There is a young domestic worker couple in my neighbourhood that is hard-working and apolitical. However, the two have consistently displayed political clarity when it came to who they would vote for in the Delhi legislative assembly election – the Aam Aadmi Party. This determination stemmed from two reasons – mohalla clinics and the tangible benefits they perceived through the quality of their children’s government-run school.
School education appears to have become a political issue. And that shows the maturing of our democracy.
During its tenure, the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government under Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal and his deputy Manish Sisodia made strenuous efforts to improve the infrastructure and functioning of Delhi’s public schools. In addition to providing quality education for the long-deprived members of society, the government’s efforts in the field of education have also proven to be politically wise. I have overwhelming evidence – albeit anecdotal – that points to its political advantages.
Perhaps this is a good time to remind India’s political class that paying attention to education in a serious manner brings political benefits in addition to larger public good.
The unfortunate aspect of India’s story after independence has been that governments at the Centre and in states have tended to shy away from taking genuine and meaningful action in the realm of education. Of course, every year, the central government and almost all state governments pay lip service through routine announcements and budgetary provisions that are meant to help bring about good things in the world of education. But on almost all such occasions, one cannot help but get the feeling that the hearts of those responsible to bring change in the education system are not really into the measures they promise to adopt.
The reason for such indifference is the political class’ delusion. Indian politicians believe that education reforms take a long time and the dividends from them are not tangible enough to bring political benefits. They are not instant vote-getters. But there are some genuine and very compelling reasons to dispel such notions.
The Delhi example
As I understand it and based on a detailed discussion that I had with a very prominent AAP functionary – Atishi Marlena – the story is clear and simple. There was no rocket science behind the decisions that her government took, and which brought these reforms.
Perhaps, there is a lesson in this story for the rest of India. To make a success of such endeavours, the first rule is to ensure commitment of the top leadership. According to Atishi, Delhi’s deputy CM and Education Minister Manish Sisodia never let his focus from education slip. He not only ensured that there were ample and timely funds, but he also made regular and random visits to public schools.
Measures like these have immediate benefits. For one, the teaching faculty across schools becomes more involved and enthused, as happened in Delhi’s case. Second, the government’s active involvement boosts the morale of the school staff when they see that their working conditions are being looked into and that there is someone willing to lend an ear to their concerns.
Another thing worth emulating is the AAP government’s work towards improving the infrastructure in schools. Ensuring basic facilities like clean toilets, ceiling fans and decent seating arrangements have made all the difference. A school with better infrastructure achieves an important objective – it makes the staff, the students and their parents happy and proud to be associated with it.
Difficult to emulate?
In the past, you could see a clear class divide in Delhi’s government schools. There was a total disconnect between principals earning six-figure salaries and students’ parents, most of them daily wage earners, being barely able to approach them or involve themselves in their kids’ education in any manner. But their empowerment through parent-teacher discussions (School Monitoring Committees) began to change things around. Parents became active participants and the accountability of the school increased. In the past, these same parents would face a hard time entering their children’s schools.
Here’s my question to India’s political class: Which of these actions for the betterment of the education system is difficult to put in place? And why hasn’t this happened more and more across India? I am sure a lot has been done in the field of education in other parts of India but perhaps not as comprehensively as the AAP government has done in Delhi. Bihar, under Nitish Kumar’s first term, introduced free bicycles to young girls to ride to schools. This played a big role in his re-election in 2010.
And if Delhi wants to take it to the next level, it shall have to revise the curriculum in a manner that helps the students. The new AAP government would do well to reduce the syllabus and put in place more activities. It would also do well to modify the pedagogy being practised. Any political party that pays heed shall reap many advantages, including political.
The author is the former vice-chancellor of the University of Delhi, a distinguished mathematician and an educationist. Views are personal.