Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Missing in Action

Times of India, September 25, 2005

A couple of weeks ago I reported that one out of four teachers in our government primary schools is absent and of those present one out of two is not teaching. Not surprisingly, many readers were deeply upset by this devastating data, and one offered the desperate suggestion of dispatching teachers missing in action to hell. I looked for Dante’s Inferno, but in the end opted for a home grown variety, a vision of hell provided helpfully by Svargarohana Parvan near the Mahabharat’s end.

Meanwhile, there is more bad news. We have now learned that if 25 percent are absent from government primary schools, the figure for absentee doctors is an appalling 40 percent in primary health centres. It varies from 67% in Bihar to 30% in Gujarat, but the all India average of 40% is the worst in a five-nation U.N. study–worse than Bangladesh, Uganda, Peru and Indonesia. In my last column I had celebrated the triumph of the human spirit that delivered cheap private schools in slums to make up for the state’s failure. But we cannot just abandon government schools and health centres. So, what is to be done? The problem is with our incentive system. If you get a regular salary and are not supervised; if you cannot be fired, or your pay isn’t cut for being absent; if your
social status is higher and you have more political clout than parents or patients; and if there is
lucrative work outside, what
would you do? So perhaps, teachers and doctors do behave rationally (albeit disgracefully) when they don’t show up.

Ragav Pandey, the former chief secretary of Nagaland, realised this and changed the incentive system in 2002. In successful economies, he realised, sellers chase buyers, doctors chase patients, and schools chase students because ordinary people control money. It would be ideal to give parents and patients control over money (through vouchers or health insurance). But since he couldn’t do that, he did the next best thing. Through a ‘communitisation program’ based on ‘no work no pay’ Nagaland transferred salaries of teachers, doctors, and nurses to elected village education and health committees. You can imagine what happened! Teacher and doctor absenteeism declined dramatically, student attendance and patient satisfaction rose spectacularly. So, the answer is for primary schools and health centres to be accountable locally. Critics claim that they would then be subject to capture by the local elite, but we now have a mitigating safeguard in the Right to Information Act.

Digvijay Singh tried something similar in Madhya Pradesh. As a part of gram swaraj, he gave authority to shiksha samitis of the panchayats to deduct wages of absent teachers both in the new informal schools and in the formal ones. They did it only in a few cases, but the threat was enough to improve teachers’ behaviour. The story does not end there. A few months ago, Digvijay Singh told me that he lost his election partly because the powerful teachers union, upset with his reforms, gave a call to defeat him. Voting machines make cheating easier now, and teachers, who were invigilators at the election, merely had to press a button-- no need to stuff ballots anymore.

Plato wrote more than two thousand years ago that the reform of our schools is everyone’s work—the work of every man, woman and child. We cannot give up on our government schools, but until we can get teachers to show up and to teach, let us not waste resources. Let’s not raise government spending on education till then.


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About Medicine Blog said...

The problem is with our incentive system.