Notes from the Field: Comparing Three Villages in Madhya Pradesh


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Kids sitting down reading but where is the teacher?I  was in the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh recently. Madhya Pradesh, or MP, as most Indians know it – is a big state in the middle of the country. It also has some of the poorest human development indicators in the country.

Some distance from Gwalior, we get off at a large village on the side of the road and start walking away from the highway towards the villages in the interior. Eventually, we cross a stream and reach the last village before a hill stops the road from going any further.

We are in a tribal village, with silos for community grain, a recently constructed Panchayat (the local governing body) hall and a decrepit school. The schools have been closed down after the walls collapsed and snakes were discovered in the classroom. The teachers now hold classes in the temple under a large banyan tree.


Two of the three teachers are there, and they are very nice. The kids sit around the banyan tree and we listen to how the village did receive funds for constructing a new school, but halfway through the money ran out and/or was stolen by the Panchyat members. The third teacher is absent, but most of the times they do show up because of the fingerprinting system. Fingerprinting system? After chatting some more, drinking the obligatory tea and depriving the kids of some of their instructional time, we start walking back.

We reach another village halfway to the main highway. The village is bigger, and a local development scheme is paying for the cement pavements that are being put in. Men sit around on a charpoy in the community hall. We walk to the school that is a bit outside the village. It is decrepit. All the rooms are locked except one, and only one teacher has come today. The kids sit around on a bare floor looking quite despondent and bored. The teacher tells us that he has to come to school every day because of the fingerprinting system. Fingerprinting system? There are no instructional materials that we can see and very few kids. Construction debris lies all around and a few stray dogs roam the school playground. We walk back to the highway.

The third village next to the highway is big, immaculately maintained and has large schools that look great with new paint and vibrant signs announcing the “Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan” or “Education For All” program. School is just ending and the kids all walk out in their uniforms, some singing, others holding hands as they trudge homewards. We meet the head teacher and walk to the tea stall. We ask him how he came to be there. He had been posted to a school in a rural area, in the middle of nowhere, earlier, but then he managed to raise the Rs.30,000 (around $600) to pay the powers that be to get a transfer closer to the main city—Gwalior. He tells us that he had to “personally drop off the cash” at the house of a powerful politician.

We ask him about the fingerprinting system. The chief minister has put in a new system where every government employee who works in the region has to sign in for the day using their fingerprints, or risk having their pay deducted for the day. They also have to sign in by 10am. We go to see this great system. It’s in a room in the panchayat building. There is one computer and a fingerprint recognition system that appears to work fairly well. This would be very cool, were it not for the following:

Problem 1. It takes 5 minutes per employee to get their fingerprints in.

Problem 2. There are many, many government employees.

Therefore - most of them decide not to do the fingerprinting. They call up the higher- ups and complain that it is taking too long.

I thought that the differences between the schools in the three villages were quite interesting given that the distance as the crow-flies from the highway to the interior village was less than 6 km. But the take-away message? It is elusive at best.

I was left with the following thoughts:

  • The village in the middle was the most depressing of the lot because most parents sent their children to the bigger village close to the road and therefore were not invested in the school.
  • Decentralized funding mechanisms might not actually get spent on their intended purposes - as shown by the interior village, which did not use the school construction funds well.
  • Technology alone does not do the trick to ensure that teachers show up to their jobs.


Your feedback:

  • I would be interested in exploring whether technology can improve accountability when government oversight is weak. Do you have any success stories where this has been the case?


Photo credit - the image (" Kids sitting down reading, but where is the teacher?") comes from Curt Carnemark), available on the World Bank's Flickr site.


Jishnu Das

Lead Economist, Development Research Group, World Bank

Join the Conversation

Anshuman J
August 03, 2010

Fingerprinting is good idea. Atleast there is a step in direction of ensuring accountability. I think what we need is group of model villages where technologies can be expeimented and implemented to understand what works and what doesn't. We need to to have clear roadmap in usage of technology in all spheres of socio-economic ecosystem of villages.
Once technology is established in solving problems of education, health,santitation etc, then these could be replicated in volume across the state. For that to happen, we need a technology mindset in beaureucracy and politicians.

