Six days a week, if their parents can spare them from the fields, the children of this isolated village don tattered blue uniforms and trudge down a muddy path to the derelict concrete shell that serves as the government primary school. There is no furniture -- the children sit cross-legged on empty grain sacks -- to say nothing of latrines, electricity or drinking water. But that isn't the biggest obstacle to learning.
Often there are no teachers.
Although two government teachers have been assigned to the school, they turn up about three of every six workdays, and then for a few hours, according to villagers and two employees of a local nongovernmental group. The only authority figure present last Friday was an unpaid village teenager who shuttled gamely between the school's two rooms with 41 children under his care.
"Government teachers are like that," said Chaman Ganjhu, 22, an unlettered subsistence farmer whose 5-year-old daughter and 12-year-old sister are enrolled at the school. "It's bad, but what can we do?"
Many Indian parents are asking the same question. On any given day across the country, 24.5 percent of the teachers at government primary schools fail to turn up for their jobs, according to a study sponsored by the British government that was presented at an economic conference near New Delhi in January. In the eastern state of Jharkhand, one of India's poorest regions, the absentee rate was recorded at 42 percent, the highest in the country.
The phenomenon underscores the inequities of India's education system. On one hand, the government has been generous with institutions of higher learning, which have produced some of the world's most accomplished scientists and software engineers. But public grade schools, for the most part, are poorly equipped, understaffed and badly run; parents who can scrape together the fees typically send their children to India's burgeoning network of private schools, which educate an estimated 15 to 20 percent of the country's schoolchildren.
In 2002, Parliament passed a law that made education both compulsory and a fundamental right, but the measure said nothing about its quality.
"The fact that you write 'school' under a tree doesn't make it a school," said Sanjiv Kaura of the National Alliance for the Fundamental Right to Education, a New Delhi-based advocacy group. "They are trivializing the definition of a school."
Lack of Oversight
Some Jharkhand teachers have legitimate excuses for missing work: impossible roads, the threat of kidnapping by armed Maoist insurgents and the burden of extra duties unrelated to education, such as census-taking. But many collect their government salaries of between $170 and $220 per month -- generous by Indian standards -- without going to work for the simple reason that they can get away with it. As in other parts of India, teachers enjoy the protection of state lawmakers, who rely on the teachers' unions for votes, and often bribe local supervisors to look the other way when the teachers fail to turn up at school, according to education experts and some government officials.
"My problem is not how to bring the students to school," said Ashok Singh, the senior civil servant, or secretary, in the Jharkhand education ministry. "Today my biggest problem is how to bring the teachers to school."
Getting teachers to do their jobs is symptomatic of a bigger challenge confronting this nation of more than 1 billion people: The desperate need to improve the quality of governance, especially at the local level.
Notwithstanding India's economic successes in the last decade -- as epitomized by the boom in information technology services -- corruption, inefficiency and a lack of accountability still impede the delivery of basic services such as health care and education in the 600,000 rural villages where most Indians live, according to the World Bank and other development agencies.
Resentment over the poor quality of services under India's previous coalition government, led by the Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party, has been cited as a major reason for its recent election loss to an alliance led by India's secular Congress party.
As part of what he terms a "new deal" for India's impoverished masses, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has pledged not only to increase development spending in rural areas but to improve the quality of governance, in part by strengthening the system of elected local councils known as panchayati raj.
To that end, the government has proposed channeling money for education and other purposes directly to the councils, bypassing state governments and increasing local control and accountability. Some development and education experts would go a step further, endowing local elected bodies with the power to hire and fire teachers in their districts. Teachers would presumably be more diligent about turning up for work if they knew their jobs were on the line.
"I do think if there's greater local control and village residents are given a voice, this teacher absenteeism will come to an end," said Singh, the education secretary and a self-described reformer who studied at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government in the early 1990s. Teachers will be "scared of the local committee," he said.
