Government school teachers doubling as temple priests for an annual religious pilgrimage in Haryana’s Yamunananagar district caught the headlines this week. The Opposition described this as part of the Bharatiya Janata Party’s government’s “saffronisation programme” and the teachers’ union said that it interfered with the school calendar, disrupting classes. Yet a large number of teachers joined up. Teachers are reported as saying they were “following the orders of the administration”.

While teachers working as temple priests raises questions of propriety, not so long ago government school teachers in Gurgaon signed up to supervise the rounding up of stray dogs. Right now, apart from the teachers who have abandoned their schools to work as priests, many Haryana government teachers are tasked with monitoring and reporting on farmers burning crop stubble or are working as enumerators on a three-month long Jan Seva Survey – described as similar to a household survey.

What is striking is that when talking about this situation neither the teachers, the teachers’ union nor the political opposition and certainly no member of the government and state administration noted that such government orders are a violation of the law.

Illegal action

The Right to Education Act 2009 prohibits the deployment of teachers for non-educational purposes, “other than the decennial population census, disaster relief duties or duties relating to elections to the local authority or the State Legislatures or Parliament, as the case may be”. The Supreme Court has also reaffirmed teacher’s obligation to perform election related duties, but only “on holidays and non-teaching days”.

There is, however, almost no state in the country where the Right to Education Act or the Supreme Court judgement are respected. Being turned into temple priests and rounding up strays may make Haryana an outlier, but most states expect teachers to do survey work, monitor and report on social schemes, help with bandobast for major government events and such like.

Teachers’ unions, while they complain, have never made non-academic work a factor when they talk about pay and conditions. Most teachers unions say they have no problem doing election or census work as it is their constitutional duty. It is also duty for which they receive an additional allowance. Teachers unions, when they do object to doing non-academic work, as some have done over the order to sign up as temporary priests in Haryana, focus on work that is unpaid.

As for government administrations, most of them treat government school teachers as a reserve labour force that can be called upon at anytime for tasks that require a minimum level of literacy. There is really no sense at all that school teaching is different from being an average file pusher in a government office. Schools are treated not so much as institutions of learning but as administrative units of the ministry of human resource development or state education departments.

Most well-run private schools plan the school calendar at least a year in advance, factoring in public holidays etc. to achieve a balance of classroom hours and extra-curricular activities. Government schools, however, have calendars that change week to week entirely at the whim of the government. As is the case with governments in India in general, decisions are taken at the top and communicated down the line with absolutely no consideration for a school’s planned activities.

Following orders

Principals of government schools, don’t really plan their school’s activities they “just follow orders”. When you read, for example, at the end of August that the government has directed all schools to observe a “Swacch Bharat programme” for 15 days starting September 1, you can be sure that they are talking only about all government schools. Such last-minute directions are par for the course in government. You can also be sure that the school principals keen to please their bosses in the department of education, will stop regular activities and focus teachers’ attention on organising 15 days of activities unrelated to anything the school should be doing at the time.

So pulling teachers out of class or even school is what governments in India do. It could be to fill in for a shortage of priests, update electoral rolls or organise photo ops for the government’s Swacch Bharat campaign. Pulling teachers out of school is only a symptom of the real problem. The problem is that governments actively undermine government schools. They see them – teachers and students – as part of an administrative structure that must serve the government of the day. Even when governments talk of improving schools, it is all about showing that the government of the day has “improved results”, not about whether children have a better learning environment or are learning better.

Teachers as priests make great headlines. A step forward would be when the headlines are about government school students deprived of their teachers or used as props to promote government programmes. For children whose schooling is disrupted by government diktat and who must do what the government bids them do, are children denied their rights.