical education teachers. “In most cases, a physical education teacher is often the first to notice talent in a potential sportsperson and provide the support that they need in order to get to a stage where they can get more professional training,” said Suresh. “Yet, if an individual succeeds nationally or internationally, the credit always only goes to their coach. Everyone forgets the teacher.”

On a sunny September morning, I took the long and winding Thiruvarur-Muthupet road and cut through kilometres of lush paddy fields, to find sudden splashes of colour amidst the green – children in brightly coloured jerseys and tee-shirts. Two white goalposts stood at either end of a small clearing between the paddy farms. Boys and girls aged between nine and 20 had split up into groups and kicked footballs around. Forty-six-year-old Kumar, who had been at the ground since 8 am, was standing near one of the goal posts, giving students directions.

As the players wound up at around 10 am, after four hours in blistering heat, they ran up to Kumar to ask him when they should be back for their second round of practice. He directed them to gather at 2 pm at the village bus stop. They planned to set off to the district’s main sports ground in the middle of Thiruvarur city, an hour away. This was a common ritual on weekends, the only time the children had some respite from their classes.

The amount of work that Kumar, who has a diploma in physical education, puts in is far greater than what he is paid for. Under his part-time contract, he is expected to visit the school three days a week, for three hours each day. But he teaches at the school every day, often arriving before class hours and staying on for many hours after.

When he joined, he was paid Rs 5,000 for this work – now, more than ten years later, his pay has risen to just Rs 10,000. The students needed all the practice they could get, he said, adding that training them for three hours on just three days would not suffice. Even though he was only hired to teach Class 6 and upwards, Kumar took it upon himself to train younger students also.

When Kumar first arrived at the school, he was dismayed to find that it had no proper playground or sports equipment. The area of the ground was too small for any sport to be properly conducted – so he started off small, with games of kho kho and some running. But it proved difficult to ensure that all the students received training.

Kumar said he learnt around five years ago that the panchayat had a small piece of land between paddy fields that was lying unused. Kumar secured permission from the panchayat to use the land – the students took it on themselves to work on the land and smooth out the surface so that they could use it as a football field. But Kumar noted that it was still far from adequate for serious practice, which was why he regularly escorted them to the district’s main field.

Kumar was dismayed to find that the school he was appointed to had no proper playground. He requested the panchayat to allow students to train on an unused patch of land between fields. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

To fund these activities, and pay for equipment and uniforms, Kumar said he is heavily reliant on the prize money that student teams win at matches. A team’s winnings are pooled in to pay for its equipment, shoes and other expenses. But this money doesn’t always suffice, so often Kumar dips into his own salary. “Even a football costs Rs 1,000,” he said. “Shoes also cost about the same amount, and nobody takes into account the transport costs when students have to travel outside for matches.”

David Rajan, another part-time teacher, in Thiruvarur town, also spoke of facing grave financial difficulties. After 12 years as a teacher, he now earns Rs 10,000. He said that many of his students had competed at the state and national levels – of these, many had gone on to secure government jobs through quotas set aside for sportspersons, and risen in the ranks. “All of them are in better positions and earn much more than I do,” he said. While he said he was proud of them, he also felt considerable disappointment for his own family.

A few years ago, when Rajan was given a transfer, he decided to take it. But word about the transfer quickly spread in the school. Students and their parents turned up at the school, crying and begging him to stay. The school’s association of parents and teachers approached the District Education Officer, demanding that the transfer be revoked. “The officers told me that I could turn down the transfer if I wanted, and remain in the same school,” Rajan said. “So I stayed.”

Rajan said he was moved by the gestures from his students and others.

But his financial struggles have not been alleviated – he said he has never been able to buy toys for his young son, or a gift for his wife, and that he can barely support his ageing mother, particularly now that he has just had another child. “My rent alone is Rs 5,500,” he said. “How am I supposed to manage?”

