DIMAPUR, Nagaland — Ngamwan Konyak sat alone in her Class IV schoolroom at 10 am on a Tuesday in August. All her classmates were absent. There was no teacher either, just a blackboard at the front of the class with two empty columns labeled "wild animals" and "domestic animals". Ngamwan opened her bag and took out four books, all written in English, the medium of instruction in Nagaland. But after five years at the school, she still hasn't learned how to read them.
There were no teachers in any of the classrooms that day at the government primary school in this village in Nagaland's Mon District. A second solitary student sat in Class III, a third student in Class II, and three more in Class I, clustered on a back bench by a window. Of the 47 students enrolled in the school, only six had turned up.
In the teachers' room, the head teacher sat in her chair, asleep. A ceiling fan whirred overhead. Outside, cows grazed on a football field under puffy white clouds. Manwang Konyak, another teacher at the school, told me there was no special reason for so many students to be absent. "The thought of going to school just might not have occurred," he said.
India's government schools are in shambles. A big reason is teachers who outsource their own jobs to unofficial substitutes, particularly when they get posted to rural areas. The problem is so widespread that several states across India have announced plans to curb the practice. This year, in an expansive report conducted across thirteen states, the World Bank called proxy teaching an "alarming problem."
Here in Nagaland, the state government estimated in 2016 that about half of its teachers outsource their jobs to proxies. While government officers claim they want to solve the problem, the proxy system has been institutionalised. Proxy arrangements are made in plain sight of students, parents and other locals but kept off the government's books. No official records are kept of a proxy's name, let alone their qualifications. Many of the proxies interviewed for this story struggled to speak English—the medium of instruction in Nagaland's schools. Village-level councils often charge a commission to grant sanctions to these arrangements. Some village councils select qualified proxies, but many schools hire unqualified substitutes.
Proxy arrangements are made in plain sight of students, parents and other locals but kept off the government's books. No official records are kept of a proxy's name, let alone their qualifications.
"They have turned teaching into a dubious business," said Simon Kelio, the co-chairman for Against Corruption and Unabated Taxation (ACAUT), a human rights organisation in Nagaland.
The system works for everyone. Government teachers, after parting with just a fraction of their salary, are free to remain in the cities while keeping their benefits and job security, the proxies get jobs despite having questionable qualifications, and the village councils get their cut. The only ones left out are the education system's intended beneficiaries: children like Ngamwan.
Officers in the department of education have acknowledged the situation.
"Proper classes are not being held and students are not getting what they're supposed to get," says R. Amongla Jamir, the District Education Officer (DEO) for Dimapur. "Teachers are being trained but trained teachers are not teaching classes."
Nagaland's proxy teachers are evidence of India's twinned crisis of jobs and education: The jobs crisis has created a massive pool of people willing to sub-contract themselves out as proxies to those lucky enough to land government jobs for a small share of the salary. These proxies, in turn, are creating a whole new generation of children who are being educated only in name.
The right to education
Ngamwan lives with her parents, uncle and aunt, cousins and grandparents in a house with a metal roof, walls woven from strips of bamboo and a compact clay floor. From the house, built on a small hill on the edge of the village, there's a view of tea gardens and steep green hills. The house has a large kitchen with harvesting baskets mounted on the walls. A row of white mugs hang by their handles from hooks under a counter. In a spacious room connected to the kitchen there are two beds arranged against opposite walls, a blue mosquito net pinned up over one of them. Ngamwan sat on one of the beds with her parents and grandparents, beneath several posters of Jesus Christ, and one of Shahid Kapoor.
Nokpo Wangsupa, Ngamwan's grandfather, and Nyechoi Konyak, her grandmother, have been rice and vegetable farmers all their lives. They're both 77 years old, Nyechoi thinks. When they grew up, formal education was yet to be introduced in Nagaland. "Life was very hard," Wangsupa said. "We used to walk to Assam just to get salt."
Ngamwan's parents were the first generation in her family to go to school. Her father, Putai Konyak, dropped out in Class VII; her mother, Apeh Konyak, in Class V. They've worked in tea gardens since then. During the six-month harvesting season, they spend almost every hour of daylight moving from plant to plant under the sun, a tiny sickle clasped in a forefinger and a sack of leaves on their backs.
