Photo above: Students reading in class at a Government girls high school in Cuddalore. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

The quality of school education in India varies widely. From the Doon School in the foothills of the Himalayas which teaches the sons of India’s elite to the tens of thousands of dusty government schools that dot India’s rural plains, providing classes in rote-learning for the children of agricultural laborers.

The photographs I have just featured in my gallery on south Indian students looks a school in Tamil Nadu that falls very much in the bottom half – though certainly not right at the bottom – of this scale.

On a weekly visit, Krishnamurthy (not in photo) collects from school his three daughters attending Cuddalore's Government Girls High School. L to R foreground: Sivapriya (age 14). Anjalakshi (age 10)...The five Krishnamurthy sisters from Pudupettai were placed in the Government Home for Tsunami Children in Cuddalore, Tamil Nadu when they lost their mother to the 2004 tsunami. Their father, Krishnamurthy, had decided he could no longer provide day-to-day care for his daughters. Krishnamurthy later remarried. The Krishnamurthy sisters now range in age from eight to sixteen...The four younger sisters are still at the Governement home (or orphanage). In summer 2009, Sivaranjini, the eldest aged sixteen, failed her 10th Standard exams and had to drop out of school so leaving her not eligible for care at the Government home. She is now living with her father and his new wife Nagamalli's house 30km away in Pudupettai. Krishnamurthy is intending that Sivaranjini marry a second cousin in 2010. ..Krishnamurthy visits the Government orphanage once a week to see his four younger daughters. Nagamalli is popular with all five sisters. She provides them attention when they are together and is genuinely interested in their well-being. Sivapriya remains close to her paternal aunt Kamasala with whom she used to live in the fishing village of Thazanguda. Kamasala visits Sivapriya at the orphanage every fortnight. The sisters return to their father's home for festivals including Diwali and the Pudupettai village temple festival...According to Revathi, the staff member in charge at the Government home, the absence of the elder Sivaranjini has had the effect of making the remaining four sisters still at the home increasingly independent. For instance, where they used to all sleep together the girls now sleep in different dormitories. The eldest of these four, fourteen year-old Sivapriya has adopted some of the responsibilities of her elder sisters including coordinating clothes washing a (Tom Pietrasik)Students head home after school at a Government girls high school in Cuddalore. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

Most of the teachers I met at this government school in Cuddalore were undoubtedly committed to their pupil’s education. It is not easy being a teacher in tropical south India when the classroom ceiling fans don’t work or where resources are so meagre that students are forced to sit on the floor because there are not enough desks to go around. But it was still depressing to find that the teacher of one class I photographed had simply not bothered to turn up. Instead, a twelve year old girl had been assigned the responsibility of maintaining order in the classroom – a task she undertook with the relish of a rather sadistic prison warder.

Her fellow-students didn’t seem to particularly mind – after all, it was that time of day when an an afternoon siesta beckoned. However, having spoken to some of the parents, I do know that the issue of absentee-teachers was of concern to them.

Pupils at the Government Girls High School, Venugopalapuram, Cuddalore...Cuddalore's Government Girls High School is under-resourced with some student forced to sit on the floor for want of a desk. Though most classrooms are housed in a building that is only two years old, there is little ventilation to lessen the effects Cuddalore's tropical heat. The school does offer extra "`bridge" classes for those students recently arrived from village schools but staff are frequently absent from the school...Photo: Tom Pietrasik.Cuddalore town, Tamil Nadu. India.October 5th 2009 (Tom Pietrasik)Without enough desks to go around, this pupil must sit on the floor while studying at a Government girls high school in Cuddalore. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009

But what do you do if you’re an Indian fisherman, or agricultural laborer, likely illiterate yourself, and your child’s teacher doesn’t show up? Complaining doesn’t get you far for the very reason that those with any influence have opted out of the system and send their children to fee-paying schools.

As I’ve written before, given the failure of the Indian government to properly invest in schools, I don’t blame the middle class for sending their children to private institutions. But it is depressing that the idea of a universal system that properly values the education of all Indian children appears to be of such little concern to those middle and upper class parents whose voices could make a difference.

Vijita (right) and Vijyashree Viswanathan head home to their fishing village after a day at the Government Girls High School, Venugopalapuram, Cuddalore...Vijita (age 14) and Vijyashree (age 11) Viswanathan lost their mother and brother to the tsunami in 2004. They continue to live in the fishing village of Thazanguda with their father Viswanathan, his second wife Kayalvizhi and their two children Sanjay (age 3) and Monica (age 1). ..Until the beginning of the 2009 academic year in June, Vijita and Vijyashree attended the local Thazanguda school. This village school teaches pupils only until the 8th Standard and with Vijita now entering the 9th, it was decided that the two daughters remain together and both travel 3km to the local town school: the Government Girls High School, Venugopalapuram in Cuddalore. ..At the same time Viswanathan decided he would cease day-to-day care of his daughters and place them in the Government Home for Tsunami Children, also in Cuddalore. This was not a move welcomed by either Vijita or Vijyashree and one afternoon after just two weeks at the orphanage, the two girls ran away. At roll call in the orphanage that evening the alarm was sounded and the two sisters were eventually located in Thazanguda waiting for their father and Kayalvizhi who were both away at the time. Realising his daughters' unhappiness, Viswanathan then took them out of the Government home. ..According to her class teacher, Vijita often compares her step-mother to her mother and concludes that she wants her mother back. Vijita confides in her teachers that her stepmother is forever demanding that she and her sister Vijyashree undertake housework. This frustration at home is tempered by the genuine love both sisters have for their father and two younger siblings Sanjay and Monica. Vijita expresses a lonelyness without her mother. Vijita's class teacher Pushpavalli concludes that "Vijita wants something else beyond the love of her father and sister". ..Viswanathan appe (Tom Pietrasik)Two sisters – the daughters of a fisherman – walk home from their school in Cuddalore. Tamil Nadu, India ©Tom Pietrasik 2009