For school teachers in Madhya Pradesh, there is a lot riding on the Assembly elections on Wednesday.

In January, the state’s Bharatiya Janata Party government announced its “one campus-one school” programme to merge all schools of varying levels functioning within 150 metres of each other – an exercise that would bring down the number of schools across 224 development blocks from 34,997 to 15,961. The government claims the mergers will enable efficient use of teaching and other resources.

But for teachers of lower classes, this has meant narrowing prospects for promotions, lax supervision, and having to teach higher classes as well. In addition, thousands of headmasters of merged schools have effectively been demoted to regular teachers.

This has also affected the schools, say teachers. In the absence of headmasters, monitoring of teachers has weakened, said Rajendra Singh Jadaun, a teacher in a secondary school (Classes 9 and 10) in Sheopur district that has merged with a higher secondary school (Classes 11 and 12). According to a member of the education administration, who did not want to be identified, those primary teachers who are graduates have already been made subject teachers in senior classes. Yet, the overall teacher shortage – more than 70,000 across the state – persists.

In September, the state government issued guidelines on the mergers. But beyond a common timetable for merged schools and redeployment of teachers, there has been little progress on the administrative merger of schools, including their bank accounts and management committees.

“Right now, there is little progress and everyone is keeping quiet about it so that there is no protest,” said Jagdish Mishra of the Madhya Pradesh Shikshak Congress, a teachers’ union affiliated to the Congress. “Right after the election ends, if the BJP wins, they will merge schools very fast.”

Teachers upset

The merger of schools, under the charge of district education officers, is in various stages of implementation across Madhya Pradesh. In Guna district, for instance, most merged schools have already merged their finances and their heads have been given classes to teach, said Kishan Rajak, a teacher.

Teachers are particularly unhappy with this reduction in the “headmaster cadre”. “Since 2011, when the Right to Education Act, 2009, was implemented in Madhya Pradesh, every primary school with 150 children and every middle school with at least 100 children would have a headmaster – now that is gone,” said Rajak.

Mishra added that this will impact the careers and promotion prospects of all teachers.

At the same time, it may not improve the quality of teaching in both primary and higher classes.

Rajak pointed out that the mergers did not resolve the problem of 41,000 vacant posts of primary teachers in the state.

In addition, the administration official pointed out that while many primary and middle school teachers are graduates and are now teaching higher classes, the primary classes continue to be ignored. “The primary level is foundational but gets very little attention from the school leadership, which focuses only on higher classes,” the official said. The challenging task of teaching the primary classes has been left to guest teachers appointed at a monthly salary of Rs 2,500, he explained, adding that there has been no regular appointment in five years.

This year, the state government advertised 17,000 teaching posts but all for higher secondary classes.

The senior classes may not benefit from the extra help either. “Experience is important and these primary school teachers may have earned postgraduate degrees but they have not taught their subjects in years,” explained Rajak.

Lax supervision of teachers in schools that have lost their headmasters to the mergers is another cause for concern, according to Jadaun. Teachers now report to the head of the “main school” – the school with the highest level of classes into which all the other schools are merged, according to the guidelines – but still teach in their old schools. “Once we sign in, there is no one to check if we are actually reporting to our classes to teach because the principal in the main school does not emerge from his room,” said Jadaun.

That some permanent teachers have been made to report to former shiksha karmis – administration-appointed temporary teachers who were later organised into a separate cadre called “adhyapak samvarg” with lower salaries in 2008 – has also cause friction.

Lack of resources

The state’s merger programme may have upset teachers but it has made little difference to how the schools run, apart from having the main school draw up the timetable. Many merged schools continue to struggle with the same lack of resources as before.

At Rajak’s school in Guna, for instance, space is still short. The school with Classes 1 to 8 merged into a higher secondary school and the resultant institution now has classes up till 12. However, the primary and middle sections still run in shifts for want of space. Similarly, another school in Guna with 141 students in Classes 1 to 5 works in two shifts after the merger.

Rajak fears that with the merging of the schools’ finances, junior classes may become poorer than they are. “The funds of statutory bodies such as the school management committees are also being merged,” he said. School management committees, including school staff, parents and community members, are statutory bodies under the Right to Education Act and are responsible for the development of schools.

Declining enrolment, mergers

This is not the first time Madhya Pradesh has merged schools. According to the official, who is a former teacher activist, the state has been merging schools with low enrolment – starting with those with an enrolment of less than 10 – since 2013.

One reason for declining enrolment in schools is families leaving their villages because of failing agriculture and lack of employment. “People’s MGNREGA cards have been empty for years together,” said activist Sandesh Bansal, referring to the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that guarantees rural households 100 days of employment in a year.

In addition, the official pointed out, the state government has undermined its own schools by pushing the implementation of Section 12(1)(c) of the Right to Education Act, which directs private schools to reserve 25% of their seats in Classes 1 to 8 for children from economically weaker or other disadvantaged backgrounds. The cost of educating these children is to be reimbursed by the government. This has resulted in a proliferation of private schools and parents pulling their children out of government schools, he said. “Politicians are not interested because their own children go to private schools,” he added. “Government schools are there only for securing government jobs.”