Last Tuesday, Delhi deployed teachers from government schools to bird duty—to stand as sentries at border points and check for any illegal transportation of poultry into the city state
, in the midst of a spreading outbreak of avian flu. From 8 pm to 6 am, the teachers were instructed to check the birds’ veterinary certificates and to prohibit chicken products from being shipped into Delhi.
The order raised the hackles of the Government School Teachers Association, which said that teachers couldn’t be expected to pull night shifts after spending their days in online classes. “Sir, the teaching community selflessly served when the government and the citizens needed them for Covid-19 prevention,” the teachers’ letter to the government remarked. Now the government was “taking advantage of the situation and just harassing teachers into unjustified duties.”
In India, teachers do everything. They help conduct elections. They assist with the census. They open bank accounts for children in their schools. They’ve administered the government’s rural employment guarantee scheme. They’re summoned for flood relief work. They’ve enrolled Indians into Aadhaar, the national biometric identification scheme.
Last year, they surveyed neighborhoods during the coronavirus pandemic and stood guard outside containment zones. They’ve cooked school meals and doubled up as Hindu priests. They’ve been called upon to herd their students into participation in International Yoga Day, one of prime minister Narendra Modi’s pet initiatives. On occasion, they’ve even been asked to form claques—to be part of an appreciative crowd, as they did for the Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, waving at his convoy as he passed through the city of Ahmedabad in 2017.
Often, they perform these additional duties without compensation. Their enforced participation in these missions continues despite court rulings that, outside of the three functions outlined by India’s Right to Education Act—election work, census surveys, and disaster response—teachers must be tasked with no duties outside of teaching.
The repeated reliance upon teachers underscores a ground truth about India’s stark lack of state capacity. Indian government departments often feel bloated because of their dysfunction, but they are in fact understaffed. In 2018, there were roughly 700,000 vacancies in the federal government, according to details provided by the Ministry of Personnel to India’s parliament.
If anything, the size of the government is shrinking. Between 2014 and 2018, the total number of available posts rose from 3.6 million to more than 3.8 million, but the number of filled positions declined from 3.22 million to 3.18 million. India has roughly 138 police personnel, 68 doctors and 148 nurses per 100,000 people—all far lower than the kinds of ratios prescribed by bodies like the World Health Organization. According to a Quartz calculation in 2015, the Indian government had 139 public servants for every 100,000 people, excluding railways and postal workers. The US, in comparison, had 668.
To shorthanded governments, their teachers must seem like a blessing: a vast, deep pool of professionals who are well-educated enough to be reassigned temporarily to a range of duties. As of 2016, the last year for which such figures were available, India has nearly 8.7 million teachers in government schools across the country. But the use of teachers is only a temporary patch on the gaps in the state’s superstructure. The government needs to be hiring hundreds of thousands of staff, but it isn’t—partly because it can’t afford to, partly because recruitment for public jobs is a slow, complicated process.
Two days after teachers protested about being put on chicken duty, the Delhi government relieved them of this responsibility. This was a welcome move, Ajay Veer Singh, the general secretary of the Government School Teachers Association, told the Hindustan Times. “It’s an extra burden on schools since the majority of the teachers are already deployed in Covid-19 related duties,” he said. “Besides, it’s really humiliating for the teachers.”