Ngamwan's parents and grandparents insist that she and her siblings attend school every day. "Education has made it possible to make an easier living," Nyechoi said. She wants her granddaughter to get a government job when she grows up, and to live a more comfortable life.
Ngamwan's parents can't afford to send her to private school, but the Right To Education Act, passed in 2009, guarantees "satisfactory and equitable education" for all, at no cost.
A failure to keep teachers in their classrooms means India's spending on public education is not reaching its students, particularly those with the greatest need.
By investing in government schools, the Act was intended to help children like Ngamwan on their way to finding better jobs and making an easier living than previous generations. More than 80% of India's budget for primary school education goes towards paying teachers, who earn more than teachers in private schools. But a failure to keep teachers in their classrooms means India's spending on public education is not reaching its students, particularly those with the greatest need.
Nokchem Angth, assembly secretary for the Eastern Nagaland Students Federation (ENSF), estimates that less than half of all government teachers posted to interior districts take up their posts.
"Students feel discouraged," Angth said. "Their futures are spoiled."
While Ngamwan tries not to miss a day of primary school, she is not learning the skills she'll need to start middle school next year. John Konyak, the head teacher at the nearest high school, says students entering the school have very weak foundations. "We have to start again from the basics here," he says.
Learning outcomes at the state and national level paint a discouraging picture. According to research conducted by NGO Pratham, a lower proportion of rural students in Class VIII—just 45%—could read simple sentences in 2016 than seven years earlier. "These kids still can't do really, really simple questions like telling the time on a clock," says Suman Bhattacharjea, the research director for Pratham. "It's pretty shocking."
The results in Nagaland are on par with the rest of India. In 2016, Pratham's Annual Status of Education Report found that just 38% of fifth-graders in Nagaland could read at a second-grade level. Ngamwan's parents know the schools in the village aren't good enough. As soon as each of her older siblings entered Class V, they were sent to live in a town to attend a better school.
Catching up in the city
Every year, scores of children from Nagaland's interior areas leave their parents and move to cities in the hope of finding better schools staffed by actual teachers. Most of these children, including Ngamwan's siblings, work as domestic helpers in the homes of wealthier families.
Nokpoi Konyak, a Class X student from another village in Mon District, is among the first students to have received the free education the RTE Act promised, but she's paying a high price for it. She arrived in Dimapur five years ago as a shy twelve-year-old. She remembers feeling nauseous on the 10-hour bus ride from her village, and out of place when she arrived in the city, moving in with an unfamiliar family to be a domestic helper. "I was afraid they would not be happy with my work," she says.
The daughter of a farmer and a carpenter, she wanted a different life for herself, the kind of life an education might make possible. But most of the teachers at her school were local villagers working as proxies, she says, some of whom had never completed high school themselves. By the time Nokpoi finished class five, she had given up on getting an education at the school in her village.
In Dimapur, she enrolled in the nearest government school—many of her classmates are also domestic helpers from the state's interior. Nokpoi's school, made up of several brick buildings, is on the outskirts of Dimapur, past the private estates of politicians and vast gardens sealed off behind tall metal gates. Nokpoi's teachers say she is a sincere student who works hard and pays attention in class. But like many students from the interior, she is fighting an uphill battle. She was not taught maths at all in her village, and also struggles with basic spoken and written English. Teachers say it can be hard to get them caught up with the curriculum. Many of the students at the school, the teachers say, are unable to write a simple sentence in English.
The inability to catch up in secondary school is a problem across India. Pratham's Bhattacharjea says poor results in primary schools are often dismissed by people who say students will "learn eventually". Last year, for the first time, Pratham reported on learning outcomes for 14- to 18-year-olds. The results showed that kids were not eventually learning very much at all. "These kids still can't do some of these things that are so basic," she says: things like measuring the length of a pencil.
Nokpoi is accustomed to city life now, but her daily schedule doesn't leave her much time to study. She wakes up at 5 am, cooks breakfast for her guardians' two young kids, dresses them, and walks them to their private school. She gets back to the house just in time to eat breakfast and walk to the Naga United Village government high school. When she gets home from school, she starts on her chores: washing, cleaning and cooking dinner. She begins studying at 8 pm. It's the same routine every day, she says. She has two younger sisters who also work as house help in Dimapur, but has seen them only once in the last three years. "We live in different worlds," she says.
