We were in a small central hall in the school, sometimes used as a classroom. Two kids ran in announcing that there was a snake on the steps outside. In the seconds that it would have taken us to reach the steps, two men had appeared from outside and caught the snake, with one of them gleefully holding it in his hands. They were snake catchers by trade. How odd that a snake appears in a school while you are visiting it, and it has two snake catchers in tow.

In that village almost anyone could have caught the snake, including many of the children, since it’s a community of nath-jogis, experts in catching snakes. The head teacher of the school, who has been there since 1997, has also learnt to catch snakes. This school is in one of the most disadvantaged districts of Madhya Pradesh.

In 1997, the current head teacher was in his early twenties. He received an appointment letter from the government’s department of education, as a teacher in that village. When he reached the village, he learnt there was no school there. Its dwellings were at best temporary shelters, made of plastic sheets, thatch and logs. When he asked the department officials what was he to do, he was told that he was supposed to start the school.

He occupied the shelter of the largest tree as the school. It was a lot more difficult to get the children to school. The community had no notion of schools or education for their children. They thought that this man from a nearby village had showed up to show off. After some negotiation, a few children were sent to the tree, along with a few curious onlookers. A few days later, all the children vanished, along with everyone else from the village. The community would regularly go to nearby towns and cities, and beg by showering the blessings of the snakes they had caught. They would be gone for two to three weeks at a time. He had to shut down the tree school as soon as it started.

He has been there for 18 years now, with unchanging focus on the school. He has got most other things to change. The community changed its practices; it stopped taking children on the begging trips so that they could go to school. The Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan funds were used to build a nice school building. It’s a pretty, two-acre campus now, very well maintained. The school has grown; it now has 99 students and three teachers. Scores of students have passed out of the school, many have done very well, and some have become part of the urban middle class as engineers and technicians. The village has pride in its school, and the whole area recognizes it.

The journey from under the tree to the two-acre campus has been an everyday struggle for him for 18 years, which he doesn’t refer to. Thousands like him, have similarly, painstakingly, with no recognition, built our public education system. In the places they have toiled, most of us won’t even go for a day.

The day we were there, the head teacher was on strike. He was protesting. His compensation is about half of the majority of teachers with similar tenure. This is an outcome of the state government appointing teachers in different “cadres". While the original intent of this practice may have been different, most will freely admit that over time it has become only a tool to reduce the states’ wage bill. The result is blatant inequity—teachers doing identical work, with identical background and capacity, differ in compensation by a factor of two. It was a state-wide strike by the discriminated cadre.

While he was on strike, he was still in the school. The children were also there and classes were going on. He seemed to have sorted it out for himself, as to how he could be working like any other day, and still be on strike. His sense of responsibility for children far outweighed any sense of injustice for himself.

Many states find themselves in a similar bind, developed over many years. Significant proportions of their teachers have been appointed at lower compensation levels and with worse service conditions—short-term contracts which just keep getting rolled over. These obvious injustices are not resolved because of fiscal considerations and apathy to the reality in the schools. The situation remains on the boil continually and is managed politically. Unsurprisingly, all this affects engagement levels of teachers and the school culture, especially in schools that have teachers from two cadres. The states must move to equitable service conditions for all teachers. It’s no more complicated than that.

In the meanwhile, thousands like this head teacher, who have given years of their life to the service of communities truly beyond the margins, will soldier on. The very human responsibility of the children in the class will continue to outweigh anything else.

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

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