That prospect is some way off in Jharkhand, where the panchayati raj system is essentially defunct because of legal and political disputes that have prevented local elections for two decades. Almost half of the state's residents cannot read and 30 percent of children between the ages of 6 and 14 do not attend school, according to government statistics.
A Dim 'Light of Education'
A visit to this tiny village helps explain why. Surrounded by jungle-covered hills about 620 miles southeast of New Delhi, Urej is home to about 40 families, most of them from indigenous groups. Villagers make their homes in mud-walled huts, fetch water from a communal pump and eke out a living from small plots of corn and rice that, in the absence of any irrigation system, depend on the annual monsoon.
Access is along a stony dirt track, too rugged even for four-wheel drive. A foreign visitor arrived last Friday on the back of a motorcycle driven by Motilal Ganjhu, a primary school headmaster in the town of Uri Mari, about 16 miles away. Ganjhu is also the coordinator for a cluster of government schools in the area.
Before leaving Uri Mari, Ganjhu, who wore a beige baseball cap with the word "Attitude" stitched across the front, had confidently predicted that the teachers would be at their jobs -- "today is a working day" -- opposing a claim by the head of a local nongovernmental group. Arriving at the school after a bone-jarring 45-minute journey, Ganjhu, 42, said he was dismayed to find that he had been wrong.
"The objective I have to bring the light of education to every village is not visible, so I am surprised," he said.
In the teachers' absence, the students were supervised by Akash Kumar, a shy, slender 18-year-old who said he was filling in for his wife, who is assigned to the school as a kind of teacher's aide. Kumar said his wife had been absent for a week due to illness. He also said she has not received her monthly salary of 1,000 rupees, about $20, in two years.
"The officials give us hope that the salary will come, so one day we hope we will get it," he said wistfully.
Chaman Ganjhu, the subsistence farmer whose daughter and sister attend the school and who is unrelated to the school coordinator, said the regular teachers normally "come two or three days in a week." His claim was supported by Kishore Kumar, 21, and Sonu Munda, 22, both of whom work at the school on behalf of the local nongovernmental group, which is affiliated with the Delhi-based education alliance. They, too, were absent last Friday.
"It's random," Kumar said of the teachers' schedule. "On Monday they came at 12:30 and left at 2:30." School hours run from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Later that afternoon in the village of Barkagaon, about 12 miles away, one of the teachers, Ashok Kumar, disputed those accounts, asserting that he normally puts in a full day. But Kumar, 37, said he decided last Friday morning to take the day off because he was late in getting to his parents' house, where he keeps the motorcycle he uses to get to Urej. He said he was delayed by a political protest that disrupted travel on area roads.
As a consequence, he said, he decided to spend the day working at his poultry business in Barkagaon. "I enjoy the job of a teacher," said Kumar, who was hired last fall and also owns a small bus company. "It's also like a prestige thing, that a person is employed in a government job."
Kumar's colleague, Jubbhar Shaw, the school's headmaster, spent the day at his home several miles outside of Barkagaon, where he was repairing the wooden gate outside his front yard. Shaw, 54, contradicted Kumar's account, saying that Kumar told him the day before that he would not be going to work. He said he had no choice but to follow suit because he does not own a motorcycle and relies on Kumar to give him a ride.
"There is no such issue" of absenteeism, said Shaw. "I go there regularly."
Nand Kishore Lal, the government functionary in Barkagaon who is responsible for seeing education and other social services in the area, questioned the teachers' excuses.
"There was a protest but some people tend to take advantage of it; if something is going wrong, then let's enjoy it," said Lal.
In Urej, villagers were philosophical about the absence of the two teachers, who were assigned here last year after a long period in which the school had no teachers. Under the circumstances, said Kabilas Devi Mosmaid, the widowed mother of Chaman Ganjhu, the subsistence farmer, she is pleased that her 12-year-old daughter and several grandchildren are getting any education.
"When she gets married she'll be able to write a letter to me here," she said of her daughter. "I will ask my granddaughters to read what message is there."