It was the kind of late winter morning you long for in the great Indian plains in May. All blue sky, with gentle sunlight streaming between the tall trees around the school at 10am. The idyllic picture was completed by the kids in blue uniforms, in the clean and hundred-year-old school. The drunk teacher seemed to have been placed there to remind me that there is no paradise.

He was at the far end of the large room, and delivered a welcome speech in English, swaying as he stood. Since it was merely 10am, I ascribed the swaying and the slur to a medical condition. But when he started walking and was 10 feet away, the smell explained his condition. He was insistent that I accompany him to a class; the head teacher rescued me and took me to another class with himself.

It was an excellent class with engaged, curious and confident students. As I went through the school, I realized that almost all the 170 students across the grades were like that. This government upper primary school is 30km inside a thick forest, pristine even now. The kids come on cycles and by walking from as far as 6km away, many preferring this school to the one in their own village. It’s a school serving the most disadvantaged of this country, and it does it well.

As I conversed with the head teacher, the reason for the state of the school was clear. He is a man of action with a good academic understanding and deep sense of empathy for the people he serves. His energy, imagination and perseverance is reflected in all aspects of the school—its physical upkeep, its culture and, most of all, in its students. His credibility is such that his advice is sought by many on educational matters in that area. He does his work with his team of two teachers; I am not counting the third one.

He doesn’t want to talk about the third one, the drunk. It’s quite clear he detests the presence. Later on, my colleagues who work in that area narrated the all-too-familiar story. The drunk is politically well-connected. Even this energetic head teacher has failed in all his attempts at disciplinary action against this man. He just ignores the presence, so long as he doesn’t disrupt the school or harm any of the children.

Three days before this encounter with the drunk, I had an unusual conversation in Delhi. The gentleman is vastly experienced, extremely good intentioned and in an influential role. We discussed the importance of the danda (“the stick", that is, disciplinary action) in managing teachers. We found ready agreement that the vast majority of teachers need support and encouragement, and not even a whiff of the danda. We readily agreed that the minority of teachers who are quite disengaged with their roles, don’t need the danda, but the professional pressure of their peers. We found equally ready agreement that the danda is absolutely necessary in certain kinds of situations; for instance, drunk teachers, habitual absentees and disruptors, practitioners of corporal punishment.

The important question is, what kind of danda will be effective? It must work to quickly punish the guilty and never be wielded against the innocent. That kind of danda system is very hard to design and almost impossible to implement in our country. Usually any such danda falls only on the innocent, because the drunk and the truant teachers are always connected to the people who control the danda. These kind of challenges are not limited to education.

Any danda wielded by the official hierarchy will not work, certainly not in the most egregious cases. However, the design of our school system and the community interest invested in local schools together present a possibility. The local community of the school should be empowered to wield the danda. The structures and mechanisms already exist to operationalize this principle.

Each school has a School Management Committee, constituted from within the community. They, along with a balancing (so to say) “upper house" e.g. the village panchayat, should be authorized to wield the danda in all the egregious cases. And this power must only be for action in such cases, not in any way for more subtle matters—for instance, assessment of teachers or schools.

Such a system won’t work perfectly, but it will work better than anything else. The local community has no interest in punishing good teachers, and certainly won’t tolerate rogues in the schools of their children. This is just one kind of empowerment that our school system should move to, the most important of which is the empowerment of teachers.

The story of the drunk is a mere side-show. The real story, which must not have escaped your attention, is how the head teacher and his two teacher colleagues run a terrific school, in the face of all challenges, including the systemic dysfunction that tolerates the drunk. For every bad teacher, we have many times more good ones, and that’s across the country.

Anurag Behar is CEO of Azim Premji Foundation and leads sustainability initiatives for Wipro Ltd. He writes every fortnight on issues of ecology and education.

Comments are welcome at othersphere@livemint.com. To read Anurag Behar’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/othersphere

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