Nokpoi hopes to go to college and become a nurse, she says, but she still has ground to make up. She'll write her class 10 board examinations this year, which she'll need to pass to graduate to higher secondary school and college. Last year, of the 17 students who sat the exam, just one passed.
When Ngamwan starts high school, she will face a similar challenge. She'll be starting from scratch, at a new school far from home, with just a few years to catch up and no guarantee that, after her squandered primary school years, it isn't too late for her.
The teachers' problems
As children languish in poorly staffed schools, civil society groups have voiced their opposition to proxy teaching. At a recent conference, the Seyochung Area Students Union (SASU) declared proxy teaching "a sin to God and man".
The perception of teachers who keep proxies is generally that they are too lazy to work, too selfish to move to a remote posting and that they may have used political connections to get their appointment without ever intending to teach in the first place. But teachers say they've been put in difficult situations.
"The problems we are going through no one can understand," said the wife of a teacher who outsources his job to a proxy. Her husband, a gentle, heavyset man in his thirties, sat on a couch in a black singlet, his three-year-old daughter on his lap. His two sons, aged four and one, watched a cartoon on TV.
After completing his bachelor's degree in Shillong, the husband was assigned to teach at the primary school in Ngamwan's village in 2007. He moved to the village and taught at the school for seven years. Eventually he got married. His wife, a soil and water conservation specialist, works as a researcher in another government department. She is posted in a town on the other side of the state, and her position is non-transferable. In 2014, she became pregnant with their first child. The same year, her husband's father died. That's when her husband decided to hire a proxy to teach his class and left the village to join his family. "We decided it's better to have him here," his wife said. "Unlike him, I cannot keep a proxy."
He mentions the lack of reliable electricity, water supply, healthcare, and quality education in the village. "It's better to raise our kids here," he said. "We don't have basic necessities over there."
He still receives Rs 20,000 of his Rs 30,000 salary, but isn't satisfied with the situation. Most days, while his wife works, he stays home. "I'm doing nothing now," he says. "Looking after the kids only." He wants to teach, and has requested that his posting be transferred to where his wife is posted, but in Nagaland, as in much of India, bureaucracy moves slowly, if at all. For the past four years, his requests for a transfer to a school in the district he lives in have gone unanswered.
But he isn't the only teacher making transfer requests. Everybody likes to stay in the town and urban areas," said Smita Sarangi, Nagaland's principal director of education. This means there are too few teachers actually taking classes in Nagaland's villages.
The teacher's decision to hire a proxy denied Ngamwan's school a trained teacher, but it created a job. Manbai Konyak was unemployed before the school committee hired him as a proxy. It was a rare opportunity in a village of 80 households where, aside from two small shops, the only work is farming. He was the second proxy of the teacher, and worked at the school for one year, teaching Class IV, and earned a Rs 7,000 cut from his salary.
All over the state, I met young people working as proxies or substitutes. Most of them were unemployed before they got a job as a proxy, and were uncertain where they would find work when they were no longer needed as a substitute.
"If not for teaching, I don't think there is anything," said Tialia Sangtam, a proxy teacher in Tuensang District.
State officials have repeatedly condemned proxy teaching and promised to crack down. "This is definitely a problem," Sarangi told me. "We understand and appreciate the problem, but the steps are being initiated." The government announced an ultimatum in 2016, promising harsh consequences for teachers with proxies.
But the crackdown floundered, and the government settled for gestures of cooperation from teachers.
"Some years back, all teachers were asked to sign an agreement not to keep proxies. Photos were put up in school rooms to identify the real teachers," said Orenboni Lotha, Nagaland's director of secondary schools.
Despite these measures, teachers and school officials across the state say corruption and stagnant bureaucracy have foiled Nagaland's efforts to crack down. The government continues to send out school inspectors, but little change has been seen on the ground. "So far we haven't seen any positive steps initiated by the concerned department," says Sepili Sangtam, the ENSF president.
Efforts are further complicated in Nagaland by a power-sharing agreement between the state government and tribal bodies. In 2002, in an effort to implement better regulation of its schools, Nagaland introduced the Communitisation Act.
The policy transferred oversight of government schools from the state government to village leadership. Villages were instructed to set up School Management Committees, which were given the authority to hold up teachers' wages or request teachers to be transferred out of a school if their attendance was irregular. The idea was to take school management out of the hands of government officials, few of whom send their own children to government schools, and give some authority to local stakeholders—parents, village leaders and civil society groups—who would be motivated to ensure the school they sent their children to was run well. In many villages, this system worked.