Dr S Santhanam
August 03, 2010

Technology at least ensures that the teacher turns up every day at the scheduled time. This is an improvement over the earlier legacy system where bogus attendance registers maintained just to draw salary every month. In that respect, it is a great step forward.

Rakesh Krishnamoorthy Iyer
August 03, 2010

It is shameful that things have come to such a passe that teachers can get away by only fingerprinting rather than teaching anything. We may as well close the govt. schools and dismiss the teachers if this is what we call good.

The only way out, and technology can only be a part tool to help in this, is by introducing social pressures on all the actors involved in this process, right from the local bodies (panchayat members) to even the teachers. I think that's the only way we can improve this. Just that in this case, probably it's for organizations to help in this.

No technology can be the substitute for human action.

Michael Trucano
August 05, 2010

If it's OK, I'll side-step the issue of fingerprinting here and point to another (less intimate) use of technology that has shown some promise in combatting challenges related to teacher absenteeism -- namely that of the digital camera.

J-PAL, the Poverty Action Lab at MIT, conducted a randomized 'experiment' from 200-2006 in Rajasthan, working with a local NGO, Seva Mandir, to investigate the impact of various incentives on teacher attendance. To quote from the J-PAL web site,

"In order to monitor teacher attendance, Seva Mandir gave each teacher a camera, along with instructions to have one student take a picture of the teacher and the class at the start and close of each school day. The camera's timestamp feature allowed Seva Mandir to determine when and for how long the teacher was at school. This technological monitoring was a relatively cost-effective method to monitor teacher attendance, since visits by monitors were reduced from daily to once every three weeks."

You can read highlights from the study, or the study itself, through:…

This example has inspired people to propose similar monitoring schemes in other places; in 2010, there is specific interest in a few places exploring the use of the cameras built into low-end mobile phones in place of the stand-alone digital cameras utilized in the J-PAL study.

Nachiket Mor
August 17, 2010

Technology use at the village level is growing. A company that I know well: (I was on their Board for a while) has been successfully dispensing payments for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) using Biometrics for a number of years now (has over 18 million clients with about 50,000 new ones added every day) and it is expected that over a period of time the entire country will move to this model (with FINO and others) of handling payments for government schemes. And, once that device infrastructure is in place it could potentially be used for other purposes (such as marking attendance) as well.

In our work ( we are exploring the use of technologies such as FrontlineSMS, Ushahidi and Uniphore Technologies to build some sort of feedback loops between the villager and the government and to report that on public websites. This in our view will ensure that there is at least some accountabilty for all the money that is being spent.

Jishnu Das
August 18, 2010

Many thanks to Michael Trucano for pointing out the important J-Pal study on cameras and absenteeism. Perhaps I am getting this wrong, but I thought that the program tied teachers' wages to their attendance, and that attendance was monitored through cameras. I then thought that the paper said that it was only tying the wages to the attendance that led to an increase in attendance, and not the use of cameras per se. That is, if you pay teachers only when they come to work, they tend to come to work more, but monitoring alone does not work. The issue here is not very different: given that service providers attendance is not sensitive to Hawthorne effects in the long-run, the political problem is always salient--does it make sense to move to a system where payment is contingent on presence, and is this politically feasible? Am I getting this completely wrong?

