For a country in which higher education is so valued, India's record in primary education is dismal.
With a literacy rate (percentage of adults who can read and write) of 65%, India compares poorly to not just industrialised nations but also several much-poorer economies, such as Vietnam (90% literacy), Zambia (80%), Tanzania (77%), and Cambodia (70%).
India's record in primary education is dismal
If India's growing prosperity is to spread beyond the urban elites, battling illiteracy has to be treated as top priority by government.
And one critical step in getting children to school is to get teachers to school.
A report, led by Indian economist-activist Jean Dreze, had drawn attention to the fact that a majority of parents who kept their children away from school, did so only because there were no schools of minimal quality in their vicinity.
The study of 188 government-run primary schools in central and northern India revealed that 59% of the schools had no drinking water facility and 89% no toilets; and, most alarmingly, a large number of teachers were found to be absent at the time of the survey.
The latter problem has now received detailed scientific scrutiny from a team of economists (Kremer, Muralidharan, Chaudhury, Hammer and Rogers) from Harvard and the World Bank.
On the basis of three surprise visits made to 3,700 randomly-selected schools in 20 Indian states, they concluded that teacher-absenteeism in India is 25%.
That is, at any random time, 25% of the teachers are absent from school.
Comparable studies done in other countries, show India as one of the worst cases.
A large number of teachers are absent from primary schools
Bangladesh, for instance, has a teacher absenteeism or truancy rate of 16%, Zambia 17%, Papua New Guinea 15%. Among the known studies, only Uganda does worse than India, with 27%.
The study reveals other facts of interest.
Head teachers - true to their designation - are in the lead. They are, on average, truant 5% more often than ordinary teachers.
Salaries do not make any significant difference to truancy. Better infrastructure improves teacher attendance a little.
The real big differences are regional.
Maharashtra has the best record with a truancy rate of 14.6%, followed by Gujarat (17%) and Madhya Pradesh (17.6%).
The worst offender is Jharkhand (41.9%), followed by Bihar (37.8%) and Punjab (34.4%).
What is the cause of these dispiriting statistics?
Lack of accountability and proper economic incentives are no doubt factors.
But I believe it is not entirely a matter of economics.
If that were so, then, given that salaries and the formal rules of the game are so similar all over India, we would be hard pressed to explain the regional differences.
It is important to recognise the role of factors like norms, work culture and stigma.
Sociologists, from Erving Goffman to Mark Granovetter, have long stressed the importance of these variables in determining human behaviour.
Fortunately, a few modern economists have also begun making room for these in their work.
Stigma, for instance, can explain many of the things that human beings do, such as wear brand name jeans (in American high schools), give dowry (in parts of India), wear trousers when they go out (in the British Isles) and not wear trousers when they go out (in parts of the Trobriand Islands).
Better classroom infrastructure improves teacher attendance a little
Once we further recognize that the extent of stigma for some behaviour depends on how many other people indulge in this behaviour, sociology begins to interact with economics in interesting ways.
A teacher contemplating missing school will no doubt have to incur some stigma cost.
But if lots of teachers miss school, then the stigma cost is less for each individual, since he will no longer be singled out as especially anti-social.
In this set-up, if very few teachers miss school, the stigma cost of missing school will be high and so it will not be in the self-interest of teachers to miss school, unless there is a compelling reason.
As a consequence, only a few teachers will miss school, corroborating the initial assumption.
Likewise, if lots of teachers miss school, the stigma cost of missing school will be small and that in turn will ensure that lots of teachers will play truant.
Hence, the same society, facing the same economic and legal environment, can be caught in two very different equilibrium situations.
This can explain why Maharashtra and Jharkhand exhibit such different behaviours.
The Indian government needs to urgently consider policies to cure this problem of our times.
Once we bring sociological dimensions into the picture, the range of policies that open up is much larger and some of it may not involve a big fiscal burden either.
To read Kaushik Basu's future columns, bookmark bbcnews.com/southasia
Here are a selection of comments you sent about this story.
Teachers who get paid by the government have large salaries and teachers who work for some NGO or some non-government school in a rural area have no salary at all compared to the government teachers... Government needs to rethink the matter step by step. There are thousands NGOs working in these primary schools. They have limited funds to do so.
Daniel Shah, India
I am fascinated by this sociological angle to this issue. I am very much indebted to my teachers and my educational institution for the opportunities that they provided. And for a long time, my thinking leaned towards throwing more money and funds to this problem.
But I totally agree with Prof Basu. Unless we as Indians get out of the "social stigma" of being goats out on pasture and step out of our comfort zone to try something different, this will keep having a negative impact on our future generations.
I think we should just learn from Europe and get together and improve the life of our people. The people of India and Pakistan have been suffering for a long, long time. It is time to solve our problems. If 25 countries from Europe can come together, why not us? Only tourism industry could benefit so much that we do not need to worry for our people.
Mujahid Khan, UK
It's too bad that India must run on the British 'system of education' even after independence. After 1300 cumulative years of oppression, India needs to revert to the Vedic system of learning as soon as possible.
