Twice a day, vegetable salesman Kamakhya Singh takes time off to balance his three children on a bike for their school commute only to learn, too often, that the teachers are absent.
"We are poor people, but we want our children to get a good education," says Mr. Singh, who works outside Delhi. "I am not so sure teachers care so much because sometimes my children walk home if no one is instructing them."
Parents and students in India have complained for years about teachers who frequently miss work. But the extent of teacher truancy has been unclear until recently when a team of economists from Harvard University and the World Bank scrutinized it in detail.
They hired research firms to make three surprise visits to 3,700 randomly selected government primary schools, largely in rural areas, in 20 Indian states. The study concluded that, at any time, 25 percent of the teachers were absent from schools. In a one-room school, that often meant an empty, padlocked building.
Studies conducted in other countries showed India to be one of the worst cases. Bangladesh's teacher-truancy rate was 16 percent. Zambia's was 17 percent. Only Uganda was worse, with 27 percent. In the US, the rate as of 1993-94 was between 5 and 6 percent.
This research came on the heels of another telling report. UNESCO released its 2005 Global Education Monitoring Report revealing that India is home to 34 percent of the world's illiterate people. The country performed poorly even when compared with other developing countries with large populations like China, which comes in second at 11 percent of the global total.
India's Congress government came to power in May on promises of spreading the spoils of the new economy more broadly across the country. Improving education in rural and poor districts would be a crucial move toward meeting that goal - as well as the long-term aim of being able to compete with China.
For the time being, it's parents, students, and administrators who are suffering.
"It's just sad," says Jeffrey Hammer, one of the World Bank study's economists. "What bothers me is that many teachers are taking government money and essentially doing nothing for it, and as always, the disadvantaged and poor suffer."
In Delhi, the Monitor witnessed several instances of instructor absence while touring primary schools. At Timarpur MCD Primary School for Girls, only four of eight teachers were present one morning at the school, which has 285 students. Headmistress Raj Bala Aggarwal said that two instructors were on casual leave, one on earned leave and one on maternity leave.
"It's a bit of problem when teachers aren't coming," says Ms. Aggarwal. "We combine classes so there are sometimes 70 or 80 students for one to supervise." She explained it was exam time and also nearing year-end, so teachers wanted to use up leave days.
Teachers in India are permitted eight casual and 10 medical leave days annually. But Mr. Hammer was skeptical about the Timarpur situation. It's common knowledge that excess leave days are not recorded in official logs, he says.
Hammer's findings reinforce those from a 1999 school survey of 188 government primary facilities in northern India.
"These include several cases of irresponsible teachers keeping a school closed or nonfunctional for months at a time, a school where the teacher was drunk, ... a head teacher who comes to school once a week, another head teacher who did not know the name of a single child in the school," said the Public Report on Basic Education (PROBE) in India, published by Oxford University Press.
This report examined potential reasons for teacher truancy or poor performance. Surveyed teachers were largely content with salary (68 percent) and leave entitlements (86 percent). "The most common complaint is that schools are under-equipped, underfunded, understaffed, and overcrowded," the report said. More than half had a leaking roof, 89 percent lacked functioning toilets, and half had no water supply. Some school buildings were misused as cattle sheds, police camps, teacher residences, or for drying cow-dung cakes.
On a December visit to Azadpur Village MCD Primary School for Girls, 900 students attended classes in two shifts at a four-story cinder block building smelling of urine and stagnant water. The walls were streaked black from thousands of handprints. The headmaster was on medical leave, two teachers were out on casual leave, two more were arriving late or leaving early on half-day leaves.
In a dank classroom, teacher Gita Sharma, watched 51 6-year-olds practice for a Hindi test. "It's difficult to sit all the time in a dirty class with dirty children," says Ms. Sharma. "I like teaching, but the means are very limited here and the children are very poor, so we have to show them basic hygiene and manners."
The political clout of teachers and unions is a significant problem, says John Dreze, a local economist who worked on PROBE. As civil servants, teachers can almost never be fired, and are seldom transferred. "During elections, they also manage voting booths. No political party wants to antagonize them," he says.
Teacher Vinod Aggarwal of the Wazirabad Waterworks Primary School for Boys acknowledged, "This influencetrading is a deep and secret point. Some teachers may be union leaders or people with powerful friends. [They] will do as they like."
Increasingly, parents have reacted by enrolling children in a private school system that is growing both in cities and villages.
Looking for solutions, The World Bank/Harvard study also found higher pay was not linked with lower absence rates: "Teachers are less likely to be absent at schools that have been inspected recently, that have better infrastructure, and that are closer to a paved road."
Potential reforms include improving school facilities, increasing inspections, having more local control, and hiring teachers by contract, the report added.
"We have to remember," adds the report, ''that for all its flaws it is the government schooling system that has brought elementary education within reach of the masses."