But the programme, introduced to hold teachers accountable, has broken down in many places. The line between a legitimate substitute and a proxy teacher can be hard to determine.
"If it is not arranged with the state government, then it is proxy," says Neichulou Tsuzu, Nagaland's deputy director of secondary schools.
But in practice, teachers who take leave almost always go through village leaders. The state government doesn't have a budget to pay substitutes. They get paid a portion of the original teachers' salaries, so there is no financial incentive to register a substitute with the government.
"The providing of substitutes has virtually been stopped at the government level," says Yitachu, Nagaland's former Minister of Education.
The more lenient villages are in granting teachers leave, the more substitute jobs they can open up for locals.
Many village leaders, some of whom may not have gone to school themselves, take advantage of their position to facilitate proxy arrangements, claiming jobs for unemployed locals. The more lenient villages are in granting teachers leave, the more substitute jobs they can open up for locals. Some chairmen even discourage teachers from taking up their posts so that they can give them to locals, including their own family members.
"I called three or four teachers about absences and they said the SMC [School Management Committee] asked them not to come," said Jamir, the education officer. "[The committee] told them there were no quarters available in the village."
It was easy for the government teacher from Ngamwan's school to outsource his job. He went to the village school committee and explained his family's situation. "He had a good reputation," says Noknei Konyak, the village's committee chairman at the time. "He worked sincerely and became very close with the villagers."
Grateful for the seven years the teacher had worked in the village, they gave him permission to take leave and found a local to take over his class. "We considered him because of his family situation," says Teilei, a committee member. A contract was laid out, but only for internal purposes, Noknei says. It was never submitted to the education department. The teacher would keep Rs 20,000, his proxy would take Rs 7,000, and the village committee would take a cut of Rs 3,000.
Even teachers with valid reasons to take leave seldom report this to the government. Asenla Chang is teaching her sister's class in Tuensang while the sister stays in Kohima due to a high-risk pregnancy, but the education department has no record of that. It was arranged unofficially with the headmaster. Same with Khangba Chang, who taught in place of his brother-in-law, C. Moaba Yimchunger, who was in Dimapur to get medical treatment for an eye problem. Official medical leave can only be granted after a doctor's note is submitted to the government, but Yimchunger was able to arrange a proxy simply by speaking to the school's headmaster. There was no need to go through the bureaucracy and wait for official permission.
Because so many teachers hire substitutes, it's often left to field officers to sort out which teachers are away on legitimate leave. But most field officers can only inspect a school a couple of times a year at most, and are unwilling to overrule a village chief who has authorised a teacher's leave.
N. Kiyekhu Sema, a field officer in Dimapur, told me he had found 20-30 teachers keeping proxies on his last check. He phoned each of them. "We accepted some reasons and for others we tried to get them to attend class," Sema says. He warned them he would have to submit an order to terminate the teacher's service if they were not present on the next inspection, but he told me he has never actually done that.
In fact, of the dozens of school, government and village officials I spoke to, at state and district levels, no one could recollect a single teacher having been terminated for keeping a proxy or failing to perform their duties.
Most field officers can only inspect a school a couple of times a year at most, and are unwilling to overrule a village chief who has authorised a teacher's leave.
The state says it is ramping up efforts to crack down again and introducing new measures to address the problem. Sarangi, the principal director of education, says these steps include tracking teachers through their Aadhaar numbers, as well as reviewing parts of the Communitisation Act. But some school and government officials say these measures are meaningless if they aren't accompanied by strict enforcement. "The government says they will crack down, but when they find cases, they don't implement harsh punishments," says Khriezovonuo Solhi, an assistant headmistress in Kohima District, who has worked in the education department for over 30 years. "The authorities don't take action, so what is the point of inspecting and monitoring?"
Many teachers have flimsier excuses than the teacher from Ngamwan's school . One teacher I spoke to has not gone to work for eight years. Instead, he pays a proxy 40%of his salary to teach his class in Longleng District. "The education department credits the salary straight into my account and I deposit the salary for the replacement teacher in his or her account," the teacher says. He even spent two years in Delhi—while still a salaried teacher in Nagaland—preparing for an exam that would allow him to apply for a better government job with the government. He says it's common for government teachers to use teaching positions as a stepping stone to another career. "If they fail to get a better job then they have to return to the teaching thing," he says.