Jishnu Das
August 18, 2010

Also, thanks to Nachiket Mor for pointing out the increasing use of smart cards in the Indian context. As Nachiket points out, the use of smart cards is exploding in India--from the NREGS to the RSBY (India's flagship health insurance to the ambitious scheme that will biometrically identify all citizens. I am convinced that the use of technology dramatically reduces the cost of monitoring and therefore must have some positive effects. Two caveats that still bother me. First, partially based on my work in the RSBY, I also see many potential problems and continuing issues that require a functioning legal system and some societal and political consensus to deal with. I would love, especially, to see some kind of evaluation of these schemes (its difficult to do this with the RSBY because the use of smart cards in the scheme is universal), for example comparing performance in villages with and without smart cards for NREGS. Equally, I wonder when we are going to have a debate over privacy versus service provision. Currently, the atmosphere seems to support better service provision at all costs, but Usha Ramanathan's article a while back in the Hindu ( really scared me. Nachiket and other out there probably know a lot more about both these topics than I do, so would love to get some feedback

Michael Trucano
August 26, 2010

Hi Jishnu,

No, I think you have it right. I don't think anything I said contradicts what you have written here.

You asked, "I would be interested in exploring whether technology can improve accountability when government oversight is weak." I just thought I'd throw another technology into the mix, one that has been used in India with some success -- perhaps one that is not as politically-charged, at least in the eyes of many, as fingerprinting is -- and that which people are considering using in other places, based on experiences in India.

I certainly didn't mean to imply that the J-PAL study claims that the mere act of taking someone's picture caused a significant change in behavior over time -- and I don't think I did. In fact, I don't think I characterized results from the study in this regard at all -- rather, I pulled a direct quote on the study from the J-PAL site itself. The quote said that the use of cameras in the study was "a relatively cost-effective method to monitor teacher attendance". It didn't say anything about it changing behavior *by itself* (and neither did I).

For what it's worth: You could, I suppose, use the sorts of photos taken in the J-PAL experiment in other ways that weren't linked directly to compensation. In some cultures, for example, posting the pictures on-line (or in the newspaper, or on a bulletin board outside of the school, or distributing them to local elders, etc.) might change behavior. Not sure if anyone has tried this sort of thing; it would make for a potentially interesting study.

Whether this sort of thing is politically feasible, or socially palatable, is of course another matter entirely (same holds for the use of fingerprinting, of course), and would, I presume, depend on the local socio-political context.


Anil Swarup
January 02, 2011

Why is it difficult to evaluate the use of smart card under RSBY, Jishnu?
And, is it appropriate to compare RSBY with NREGA in the context of use of Smart Cards? Jishnu, are aware of the number of smart cards issued and used under NREGA? The RSBY has crossed 22.5 million. Also assess whether the cards under NREGA are being used as smart cards. However, to do that, you may have to stick around.............and go to the field.

Nachiket Mor
January 26, 2011

Dear Dr. Das,

My apologies for not seeing your comment earlier and the question at the end. Unfortunately other than acknowledging that both your questions are excellent ones and really important I cannot offer any specific feedback. The ubiquity of Smart Cards in RSBY does make a comparative evaluation difficult but the kind of tracking that it has enabled has been quite remarkable and is core the key innovation of cash-less-automatic insurance that has been pioneered within it -- I think perhaps if one compared it with the non-smart card based (non RSBY) insurance schemes that operate in several states the differences may be apparent. For the NREGS effort from what I can recall Professor Karthik Muralidharan of UCSD was doing some kind of an evaluation between the smart card and non-smart card districts within AP to help the government decide if they should go entirely cash-less across the state.

The other exciting possibility that the whole UID-Smart-Cards-revolution opens up is the potential removal of all schemes and subsidies of the various governments (PDS, Kerosene, Fertilizer, Diesel, Priority sector interest rate subsidies, etc.) and their wholesale replacement by unconditional cash-transfers. Even with targeting failures surely these would be improvements over what is going on now.

The privacy issue is far more tricky and you are perhaps right that our sensibilities are not exercised on these issues at the present time as they would be elsewhere. I don't think this has anything directly to do with technology though -- once there is clarity on what is permissible and what is not, good technical solutions I feel can easily be found -- for example it is entirely possible that the health data of an individual remains only on the smart chip in the card and only relevant data is permitted to be transferred to other servers.


Nachiket Mor