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Politics hinders work of Indian gurus

The average pupil in Uttar Pradesh state receives only 40 days of proper schooling a year. Among the teachers' duties are annual census-taking and escorting students to health centres.

By John Stackhouse
First published May 10, 1996

Biharipur, India

Rajinder Singh Yadav remembers the days when he taught school in the shade of a mango tree, and he smiles.

It was a simpler time in Biharipur, in northern India, before aid poured into his village and official development arrived in the form of a new schoolhouse. Now, Mr. Yadav must teach his 100 students on a crowded porch, to escape the dust and broken bricks of his designated classroom.

"Of course I would rather teach outside," Mr. Yadav said, spurning the dank, dirty classroom which his state government built last year for 90,000 rupees ($3,460).

But no one in northern India is encouraged to teach under trees any more, in the vast green classroom of Buddha and so many gurus. Not many people are interested in Mr. Yadav's opinion, either; they simply tell him to teach.

And so, on International Teachers' Day today, he will marshal scores of barefoot children to the new schoolhouse like chickens into a coop, and hope they will find something to learn.

When the Uttar Pradesh state government last year announced a new schoolhouse for Biharipur and its neighbouring village, to replace a rundown concrete hut that had not been used for years, there was much rejoicing among local contractors and politicians.

No sooner had the piles of bricks and bags of cement arrived, however, than they disappeared. One of the school's three teachers was fired for embezzlement. Construction was delayed, and more bricks disappeared. Finally, the two-room school opened, short one budgeted latrine, which the head of the parent-teacher association had stolen.

A year later, the school's cramped interior is a mess of broken bricks, thinly painted walls and shelving bearing only cobwebs. The outside wall is covered with a Lipton tea advertisement. No one is sure who painted the ad; no one is sure who Lipton is.

All this was not why Biharipur's only college graduate wanted to become a guru, the Hindi word for teacher.

"Teaching is a spiritual pursuit," Mr. Yadav explained. "I believe in reincarnation. If you do good work in this life, if you help children, your next birth will be good."

Mr. Yadav qualified as a teacher in 1975, after he was kicked out of the army. It was the beginning of Indira Gandhi's emergency rule, though, and he had to wait for a $150-a-month posting - a wait that lasted 17 years. In 1992, he was hired when the political party of his caste came to office and instructed the education ministry to hire more teachers from the cow-herding yadav caste.

In Uttar Pradesh, teaching is politics - so much so that in the current state-assembly election, all three major candidates are former teachers. And they all want to fill the state's thousands of vacant teaching posts with their own caste members.

Such promises, however, matter less to Mr. Yadav today; a village guru has other worries.

Because his co-teacher did not come to school today, he was obliged to teach five classes simultaneously, each with six subjects: Hindi, math, science, history, art and English, a language Mr. Yadav does not speak.

On the crowded porch, he stepped over children, each seated on a jute sack, to move from one class to another. Few of the Grade 5 pupils can manage basic arithmetic; almost none of the first-graders can print. Within an hour, most had abandoned their exercises anyway.

"There are no problems in teaching," Mr. Yadav laughed, "except we have no time to teach."

A recent study found the average pupil in Uttar Pradesh gets only 40 days of proper schooling a year. In Biharipur, Mr. Yadav can recite a litany of diversions: every year, the government conscripts him for one week to conduct a census of caste and religion; on other given days, he is required to escort his students to public-health centres; and for three days last week, he was seconded for polling duty in the state election - a task that required another two days off school for training.

During the rest of the school year, Mr. Yadav must dole out the government's school food rations, and administer the equivalent of a 46-cent monthly stipend for each harijan (untouchable) and tribal child - a fund from which, he said, his predecessor siphoned $4 a month.

As if that were not enough, Mr. Yadav was also told this year to make Biharipur's adult population functionally literate. Under a government directive, he, his wife, their two eldest sons and the village's six other literate people were required to hold daily classes for 100 other adults who had never been to school.

Miraculously, within a few months, the entire village population could sign their names, and the government was able to declare Biharipur, a village in which still only 10 people can read, to be fully literate.

A concerned teacher such as Mr. Yadav might worry that so many distractions will jeopardize his pupils' chances in the standardized state examinations. But he doesn't. In Uttar Pradesh, cheating is not only rampant, it is legal, thanks to the last yadav-led government. When exam time comes, he can distribute the answers in advance.

Frustrated with classroom teaching, Mr. Yadav decided to train his pupils in competitive rural sports, believing it may be their most enduring memory of school. And so it may. Last spring, while some of their families looted the school budget, Biharipur's students won 42 prizes and the overall championship in a district athletics meet.

Mr. Yadav celebrated the day with a picnic, and some quiet advice for his best pupils. He told them to aim for the private school in a nearby village. That, he said, is where his children go.

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