Radheshyam Tiwari, Canada
I don't know about other states, but I am from Gujarat.
As long as teachers, postal workers and all the govt employees do not have a fear of losing their job, this kind of behaviour will continue. Most of these employees, and those in other govt-controlled entities, CANNOT be fired once they become permanent, unless a serious crime was committed at the workplace. What a nonsense law.
Nik Patil, USA
The racket of private tution is a big distraction for teachers. With the fast buck they earn from tuition, teachers sometimes tend to sidetrack their job at school. Although the law disallows a school-serving teacher to have income from private tuition, it is one of the 'open secrets' of society.
Mr Basu may want to reflect that it was the British who in the 1800s destroyed the village school system of India. He may want also reflect on Macaulay's destructive influence on Indian education. Up to the period of British rule most children living in clusters of villages (called chaurasees) had FREE access to schooling to the age of 11-12. The progress made by India since the wonderful British left in 1947 should be truly celebrated. If you do not believe that education was prevalent and free in pre-British India then please read the writings (esp letters) of Max Muller.
hari patel, uk
I did my schooling and college education in India. Generally, the teachers are more disciplined and responsible in private schools and colleges owing to the need to maintain the standard of the college or school by the management. But the govt schools don't have any such need, they have no special ranking system or incentives for the teacher who coaches the students to excellence etc. They pay the teachers as per some norms and the teachers play around with the rules just like any other govt employee. Another problem is the selection of qualified teachers. Teachers are selected just based on completion of Bachelors degree in Education. But in reality most of the candidates who come to teaching take it as their last alternative for employment in govt organisation. Most teachers aren't well qualified to teach the subject. They aren't aware of the current developments and stick to guide books and force students to private tuition. Corporal punishment by teachers is yet another problem in India. All this needs change in the way Ministry of Education plans selection of teachers and running of schools.
In states like Kerala and Tamil Nadu, public education functions quite well. I suppose this is because of decentralization and increased activism of parents. A voucher system, currently under debate in the US could also be considered so that it eases the financial burden of parents who find it hard to get their kids to private schools.
Malolan Cadambi, Chicago (ex-pat Indian)
How can social stigma help explain what is sheer escapism from one's duties? I can think of no example where social stigma leads to unprofessionalism in one's duties. Perhaps teachers must be educated with the role they play in shaping our country's future.
Most of the job seekers belong to middle class and earnestly wish to be get a berth in 'teaching profession'! Why? Simply because no other job in the current market in India gives such a handsome salary in a ten to five job. They (teachers) no longer bear any such 'work pressure' which is usually seen in other professions. Moreover, the two month usual summer vacation with all perks doubles the job's sheen! Even after enjoying all these benefits, it is true and sad also, a good number of teachers supposed to mould 'minds' of posterity are playing truant in India. This article should open the eyes of concerned persons, I hope!!
Rajeh V R, Kerala, India
India should first make better working conditions and minimum wages better. This would allow parents to let their wards go to school. Make education compulsory till high school. Private sector along with the govt should contribute in school infrastructure. Better pay for teachers with accountability by teachers too. I have known teachers who come every month to collect their salaries and then go back to giving private tuition. There are so many jobless educated people who could become teachers, but filter them out to be accountable.
The higher truancy rate in India is due to the fact that most of the teachers teaching in the rural areas come from non-rural sections of society. Further, these teachers are teaching in the rural government aided schools not because of choice but because of employment regulations (which require government school teachers to spend some years in rural schools before shifting to urban localities). This leaves these teachers with little option than to leave their respective families in the town and do a makeshift arrangement to pursue their vocation. In my opinion this is a rural problem and can best be addressed by the "Gram Panchayats", a body established for village administration using the concept of "Train the Trainers" wherein the trained professionals will assist the Gram Panchayats in identifying the teachers from the community and then adequately train them to take up the job. In this way the responsibility of providing the primary education lies with a body that can effectively monitor the programme and with an inspection plus incentive programme, I am sure Gram Panchayats will do a good job.
Avneesh Pandey, India
You can hardly blame the teachers - there is simply no incentive to teach well. There are no facilities worth speaking of, the attendance in rural areas is abysmal and hard work often goes un-noticed in the colossal state bureaucracy. The real reason is economic deprivation, which forces children to take up paid work at a very young age.
Aruni Mukherjee, Coventry, UK
The first and foremost priority to improve the literacy and education system is to de-link political influences from the educational system. In many states - particularly in West Bengal - the educational infrastructure has been carefully politicized over years for political gains of the ruling party.
Secondly, in many states the existing educational facilities are unbelievably poor. The financial conditions of the teachers are equally poor. This has lead to commercialization of education neglecting classroom education to private tuition. There is no uniform standard of educational system- state to state it varies, educational board to board it varies and even school to school it varies. There is unhealthy competition between private school and public or govt school, giving rise to discrimination within educational system and the target institutions nurture such discrimination.
