Teacher instructs an elementary class (photo: AFP/Getty Images)
By Geeta Anand, New York Times
DEORIA, India — The young man, having skipped school, was there to plead his case, but Manoj Mishra was having none of it. When the truant offered a letter from a relative of a government minister pleading for leniency, Mishra grabbed it and, with a frown, tore it in half and dropped it to the floor.
Similar scenes played out repeatedly in Mishra’s fluorescent-lit office recently, as one truant after another appeared before him, trying to explain their absence from school.
But these were not students who had been pulled in for truancy. They were teachers.
Mishra, a district education officer in India’s most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, is fighting one of the biggest obstacles to improving the largest primary school system in the world: absent teachers. His tough punishments and refusal to back down, chronicled in the local newspapers, have turned him into a folk hero. As he walks along the dusty streets of the wheat-farming villages a couple of hours’ drive from Nepal, older people touch his feet in a sign of respect. Young women pull out their phones and take selfies by his side. When Mishra arrived in Deoria in 2014, 40 percent of the district’s teachers were absent on any given day from its 2,700 schools, he said in a recent interview. Nationwide, nearly 24 percent of rural Indian teachers were absent during random visits for a recent study led by Karthik Muralidharan at the University of California, San Diego. Teacher absences run as high as 46 percent in some states.
Mishra says that teacher attendance has soared to above 90 percent, about the best that can be expected considering sickness and personal matters.
Achieving that attendance record has not been easy. Teachers have threatened to shoot Mishra, roughed him up, turned his desk upside down and loudly denounced him in protests outside his office. Their allies, including ministers and legislators, have made phone calls and visits, demanding he ease up.
Mishra, 42, has responded by packing a loaded pistol in his right front pocket, hiring private security guards and putting cameras in his office.
“He’s the first anyone had met like him, a government officer so bold and unbending,” said Pratap Pathak, a reporter for Dainik Jagran, a Hindi daily.
With the largest population in the world under the age of 35, India is trying to grow by leveraging what is often called the “demographic dividend.” To prepare more than 200 million primary school children for jobs in a modern workforce, India passed legislation a decade ago that more than doubled education spending, increased teacher salaries and reduced class sizes.
But children’s already low performance has fallen. Pratham Education Foundation, a nonprofit that conducts an annual household survey, reported that in 2005, about 60 percent of fifth-graders in rural India — where most people live — could read at a minimum second-grade level, but that in 2014, less than 50 percent could.
Teacher truancy is among the more prominent causes of that failure, experts say. Teaching jobs pay well and are sometimes obtained through political connections. But those who get them often do not want to travel to the remote areas where many schools are. In areas with weak local governance, not showing up has become the norm, and people feel powerless to complain.
That is where Mishra comes in. Wearing a shiny gray jacket, and with a halo of wavy black hair around a chubby-cheeked face, he hardly looks the tough guy. He grew up in a village about 100 miles away, attending a school similar to the ones he now oversees. Having graduated from this state’s prestigious Allahabad University, he joined the state civil service, landing a coveted education post in 2002. After jobs in the state education headquarters, he moved out into the field as the officer in charge of primary education in district after district.
By August 2014, when he showed up in Deoria, he was already causing a stir. He had been reprimanded for beating up three teachers with a stick because he believed they had landed their jobs using fraudulent documents. That episode made the headlines in the nearby city of Gorakhpur.
“Wherever he was, there was always a conversation around him,” Pathak, the newspaper reporter, said.
Just a few days into the Deoria job, Mishra began to get text messages from people complaining that teachers rarely attended school. By then, he was well aware that widespread teacher truancy could occur only if, he said, “my officers are hand in glove with the teachers,” warning them if anyone was coming to check attendance.
Some weeks later, he called all the officers to a meeting, collected their mobile phones and sent them out to schools they were not in charge of supervising to report on absences.
The results shocked him. In one subdistrict, 73 of its 245 teachers were absent.
Mishra said he soon discovered that some of the missing teachers lived nowhere near their schools. One lived in the New Delhi suburb of Noida, a two-hour flight from the Deoria area; another in India’s financial capital, Mumbai, more than a thousand miles away. Another had not been seen in school for six years.
He says many of them worked other jobs and had bribed his officers into reporting them present.
“That’s when I took the problem seriously and realized I needed to do something about it,” Mishra said.
A principal, Manoj Singh, 40, was among those nabbed in the first raid. Soon after, Mishra demoted him to assistant teacher, cutting his monthly salary of $750 by one-third, and transferred him to a remote village a two hours’ drive from his home.
Singh said he was sure he could persuade Mishra to forgive him because “everyone had missed school for years and no officers had ever come down hard on anyone.”
He told Mishra that he was sick on the day of the attendance check, and even persuaded politicians and union leaders to intervene on his behalf.
“Do whatever you want,” he said Mishra told him. “I have done what I have to.”
In his frustration, Singh acknowledged, “I got aggressive. It’s possible I said some loose words.”
In Mishra’s telling, the former principal threatened to shoot him.
Singh said he does not recall making such a threat, but whatever he said, it was enough for Mishra to go to the police.
Mishra said he received hundreds of calls and visits on behalf of virtually all of the suspended teachers. “There was mayhem,” said Sunil Singh, a reporter for another Hindi daily, Amar Ujala.
Most people, Mishra included, believed that he would be transferred within a week, the usual punishment from the state executive for disobedient officers. But the tide turned in his favor. “Everyone except the teachers was happy with his work,” Pathak said.
It did not hurt that the conservative Bharatiya Janata Party had swept to victory not long before with the promise of fighting corruption. One day, Ram Govind Choudhary, then the state basic education minister, called Mishra and said, “I support you — don’t worry,” both men recalled.
“What he did is what all my district officers should do,” Choudhary said in an interview.
Emboldened, Mishra began leading raids on the schools each month. He set up a toll-free number to report truant teachers, and painted it on every school wall.
Locals watched gleefully on the days the schools were inspected, when streams of teachers could be seen sprinting across town trying to reach their classrooms before Mishra and his officers could get there.
Mishra says making teachers go to school is only one small step forward.
“Whether they teach or don’t teach, I can’t tell,” he said. “But now, at least, they come to school.”