Once a fortnight, Bharati Prayag, a driver in New Delhi, used to treat himself to a chicken curry and a quarter bottle of rum.
|Parents have resorted to sending their children to private coaching centres in New Delhi [DHILLON]
Earning a salary of 7,000 rupees ($144) a month and living in a hovel far from his wife and three children back in Shivan, a village in the state of Bihar, the curry and rum served to lift his spirits momentarily.
But a year ago, his wife complained that the village school teacher was frequently absent leaving the pupils with no proper instruction.
Knowing his children would have no future without an education, 45-year-old Prayag, now sends home 800 rupees ($16) every month to pay for private tuition in maths and English for two of his children.
"I don't mind forgoing my little treat. Their future is more important," he said.
Like millions of poor Indians, Prayag has to send his children to a state school because it is free. But he knows the education they are getting there is mediocre and must be supplemented by a private tutor.
Some Indians, both in villages and in urban slums, are so dismayed at teacher absenteeism in state schools that they make huge sacrifices to enrol their children in private schools.
A study conducted by Pratham, a non-governmental organisation providing education to under-privileged children, found that 65 per cent of slum schoolchildren in Hyderabad, south India, were registered at private schools.
Mohammed Ansari, a farmer in Haryana, near New Delhi, says the teacher at his son's school is sometimes absent for weeks on end.
"My son started school at [the age of] six. After three years, he still couldn't write a sentence or do simple addition," said Ansari.
Education system criticised
The malaise runs deep and wide; while the poor are unhappy with state schools and hire tutors for a basic education, the middle class is unsatisfied with the education provided at the top private schools.
The middle class hires private tutors to compensate for declining teaching standards in private schools so that their children perform well in exams and secure a place at a good university.
"The mismatch between demand and supply is crazy. The shortage means that students have to score 95 per cent or more in their exams to get admission in the university of their choice," said New Delhi parent Anisa Tiwari.
Tiwari's son, Nishant, 20, secured a place last year at St Stephen's College - an elite institution in New Delhi - largely because he scored 97 per cent in his final maths exam.
"In India, if you don't get into a top university, you're wasting your time. So you have to make that superhuman effort to score top marks," Nishant said.
Despite being exceptionally bright, he had tutors throughout secondary school to help him with maths, physics and chemistry.
A recent survey by the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) shows that middle class families spend one-third of their income every month on private tuition.
The survey revealed that the use of private tutors has increased by between 40 and 45 per cent in the last few years.
Maths and sciences
Assocham's interviews with 5,000 students and parents across 11 cities in India indicated that maths, physics and chemistry were the main subjects for which tutors were needed.
|Despite living in slums, many children attend private schools [GALLO/GETTY]
"Many schools conveniently push the ball back to parents, to tell them to engage private tutors for their kids. This is a serious failure in the education system," says D S Rawat, Assocham's secretary-general.
The result is a parallel education system in India. More than 80 per cent of tutors in the survey said that parents hired them to compensate for the deficiencies of school education.
But Anuradha Awasti, a former maths teacher at Springdales School in New Delhi, says that tutoring weakens the students' independence and self-direct learning capabilities.
She believes private tutorship hinders a child's reasoning and analytical abilities, and places too much emphasis on exams as opposed to genuine learning.
"With a tutor around, children are being spoon-fed instead of learning themselves and relying on their own resources and figuring things out for themselves. Tutors are a crutch," Awasti told Al Jazeera.
Mohini Verma, an English teacher at Step-by-Step School just outside Delhi, says a child's extra-curricular activities should include time to play, daydream and relax.
"It saddens me that they have no space to breathe with all that pressure from so early on," she said.
Just as Prayag's sons trudge 3km to their tutor's house in another village, Akash Gupta, 12, is picked up each evening by the family driver and taken across New Delhi in rush hour traffic to his maths teacher's home in Saket.
He changes out of his uniform in the car and has a snack on the way.
"It's one of the best private schools in Delhi but the teaching is pathetic. His teachers give him homework on subjects they haven't covered properly in class so he can't do it alone," says Akash's mother Neha, a graphic designer.
"I'm a working mother with little time, so I had to get a tutor."
Throughout urban India, on weekday evenings, a frenzied two-way traffic takes place. Tutors on their humble scooters rush across town to the homes of affluent children. If they cannot go to the children, the children are ferried to their homes or to coaching centres.
Centres with names such as The Cambridge School in New Delhi and The Harvard Centre in Faridabad, just outside the capital, have sprung up all over India. Every evening, hundreds of children troop through the gates of these plush new buildings with air-conditioned rooms and manicured lawns.
Education has always been highly prized by Indians, not so much for its intrinsic worth but as the key to a better life.
However, just 20 years ago, engaging a tutor for your child was an abnormality. Now, not having a tutor is a sign of parental dereliction.
"You have the brightest students getting tutors to score good grades. It's become a ubiquitous crutch. Parents feel secure and the children also feel they have a safety net under them," child psychiatrist Megna Kapoor tells me.
Race to university
July is a stressful month for students who have applied to university. Jawaharlal Nehru University in the capital, for example, receives around 100,000 applications but accepts only 1,500.
|With too few universities, competition for places has become fierce [EPA]
At the hugely respected Indian Institute of Management, 70,000 students fight every year for 200 places. At St Stephen's College 12,000 applicants compete for 450 places.
Despite the fact that half of India's population is below the age of 25, the Indian government has not built a new university for 50 years.
India has 338 government universities. A government commission looking into the state of higher education said last month that it needed 1,500 universities.
Kapil Sibal, India's education minister, has promised long overdue root-and-branch reform of the educational system, saying it had to be 'de-traumatised' for the sake of pupils and parents. He also plans to encourage foreign universities to open shop in India to alleviate the shortage of places.
He also wants the Grade 10 exam for 15-year-olds to emphasise grading a pupil's work throughout the year so that the focus switches from marks-based to knowledge-based learning.
Blaming absenteeism, laziness
But critics of the private tutor culture say lazy teachers and mediocre teaching - even in some of the country's top private schools - is to blame.
In state-owned rural schools, absentee teachers are virtually the norm. In Bihar, where Prayag comes from, 40 per cent of all schoolteachers are absent at any given time.
Instead of being in the classroom, they give private tuition to bump up their government salaries.
Experts always point out that enrolling poor Indian children in school is easy. Their parents prize education above all else. It is keeping them in school that is difficult because of what they say is mind-numbingly boring teaching.
"After a year or two, they drop out because it doesn't seem worthwhile. If they aren't going to school, then their parents send them out to earn to supplement the family income," says Mohini Kapoor, an education consultant.
When Prayag's sons talked about dropping out of school in Shivan a few years ago, he would have none of it and threatened to beat them.
"This is about their future," he said.
"Without maths and English they will never escape poverty."