Shyamali Basu, India
The government of India needs to bring in an accountablity system. In addition there are a number of teachers and lecturers here in the UK of Indian origin who are more than willing to go back home and participate in nation building of India if only the opportunity is taken up by the Indian government
Govind Bharadia, UK
While Mr Basu does aptly state that sociological factors play an important role in teachers missing school, I believe the real solution to the problem lies in accountability. Because teachers in government-run schools can only be fired by government officials and not by school authorities or a parent-teacher association (PTA), teachers see no repercussions to continuously absenting themselves. I believe that decentralising the authority to hire and fire would go a long way towards curbing teacher truancy, more so than simple salary increases. After all, they're probably getting paid even though they're absent.
Dev Goel, India
I think the problem lie with the govt. In 90% of the private run schools this is not the case. Similarly the institutions run by missionaries - the quality of education is higher compared to the rest of the schools or colleges. The government needs to enforce the already existing laws.
Feroz Khan, India (Bangalore)
Wonderful, thanks. I was watching this closely for last six years... In some places like Kolkata teachers did not even come and are paid full salary because they are party members. In Jharkand one school has ten teachers and no students and they are paid full salary. It supports my theory that India is not a poor country but a poorly managed country and has no accountability.
umesh rashmi rohatgi, USA
In a society where most civil servants do not produce anything, and moreover take bribes, how can one expect the teachers to be any different? Most publicly employed teachers of India today have converted the world's noblest profession into the oldest one, with private tuitions conducted during class hours. My family abounded with teachers a generation ago; no one wants to get into the profession these days because there is no place for honest and caring teachers. In colleges and universities, teachers are not respected; goons are set upon hard-working faculty by political bosses. Corruption reigns supreme on school and college boards, with exam papers sold in the open market. Without a national political will to rid the country of the culture of corruption, the issue of truant teachers cannot be solved.
Srinivas Bangarbale, USA/ India
I did my primary education in Maharashtra and have a rural background. The teachers are part of the rural structure. They are respected a lot in the rural society in Maharashtra. He is not only the primary teacher but guide for the people. It has resulted in keeping positive attitute towards work.
Madhav Kathikar, India
A good article overall but I think to add more credibility to your article you should have added more data especially from countries having high population densities like China and pakistan. It is very difficult in countries with such high population density to bring about a 10% 20% change then say countries like Papua New Guinea, Zambia etc... to which you compared.
I agree with you that the amount of absenteism is very high in not only schools but also in most of the public enterprise but I think it will change as you said if better infrastructure is provided.
panini k, India
It is always a pleasure to read Professor Basu's column. Here he examines the problem of truancy among Indian teachers thoughtfully and with well-reasoned argument. I particularly appreciate his application of sociological variables to explain differences between states within India. My only concern is that his treatment of these variables is a bit superficial. It may be the case that 'stigma cost' explains the different incentives faced by teachers in, say, Maharashtra and Jharkhand. However, I would not rush to this conclusion. We need to examine further the conditions (socio-economic, political, cultural) which give rise to teacher absence. Could it not, after all, be the case that stigma cost is just one social manifestation of a more complex ensemble of factors that discourage primary education?
Akshay Mangla, United States
Kerala is the state with the highest literacy in India. It has achived this status by breaking the caste and religious system... To achieve better education one has to look at the basic cause which is the caste division.
Mohanan Sreedharan, Singapore
It was as usual a pleasure to read Prof.Kaushik Basu's article. However, I have the following comments on his and Prof. Dreze's explanation of the phenomenon of truancy of teachers.
1. The stigma theory does not tell us why the situation evolves in a particular way. For example if two regions start with exactly same conditions , one has to explain why one of them does not get stuck with high degree of absenteeism, while the other converges to an undesired level. Once we observe that situations are different in two places, social stigma can be used to explain the situation, but not its historical evolution.
2. I think that the argument suggesting that the poor do not go to school because facilities and quality of teaching (absenteeism etc.)are not so good, partially captures the reason. If they were so concerned, such blatant atrocities would have called for political reactions. They do not perceive substantial future earning potential from limited education. Their true elected representatives and/or those who make it big in public life, do not arrive there by getting amply educated. Therefore, such problems are never brought to the political limelight. If there are regions where, perceived future return from education is very low (independent of the quality of primary education) supplying better quality education may not solve the problem. If democracy allows the criminals and uneducated to steal the show, apparent remedies will not work. I guess the nature and quality of people's representatives across Indian states can shed some light on this debate.
3. I would be delighted if Prof. Basu can write a piece on the political complexities of the problem.
Sugata Marjit, India/Hong Kong
The author correctly talks of accountability on part of the school system, and the government to haul truant teachers up, all the time, and pursue action against the particularly errant ones. The factor that is not discussed here, and is probably in my opinion, the more important one, is for the parents to be involved in the education of their children. The apathy and the attitude of people in rural areas in northern India towards education, and particularly for the female child is appaling. The one way to keep truant teachers down, is for school systems to keep parents in the loop, in the form of PTAs or the like. With most of their parents being illiterate and trying to make ends meet themselves, sending their children is a burden and something of this sort may just provide them with the excuse they need to pull them out of school.