Many teachers complain that the bureaucracy moves so slow that some policies and processes have all but ground to a halt.
There are also structural problems that, if addressed, might reduce some of the pressures causing teachers to leave their posts. Many teachers complain that the bureaucracy moves so slow that some policies and processes have all but ground to a halt. In the three district offices I went to, as well as the state directorate, the few computers I saw sat unused while civil servants moved from room to room delivering thick files to the desks of officials who sat beneath stacks of moth-eaten papers.
With little faith in the department's efficiency, teachers are solving their problems on their own by appointing proxies. The teacher posted to Ngamwan's school in Mon District should have been accommodated by a government regulation that allows spouses to be posted together. He hired a proxy only after the government placed him away from his wife and failed for years to respond to his transfer request.
Among teachers, school officials, and civil society, there is widespread speculation that the process for transfer requests is shortcut by teachers with political connections. That means the transfer process is clogged up for people who legitimately need a transfer, but no political connections. "One needs to have a good connection," says Chingmak Kumchuba, president of the Confederation of Chang Students' Union (CCSU).
"If teachers are posted to the interior, they go to a politician and ask for it to be cancelled," Jamir says.
Across the state, a handful of civil society groups have attempted to intervene where the government has failed. These groups, which mostly comprise young graduates, conduct their own school inspections and work with the education department to sanction teachers who are absent from their posts. CCSU president Kumchuba says the group recently inspected schools in 48 villages in Tuensang district, sending out three separate teams over the course of four days.
On a Friday morning in August, CCSU summoned 30 teachers to its headquarters in Tuensang. One by one, each teacher was brought before a panel of six CCSU members and asked to explain their absence. If they had a valid reason, they were let off. If they didn't have an excuse, CCSU wrote a letter to the DEO, recommending their salary be held up until the teachers returned to school. But Kumchuba says CCSU's resources are limited. The government should be doing more, he says, but he is sceptical. "Somehow, we have started to accept this proxy thing," Kumchuba says.
A national crisis
Nagaland isn't the only state where teachers have outsourced their jobs. It's happening all over India. In 2014, it was reported that teachers keeping proxies in Andhra Pradesh were bribing education officers to look the other way, and that the state lacked the officers needed to control the problem. In 2016, Himachal Pradesh put teachers' photos up on classroom walls to check proxy teaching. In 2017, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh did the same thing. Earlier this year, Haryana proposed taking the same measure after receiving complaints of proxy teaching. Also this year, Jharkhand announced a plan to give tablets to schools to stop teachers from keeping proxies, and Tamil Nadu approved a plan to take biometric attendance of teachers to prevent proxy teaching.
The World Bank's 2018 report says that "[proxy teaching] was openly discussed during focus group discussions" in Mizoram, Uttar Pradesh and several other states, while reporting that nationwide, around 20% of teachers are absent on any given day. There is little evidence that these measures, which have largely failed in Nagaland, have been more effective in other states.
Less than a decade after the RTE Act was passed, some officials are ready to give up on struggling government schools. Earlier this year, a research body funded by the Nagaland state government recommended that non-performing schools be shut down. "The schools that are underperforming or producing nil results, we are not in a mood to keep them going," Sarangi says.
Yet, with so many teachers away from their appointed posts, it is unclear how the government will decide which schools need to be shut down. Most likely, the move will disproportionately affect rural communities, further accentuating the educational divide between town and village.
ENSF's Angth, who represents students from Nagaland's interior, says closing schools based on poor performance is unfair to the students "It's very simple," says Angth. "When the government cannot deploy the teachers to the schools, we cannot expect good results."
Ngamwan's family, who should benefit from the free education the government has promised, are spending Rs 60,000 per year on private school fees for their elder children in Dimapur and other town areas. This year, they had to take an advance from the tea factory to stump up the money.
"The system is not right," said Jamir, "and unless some changes are made, it will continue like that."
On the other side of the state, after waiting four years, the teacher posted to Ngamwan's school was finally transferred a few months ago, but not to the district he requested. He was sent to another, even more distant village in Mon District, his own transfer request still languishing somewhere in the district office, lost, ignored or perpetually left behind in the queue by teachers with better connections. He spoke to the village chairman at his new school, who understood the family's situation, granted the teacher leave, and appointed his daughter as a proxy.