Ashfaque, a retired EDO and an ex-head teacher, still recalls his long battle at the Punjab courts, lasting for two years from 1999 to 2001, with vivid details and strong emotions. He was one of the many head teachers who were retired from service after the then PML-N government issued an order in 1999 to compulsorily retire head teachers with schools that had less than 20% results in the final higher secondary examinations. The policy was harsh with little consideration for individual circumstances and the particular conditions of each school. For instance, Ashfaque’s school did not have science teachers, labs, and many other critical facilities required for the proper functioning of the school. Most of the students were discouraged by the school’s conditions and dropped out before the exams. Ashfaque, however, managed to convince them to come back and take the final exams. Despite his efforts, the school performed badly and he was one of the headmasters who became a victim of the blanket dismissal policy of 1999. When the orders of retirement came, his only recourse was the Punjab Service Tribunal where he filed a writ petition against the education department. The case went on for about two years and involved locking horns with the bureaucracy and wooing lawyers to fight the case before it was finally resolved.
This is an individual example of many court cases which go on for years as a result of a policy change or an order that is short-sighted and does not facilitate the teachers. For example, the transfer policy, 2013, is already precipitating a number of court cases. It is considered to be rigid with more than half of the applications for transfers being rejected under the policy rules. Teachers who belong to schools that only have two teachers are not considered for transfers at all and swapping positions with other teachers willing to exchange posts is also not allowed. This limits the teachers’ freedom to get transfers of their choice. After interviewing department officials as part of fieldwork for one of our projects, we realized that the department does not approve of the policies either but there is little that they can do to modify them. Policies are made by officials at the upper-levels of the government, who have limited knowledge of the on-ground reality. Teachers become unhappy due to these inflexible policies. This leads to high teacher absenteeism, low teacher effort and hence poor learning outcomes.
In other cases, the policy document lacks clarity and there are gaps in the rules which create room for confusion. For instance, when the recruitment policy of 2009 came out, it was not clearly stated in the policy whether equivalence was to be granted to applicants holding a B.Com degree rather than a BA or BSc degree. Hence, these candidates were missed out in the initial merit list. Afterwards, a notification was issued by the government stating that B.Com holders will be given equivalence. The merit list had to be completely revised and a lot of the applicants, who had received appointments under the initial merit list, were no longer given appointments. A number of cases cropped up due to this change in the merit list.
On the other hand, teachers may also take advantage of the existing policies for their own gain. For instance, one of the DEOs we interviewed thought that there are many cases of transfers because applicants do not pay heed to the location at the time of application since their main aim is to enter the teaching profession. Once inducted in service, they want to shift to a more convenient district for themselves. There is no policy in place to discourage such behaviour from the outset. Also all policies should not be reformulated to suit the teachers’ wishes. Policies need to be coherent and not open to corruption and misuse.
Once a case reaches the courts, it takes a long time for it to be resolved. The delays exist due to many reasons: the unpredictable attitude of the lawyers, shortage of lawyers in the department, unnecessary delays by the court and the bureaucracy’s unwillingness to accept court orders. In the department, there are few who have in-depth knowledge of the court proceedings and the legal processes involved. The litigation officer in Rahim Yar Khan, for example, does not have LLB but works in the capacity of the litigation officer on the basis of his knowledge of policies and rules. The delays and the costs associated with fighting a court case dissuade many teachers to pursue their cases. Instead they choose the course of bribing clerks to forward their cases and resolve them at departmental level rather than taking recourse to the courts which would incur a much larger financial and physical cost. Clerks are aware of their power and use it to swindle money out of the teachers. Non-cooperation could result in serious consequences for the teachers: the file could simply be declared ‘missing’ or documents removed from the main file to declare it ‘incomplete’. Frustrated, teachers either go to the court or take a simpler option of succumbing to the clerks’ demands. The clerk ‘mafia’ acquires strength due to this fear of court cases. If courts were friendlier to teachers, the power of the clerks could be dented.
In conclusion, a large proportion of governmental resources and energy goes into fighting court cases which could be prevented by formulating more coherent policies from the very beginning. The added cost of court cases for both teachers and the department takes a toll on the teaching quality and, in turn, on the learning outcomes in public schools. A lot of this can be avoided by firstly having cogent policies which cannot be misused or misinterpreted. Further, the complaint redressal mechanism within the education department should be improved so that a lot of these cases do not end up in the courts. One way to do this is to break the clerk “mafia” by introducing a computerized mechanism of inputting applications and registering complaints. Once this is done, a lot of the corruption in the system can be controlled and the number of litigations reduced. This is an important aspect of the education system that needs to be examined and improved. The less time the teachers spend fighting cases, the more time and effort they can exert in school and the better schooling quality can be!
Disclaimer: The views expressed here are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Institute of Development and Economic Alternatives