Rajan has attended several protests in Chennai along with other physical education teachers, demanding full-time positions and increases in salaries. Among the association’s demands are that the government sanction at least one physical director post in all high schools and higher secondary schools, and at least one physical education teacher post in all primary and middle schools. They are also demanding that the 6,500 teachers who currently work at high schools and higher secondary schools be promoted to physical directors.

D Rajadevakanth, the state secretary of the part-time teachers association said that teachers had protested 13 times in Chennai in the last 11 years, and about 20 times in different districts in the same time. Over 1,000 part-time teachers held a ten-day protest late last month.

Among their complaints is that unlike regular teachers, part-time teachers are not paid their salaries for the month of May because schools do not function that month. “We somehow manage the month of May with April’s salary but we start the new academic year completely broke,” Rajadevakanth said. “Even to travel we have to borrow money from others. Most part-time teachers are severely depressed because of financial challenges.”

The government responded by hiking part-time teachers’ salaries by Rs 2,000 and offering them health insurance. “But there is no word on whether they will make our jobs permanent,” Rajadevakanth said.

Rajan said that he sometimes considers leaving his job and finding one with better pay. “But what if they end up increasing the salary after I leave?” he said. “I don’t want to take that risk, so I’m just waiting.”

The teachers also struggle for funds for maintenance – Rajan’s school ground, for instance, is overgrown with weeds. Money for this work should come from the Samagra Shiksha programme, funded by both the Centre and states. The programme budgets up to Rs 5,000 per year for primary schools, up to Rs 10,000 for upper primary schools, and up to Rs 25,000 for high schools. It also assures an additional Rs 25,000 for any school where at least two students win medals at Khelo India, an annual national-level athletics and sports competitions for school and college students.

However, Kumar and many other teachers said that in many instances, under the programme the government provides schools with materials instead of money. They noted that the products were often of poor quality or did not suit the needs of the students. “If they just gave us the money, we would know exactly what to buy, because each school has different needs,” Rajan said.

In Rajan’s cobwebbed office, old and dusty equipment lay around. From one of the boxes, he pulled out a few footballs, basketballs and tennikoit rings, and showed tears on them. “They barely last a month,” he said. “Just pump air into them and they burst.” He also picked up a bamboo pole and said that students used it to practise their pole-vaulting skills, since they were not given a professional pole of fiberglass or carbon fibre. Rajan said that in his 12 years at the school, these sporting materials had been provided only twice.

Physical education teachers struggle for funds for equipment and training. They noted that the government sometimes supplies material instead of funds, and that these are often of poor quality. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

T Deviselvam is the president of the Physical Education Teachers and Physical Education Directors Welfare Association, and has been a teacher for almost 30 years at a government school. On the wall of his office are hockey competition shields the school had won, dating back to the 1950s.

“As a school, we have always been known for our hockey team,” Deviselvam said. “So logically, it would help us if we got hockey equipment because that is our main sport, but that does not happen.” He added, “Authorities don’t take our needs into consideration.”

He noted that they were often provided substandard equipment, like cricket bats made of plastic. “That shows how much importance sports is given,” he said.

Students in government schools are usually forced to use bamboo poles for pole vaulting, because the schools lack the funds to purchase fibreglass or carbon fibre poles. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

In some cases, teachers are denied funds because authorities argue that schools lack facilities where they can be used.

D Raju, a 50-year-old teacher in a government school in Thiruvarur, who, like Kumar, has trained many athletes in his 18 years as a teacher, recounted that he had faced his problem. Raju began his career at a private school but shifted to a government school within a few years. “I was passionate about helping children from poorer and rural communities,” he said. “So getting a government job felt like the one way to do it.” But the school he joined lacked a playground, so the students trained at the district’s main playground.

Many of the students that he trained competed at the state and national levels, Raju said. “Since I was seeing so much success, I felt I could demand that the authorities provide more funds for better equipment,” he said. So he approached the Sports Development Authority with such requests. But his efforts were unsuccessful. “They said even if we give you funds, where are you going to play? You have no playground. Where will you even store the equipment,” he recounted.

