The home Manju Dwivedi started building in Gorakhpur last year is yet to get a lintel over its windows. Till the Uttar Pradesh teacher figures out how to repay her Rs 20 lakh home loan, it will remain incomplete.

On July 27, Dwivedi’s fortunes took a drastic turn. The Supreme Court cancelled the appointment of 1.78 lakh contractual government school teachers who were made permanent employees starting 2014, when the Uttar Pradesh government regularised them. Dwivedi was among them.

In 2001, Dwivedi, now 38, was appointed a shiksha mitra – an untrained teacher hired on contract to assist professional teachers. In 2014, she was one of about 59,000 shiskha mitras who were made permanent without having to pass the state teacher eligibility test. Another lot were regularised in 2015.

Mass contractual appointments of teachers, some trained but most not, began in India with the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan around 2000-’01. While the central scheme for universalising elementary education boosted the demand for teachers, its norms allowed states to hire teachers on contract and keep the wage burden low. From 2009, the Right to Education Act’s insistence on professional training for teachers somewhat checked this practice, but there are still over 6.6 lakh contractual teachers in India’s public education system. Their service conditions, qualifications and salaries vary widely. So does the nomenclature – shiksha mitra in Uttar Pradesh, shiksha sahayak in Odisha, niyojit shikshak in Bihar, guest teachers in Delhi.

Many states are still heavily dependent on them and face the twin challenges of training and regularising them.

While making the shiksha mitras permanent, Uttar Pradesh relaxed eligibility conditions and waived the test made compulsory in 2010 by the teacher-training regulator, National Council for Teacher Education.

Following this, Dwivedi became assistant teacher in Dharmadiha village’s primary school, in Campierganj block of Gorakhpur. Her salary rose from Rs 3,500 per month to Rs 39,000 per month. She was entitled to paid leave, Provident Fund, and house rent and dearness allowances.

But the Uttar Pradesh government’s move was challenged in court, and in September 2015, the Allahabad High Court declared illegal the dilution of norms to make contractual teachers permanent employees. The Supreme Court stayed this order in 2015 but it eventually weighed the conflicting claims of the teachers’ right to employment and the children’s “ receive quality education from duly qualified teachers” and upheld the children’s rights in its July 27 order.

Manju Dwivedi at home in Gorakhpur, Uttar Pradesh.

Heavy dependence on contract teachers

According to the 2015-’16 report of the District Information System for Education – the only centrally maintained database on school education – over a quarter of teaching staff are contractual in 11 states and union territories. In Meghalaya (58.6%) and Jharkhand (58.7%), they outnumber regular teachers. In Bihar, their actual proportion is masked. Placed in a quasi-permanent group, they are counted as regular appointees.

According to a 2016 study by the National University of Educational Planning and Administration titled Teachers in the Indian Education System, Mizoram has not made regular teacher appointments since 1998.

However, the same study found that several states had stopped contractual appointments.

Large numbers of contractual teachers were appointed in India since 2000-'01.

With the Right To Education Act insisting on teachers being professionally trained, and the National Council for Teacher Education tightening eligibility conditions in 2010, it was no longer feasible to appoint untrained staff. In some states, courts abolished the practice. In 2013, the Rajasthan High Court declared the state’s “scheme providing for the engagement of vidyarthi mitra [untrained teachers on contract] against the vacant posts of teachers” as “unconstitutional”.

Getting teachers trained

By the time new policies emphasised quality, untrained teachers had already been in the education system across India for close to a decade. Firmly entrenched and in very large numbers, they protested demanding regularisation and better terms of employment. But without professional qualifications, it was difficult for state governments to regularise them.

The Right To Education Act set a 2015 deadline – extended to 2019 by Parliament on August 2 – to get teachers trained and it prodded states to take steps towards this.

Most of Uttar Pradesh’s shiksha mitras collected basic training certificates after completing a two-year programme by distance learning, said Gadadhar Dubey of the Shiksha Mitra Welfare Association, an organisation of these teachers, in Uttar Pradesh. “The [National Council for Teacher Education] permitted it in 2011,” he said.

Dwivedi, too, was certified that way.

Jharkhand followed the same pattern. But in states like Meghalaya, Assam and West Bengal, few opted even for the distance learning programme. In Meghalaya, just 15.5% of contract teachers and 44.6% regular teachers hold teaching qualifications.

Although contract teachers of many states obtained teaching certificates through correspondence programmes, well over a third of contract teachers are still untrained. There are large numbers of untrained regular teachers too.

Nikhil Mathur of the Rajiv Gandhi Institute for Contemporary Studies, who was part of several joint review missions for centrally-sponsored schemes, attributed this to the shortage of training institutes in the region. “Assam is the only state with private BEd colleges,” said Mathur. “There are too few people getting trained.”

Twenty-three percent of West Bengal’s teachers – over a lakh in absolute numbers – are working on contract, but only 16% of them are trained. Although meant for primary schools, most teach Classes 9 to Classes 12, said Abhijit Mukherjee of the All Bengal Primary Teachers’ Association.

