Aradhna is bracing herself for May 12, when Delhi casts its vote to send seven elected representatives to India’s parliament. She is not a party worker, going house-to-house to curry favour, nor a candidate.
Aradhna is a teacher in a government school who faces a 20-hour workday on the day of polling.
“I can only describe the treatment we get as inhuman,” says Aradhna. “It is utterly inhuman”.
The day will involve travelling to a distant and unfamiliar part of Delhi and sustenance-level food and water on election duty.
“My last election duty was the MCD election. I left home at 4 am and reached the booth before daybreak. My brother cancelled a trip to drop me to the booth which was in a village – you know about safety of women. He said ‘Di, glad you made me come with you. This is remote’,” says Aradhna (name changed as school teachers sign bonds saying they will not talk to the media).
When lunch arrived on the day of the MCD election, it was only meant for party workers present at the booth. Aradhna and her colleagues had packed food and water and ate in shifts as polling does not stop.
Government school teachers are an unsung army during elections in India, working mostly as booth level officers. Their role was made visible in the National Award-winning Hindi movie Newton where Anjali Patil played Malko Netam, a school teacher roped in for polling duty. The movie’s narrative revolved around Rajkumar Rao as the presiding officer of the booth in a village in Chattisgarh.
While Malko left in the evening in Newton, which captures a single day of polls, Aradhna’s day during the MCD election ended near midnight since teachers have to queue up to deposit the EVM machines and submit the paperwork of voter IDs matched with voter lists. “We were finally served dinner, but I was too tired to eat,” said Aradhna.
Before polling day even arrives, teachers go through three days of training to prepare for their electoral roles. A training session can last up to four hours. This Tuesday, the second day of training for most teachers, including Aradhna, was held.
Any challenge to her role as a cog in the election wheel has been met with resistance. Research from a government body, ordered by the government but not made public, shows teachers spend less than one-fifth of their work hours teaching. Election duty is one of the mandatory tasks which eats into teaching.
Amitabh Kant, the chief executive of NITI Aayog, who gets away with speaking on subjects the Aayog has nothing to do with such as job data, didn’t get far batting for this least politically-vocal constituency. The Election Commission called Kant’s intervention seeking to contain teachers’ role in polls “unwarranted”.
“Interacting with chief secretaries of some states in the context of educational learning outcomes, it was brought to my notice that deployment of teachers in non-teaching activities is one of the reasons of poor learning outcomes and academic environment,”Kant had said in a letter to the Election Commission last year.
“Deployment of teachers as booth level officers leads to long absenteeism from classroom activities and provides needless alibi for truancy among teachers.”
The National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA) has not made the research that shows teachers spend only 19% of their working hours teaching public.
This reporter reached out in September 2018 to NUEPA’s Vineeta Sirohi, a professor who spearheaded a study ‘Involvement of Teachers in Non-teaching Activities and its Effect on Education’. Sirohi said she could not share the study’s findings as the ministry of human resource development, which oversees education and commissioned the research, had to get back to her on allowing the research to be made public.
“There is a procedure,” Sirohi had said in September.
That procedure is still not complete, and NUEPA doesn’t have permission to make the findings public.
A publication which accessed the research said four-fifth or 81% of teachers’ time is split as: 42.6% spent in non-teaching core activities, 31.8% in non-teaching school-related activities, and 6.5% on other department activities.
Of the 220 teaching days in a year mandated by the Right to Education Act, just 42 days were spent on teaching in 2015-16. The report highlights how elections are held in one state or the other every year and how the system uses government school teachers as resources. As a result, the non-availability of teachers affects their students.
“Some of us were deputed to for polling to the legislative council on Friday even as the SSC exams were in progress,” said S.P. Manohar Kumar, who teaches English, told The Hindu last month.
Unless school teachers unionise at a national level, even though a few state-level unions manage to make some noise, the situation is unlikely to improve.
Aparna Kalra is a Delhi School of Economics alumnus whose forte is investigations, profiles, and data journalism. She worked as a fact-checker on a Facebook project for AFP this year.