Disappointed, Raju switched to another school, which had a playground. “They gave me some special funding and I used it to improve the school grounds and buy equipment,” he said.

The decision to resign was not easy. “The students were upset,” he said. “But I wanted to be able to fully use my skills and produce more athletes.” He added, “There were several schools close to my house, but none had a playground. So I chose to join a school 15 km away, just because they had a playground.”

A few kilometres away from Rajan’s school is a government school that has not had a physical education teacher for the last ten years. “For about three years, we had a part-time teacher coming in, but he left,” said the principal of the school, who asked to remain anonymous. So, during the physical education period, children just run around and play, he explained.

That physical education is often relegated to a secondary status was apparent from a subsequent remark by the principal. “It helps to have a physical education teacher because they are the ones that usually help maintain discipline on campus,” he said.

Physical education teachers said this often was expected of them. More than to perform their duties as sports teachers, they would be asked to ensure that discipline was maintained on campus – that students followed rules, didn’t get into fights, didn’t skip classes, didn’t loiter on campus, or misbehave with teachers or other students.

“In some schools these teachers are asked to run small errands or do some small jobs around the school,” Kumar said. “Because they are perceived as less important than other subject teachers.”

The principal of another school in Thiruvarur explained that it did not have a sanctioned post for a physical education teacher because it had only 90 students. Deviselvam pointed out that according to a 1997 government order by the Tamil Nadu government, schools could have one physical education teacher for every 250 students. But Deviselvam added that now, the government mandated that there could only be one physical teacher for every 400 students. “So, if a school has 399 students, it would not be eligible for a physical education teacher,” Suresh said. “In what world is that fair?”

T Deviselvam noted that the government mandates that schools have one physical education teacher for every 400 students. He argued that this disadvantaged schools with fewer students. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

The principal explained that the Thiruvarur school had an agreement with a teacher from another school, whereby the teacher visited the school for a few hours every week. He also noted that the school had received some sports materials from the government.

But like in many other schools, I noticed that the playground was overgrown with weeds. According to 2022 data from the Unified District Information System for Education, only 77% of schools in Tamil Nadu have playgrounds. In its capital city, 367 schools out of 1,434 schools do not have playgrounds. In 2022, the Madras High Court passed an order directing the state to take steps to ensure that both government and private schools had a playground on their campuses.

TN Raghu, a sports journalist from Tamil Nadu pointed out that the situation was not much better in private schools. He said many schools are set up in congested areas where there is insufficient space for classrooms, let alone a playground. “I don’t know on what basis these schools are issued permits,” he said. “How can we allow a school to be constructed in an area where you can’t ensure a playground?”

Five months ago, representatives of the physical education teachers’ association waited in line for hours to meet Tamil Nadu’s education minister with a list of ten demands, including that schools be provided with proper playgrounds. “They always keep the physical education teachers as their last priority,” Suresh said, half laughing. “But we appreciated the fact that even though we went in last, he still patiently listened to us.” Suresh said the minister told the association members that some of their demands would be considered.

The association also demanded that the government publish and distribute a physical education textbook that teachers could use for teaching. Suresh said teachers had been arguing for years that their subject also deserved a book that dealt systematically with its theoretical aspects.

“The minister agreed to this demand but so far, we haven’t seen a physical copy,” he said. “There is a soft copy available online. There is no word yet on when the book will get published and distributed among students.”

With all these shortfalls, physical education teachers can be crucial to helping students gain some training in sports and athletics. Vithya and Nitya Ramraj, 25-year-old twins from Coimbatore, whose father is a minivan driver, studied in a government-aided school up till Class 6. They recounted that their physical education teacher advised their mother to admit her daughters to the Government Sports Hostel for girls in Erode because she felt that they had great potential to become athletes, but that the school lacked the facilities to train them.