Untrained contract teachers and poorly-trained regular ones have had a deep impact on the quality of education in Uttar Pradesh, believes Ramakant Rai of National Coalition for Education. As compared to other states, Uttar Pradesh has among the lowest learning outcomes in its schools, a very low attendance rate and a high drop out rate. “Correspondence courses and certificate programmes are no match for the comprehensive training required,” he said.

Regularisation is still difficult

The blow to Uttar Pradesh in the Supreme Court regarding regularisation of teachers reconfirmed for Prabhanjan Kumar Jha of the Delhi Atithi Shikshak Sangh, an organisation of contract teachers, what his lawyers had told him: “Simply converting guest teachers into regular ones is not possible.”

Delhi has about 17,000 contract or guest teachers – on 10-month contracts and paid by the day. Over 15,000 of them have qualified the Central Teacher Eligibility Test, which is conducted by the Central Board of Secondary Education for teachers after they have received professional training.

However, though Delhi has trained guest teachers and a government willing to spend on education, its policy for regularisation became a casualty in the political battle between the government and former Lieutenant Governor Najeeb Jung. With the government unable to regularise its guest teachers, it instead increased their salaries in March.

Other states have dealt with the challenge of regularisation differently.

Braj Bihari Pandey of the Jharkhand Rajya Prathmik Shikshak Sangh, a body of primary school teachers, said that Jharkhand has stopped contractual hiring. “Now 50% vacancies will be filled with former contract teachers but they must be trained and clear the test first,” said Pandey.

Since 2012, Manipur has been systematically regularising contract teachers appointed under the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, placing them on two-year probation first.

According to the 2016 report by the National University of Educational Planning and Administration, Odisha and Madhya Pradesh keep teachers on contract for a period before regularisation. In Odisha, they must possess the same qualifications as regular teachers. “After six years, they become eligible for regularisation,” said Charulata Mahapatra of All Utkal Primary Shikshak Federation, an organisation of primary school teachers. “Till then, they are entitled to casual and maternity leave and Provident Fund.”

Last year, Bihar’s 3.5 lakh niyojit shikshaks, a cadre of contract teachers created in 2006, had their pay increased with promise of periodic hikes and their retirement age fixed at 60. “They are described as regular teachers now but the fixed amounts they get is far less than what the others draw,” said Patna-based activist Vinay Kanth. “The number of actual regular teachers has dropped to under a lakh.”

Wide pay gap

Complete regularisation would mean a substantial increase in a state’s wage burden. As a Meghalaya government official said: “The state is struggling to pay even existing regular staff”.

Mahendra Prasad Sahi, of Bihar’s Rajya Prathmik Shikshak Sangh, explained the pay gap between niyojit teachers, who he insists are permanent employees, and the rest saying, “The government does not have enough funds for equal pay.”

In Jharkhand, contract teachers are paid Rs 6,500-Rs 7,500 a month but no regular teacher draws less than Rs 40,000, said Pandey. However, the gap is narrower elsewhere.

The salary gap is enough to explain why teachers, trained or not, were hired on contract in the first place.

A 2016 analysis of the budgets of 10 states by the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability showed that teachers’ salaries claimed over 50% of the education budget in all of them. Rajasthan, where less than 2% teachers are on contract, spent over 80% on salaries in 2015-’16. Bihar spent 51.6% but this was before salaries of niyojit shikshaks were raised.

All states included in the study have spent over 50% of their education budget on teachers' salary.

Frequent protests

On the other hand, low pay and exploitation have led to frequent protests and litigation by contractual teachers.

As shiksha mitras protested against the Supreme Court order in Uttar Pradesh, contract teachers in Tripura sat on hunger strike demanding regularisation. The protest was called off on August 7 but not before opposition parties BJP and Congress, waded into the debate.

Bihar’s niyojit shikshaks got their pay hike after they brought the entire system to a standstill over April-May 2015.

Similarly, many of Delhi’s guest teachers boycotted a much-publicised “mega parent teacher meeting” in October. “Before elections, political parties promise regularisation,” said Jha. “Once they form the government, they find out what that means.”

Protests by Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan contract teachers in Assam compelled the state to agree to five-year contracts and better benefits.

Higher standards

But the process of recruitment ought not to be “politically driven” as it was in Uttar Pradesh, argues the National University of Educational Planning and Administration report. (It was Uttar Pradesh’s previous Samajwadi Party government that started the regularisation.) It says regularisation is a “welcome trend” if it is “accompanied by stricter standards for recruitment and building greater professionalism into the cadre”.

The Supreme Court order effectively returned 1.78 lakh teachers to their pre-2014 status. Responding to their protests, on August 2, Uttar Pradesh Chief Minister Adityanath convinced them to return to classes, promising a solution within 15 days.

But Dwivedi is still nervous. Sudden solvency had made her ambitious. After 2014, she put her two sons in private school, rented a room in Gorakhpur so they could be close to it, and took a home loan. “Many teachers took loans – for motorcycles, cars, homes,” she said. “We are all stuck.”