When I spoke to them in September, Nithya was training for the 100-metre hurdles, and Vithya was training for the 400-metre hurdles. “Neither we nor our family have any idea about sports,” Vithya said. “We would simply play around on the ground, but this teacher saw something in us that we did not see ourselves. My teacher told our mother that she was certain that we had the abilities to compete professionally.”

When Vithya won her first national-level track event, she met the teacher to thank her. “We didn’t really have a playground in the school and so the teacher knew that we would not be able to develop our skills if we remained in the same school,” Vithya said.

A few weeks after I met them, Vithya equalled PT Usha’s 39-year-old record in the 400-metre hurdles at the heats of the Asian Games.

D Raju switched from a private school to a government school because he wanted to help students from modest backgrounds. But he struggled because of the lack of equipment at the schools. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

Rajan explained that sports and physical education were not only important because students could win medals, but that they also contributed to all-round development. “The belief often is that children who play sports don’t study well,” Rajan said. “This is actually not true, children who play sports study better.” He added, “For other teachers, the aim is to get the child to pass an exam. Sports has a more long-term impact.”

Indeed, a 2016 paper on the connection between physical activity, fitness, cognitive function, and academic achievement in children noted that “a bulk of the research findings support the view that physical fitness, single bouts of physical activity, and participation in physical activity interventions benefit children’s mental functioning.” It noted specifically that well-designed studies with controls for variables that could distort results “consistently reveal that physically fit children perform better on cognitive tests than less-fit children”.

Further, young sports people can access employment quotas for government jobs at the Central and state level if they graduate from Class 12 and have represented their state or the country at one of several recognised sporting events or competitions. “We are the ones who can help them find jobs in the future too,” Rajan said.

In Savalakaran, Muthu Kumar provides guidance to his students by advising them on colleges they can apply to and avail of sports quotas – he also encourages them to write government exams so that they can procure jobs through quotas. “It was sir who advised me about where I can study,” said Priyadarshini who is now pursuing a master’s in mathematics at a government college in the district.

Before he sent them off to their homes after practice, Kumar checked with every student if they had had eaten a snack. He usually advised them to bring an egg from home – students who could not afford eggs on certain days sometimes brought boiled pulses. The expense on this food can be difficult for parents, Kumar said, but added that they had “begun to understand the positives of sports and take a special interest in their children’s sports careers”.

This is apparent in other ways, too. Kumar said that when he first started training students, parents of female students were opposed to the idea of their daughters even wearing shorts. On the field that day, all the girls wore shorts – they changed into trousers, or salwar bottoms before they walked home. “Even the students would feel awkward initially,” Kumar said. “It took them time to get used to it. Now all they care about is the game.”

For students from small towns and villages, sports can offer an avenue to higher education and employment. Those who excel at sports can avail of quotas for sportspersons in colleges and government jobs. Photo: Johanna Deeksha

Kumar bemoaned the fact that his limited resources prevented him from offering the students all the opportunities he wanted to offer them, such as training in individual sports.

“I have two options – put all my energy, time and focus on one student or train a large number of students so they can all have a chance at either competing professionally or be eligible for the sports quota,” he said. “If I had at least one other teacher with me, it would be possible to also focus on individual sports.”

Hema, one of Kumar’s former students, said she had also nurtured a passion for running – but because Kumar was unable to give her enough individual training, she too joined the football team.

Despite these obstacles, students remain grateful for these teachers’ contributions to their development. “My parents are farmers and nobody had any idea about the game. Today my brother also plays,” said Priyadarshini, who was the first from the school to represent the state at the national level.

Kumar continues to see success with his students. Just this year, he said, seven of his students had been selected in various football teams of different age groups at the state and national levels. He hoped by the end of the year that number would rise to ten. “Hopefully, in the near future, I will represent India,” Priyadarshini said. “But so many students may never realise their potential if they don’t have a physical education teacher at their school.”

This reporting is made possible with support from Report for the World, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.