“Changing things is not rocket science. But nobody cares”

Aam Aadmi Party's (AAP's) candidate for the East Delhi constituency Atishi on why voters should choose her as their MP


Deexa Khanduri | October 3, 2018 | Delhi

#general elections   #Delhi education   #Lok Sabha polls   #2019 elections   #Atishi Marlena   #Atishi   #AAP   #Aam Aadmi Party  
Atishi (Photo: Arun Kumar)
Atishi (Photo: Arun Kumar)

The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) has chosen Atishi as its candidate for the East Delhi constituency in the 2019 elections. The activist known for the transformation she wrought in state government-run schools in Dehi talks about why she thinks voters should choose her as their MP.  

What are the major challenges of the East Delhi parliamentary constituency?
One of the significant challenges, not only of East Delhi, but of Delhi as a whole, is the multiplicity of agencies. The constitution has given Delhi a special status: it’s both a Union Territory and the capital, it’s partly ruled by a state government, partly by the central government. The nature of its administration, too, is unique. We have multiple agencies: the Delhi Development Authority (DDA), the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD), Delhi police (which is under the union home ministry), and some departments with the centre. Some affairs are handled by the office of the lieutenant governor. More than half of Delhi’s problems are because of the multiplicity of agencies. Let me give you an instance. Two years back, the chief minister called a meeting on mohalla sabhas. The MCD sent a senior official, the police sent their representative, but the DDA sent a low-level official, an accountant! And the state government can’t even question the DDA on this.
How does this affect development?
There’s a state government proposal for a superspeciality multipurpose hospital on Yamuna Pushta road, but the DDA has not allotted land. Despite all efforts by the government and the local MLA, the DDA is not responding. As a result, people in East Delhi don’t have a single superspeciality hospital. How many times has the local MP (Maheish Girri, of the BJP) raised the matter or asked why land has not been allocated? Crime statistics has it that the most snatchings happen in East Delhi. I have been holding sabhas and visiting many of those parts but have never spotted a police van. East Delhi is densely populated, but most of the police is deployed in Lutyens’ Delhi. Why? Are the police meant only for protecting VIPs? What about the security of the common man? How many issues has Girri raised with the PMO, the home ministry, or even in parliament, in the last four years?
How can an MP make a difference?
If the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) could get all seven parliamentary seats in Delhi, its MPs can raise several issues in parliament – law and order, administration, safety, security and so on. Earlier, there were thana-level committees in the city, headed by MLAs. Once the AAP government took charge of Delhi, the BJP-led central government abolished them. Now, we only have district-level committees, headed by MPs (all seven of them are from the BJP). These MPs, of course, can do much, and the Delhi police is answerable to these committees. The AAP government has been trying to improve things in the state and these committees can surely help in improving communication between the government and the police. But are they doing so? Both the state government and the MPs have been elected to raise their people’s issues on their respective platforms. But I don’t hear any voice in parliament. Why? 
Any particular instance of an MP having more power than the elected state government in a matter that needed urgent action?
On September 13, a 10-year-old girl was thrashed and raped near Smriti Park, near the Mayur Vihar Phase-III area. The park road is under the DDA. The local MLA, Manoj Kumar of the AAP, has repeatedly taken up the issue with the DDA but to no avail. Even after the rape, the DDA has not taken up the matter. And the MLA cannot use his funds to have a light installed on that particular road since DDA has jurisdiction over it. My question is: where was the local MP (of the BJP) all this time? If he had raised the issue with the prime minister, the union home minister, or in parliament, there is no way the matter would have been ignored. Changing things is not rocket science. But nobody cares. We had given school management committees the power to question teachers and they have effectively used these powers to improve the functioning of government schools. Well, an MP is far more powerful than these committees, belonging as he does to the highest law-making institution of the country.

Lighting up the blackboard

Atishi speaks about the challenges she overcame to brighten Delhi’s govt schools

In 2015, we did not begin by stating a problem or drawing up a blueprint of the problem and thinking up possible solutions. In our manifesto, we confidently wrote about changing the face of government schools. But we found the task much more onerous than we supposed.

Illustration: Ashish Asthana
In our early visits to government schools, we couldn’t help noticing how pathetic they were. The stink from the toilets greeted you right at the school gates. Nothing was in place: drinking water, classrooms, blackboards, desks, rest rooms, staff rooms, the buildings themselves. It wasn’t just a matter of infrastructure. No one was interested in taking care of the school – not the principal, not the teachers, not the students, not the ancillary staff. They were performing their duties merely for form’s sake. The situation was worst in the schools of East and North-East Delhi. Not the staff’s fault, entirely. For example, there were 176 students in one particular class; even the best teacher will not be able to focus on teaching.

What we noticed, anyone else could have seen. It wasn’t rocket science. We realised that we needed to put the basics in place: infrastructure, cleanliness, quality of education. Did no one notice the mess before, I wonder.

We spent one and a half years on just cleaning up the schools. At a school in Jahangirpuri, we found some students sitting on the floor and some on desks. The desks were usually cleaned by the students occupying them. The unoccupied desks remained dusty. The unspoken message was, “Gareebon ke bachchey hain, kahin par bhi baith jayenge. Kya fark padega? (These are children of the poor. They’ll sit anywhere. What difference does it make?)” They come from places that are filthy, so where’s the need for keeping their schools clean?

In September 2015, after the inspection of a school in Alipur, we suspended a deputy director of education and sacked a principal. Deputy chief minister Manish Sisodia led the surprise check that resulted in this action. (The official was suspended for not having inspected the school for six months; the principal lost his job after staffers’ two-wheelers were found parked inside a classroom.) But we didn’t want this stern message to give headaches to principals, who work under severe constraints: administration, operations, and staffing, in addition to the main work of education. To reduce principals’ burdens, the government hired retired personnel on contracts and deployed them as estate managers who would ensure that schools remained clean.

Next, we set up school monitoring committees (SMCs), which would oversee schools. They would also ensure that schools adhered to Right to Education law. Twelve of the 16 members of these committees are voted in by parents from among themselves. The other four members are the principal, one teacher, the local MLA, and a social activist of the area nominated by the state government. Members have two-year terms. In government schools, unlike in private schools, there is a class difference between principals (who at senior secondary school level earn around '1 lakh monthly) and parents, who earn '5,000-10,000 monthly. Because of this divide, parents would find it difficult to question or even interact with principals. Here, SMCs would help bridge the communication barrier and allow parents to voice their concerns before the principal and other staff. SMC members remain connected through WhatsApp groups. We monitor these groups.

In December 2015, during winter holidays, extra classes were organised. SMCs monitored them. In January, at a school in Laxmi Nagar, a teacher was found to have signed the attendance register for the 5th, 6th, 7th and 8th on the 5th itself. A photograph of the attendance register was circulated on the group, and within 45 minutes, a district level officer reached the school to investigate. The message was clear: SMC members are not to be taken lightly. In fact, SMC members are our eyes and ears.

Another focus area was education and curriculum. The challenge was not to bring students to school but to make them learn. According to NGO Pratham’s Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) figures, 74 percent of class VI students of government schools can’t read their textbooks. The findings of a national assessment survey by the human resource development ministry are similarly unencouraging. The earlier government failed to acknowledge this crisis. We rolled out the Chunauti 2018 programme: the deputy chief minister pledged on Teachers’ Day, September 5, that by November 14, Children’s Day, its teachers would make all class 6-8 students capable of reading their textbooks.

We enhanced the learning experience with educational videos and activities such as drawing, tracing out words, making photo-story worksheets. Students responded with rapid progress, from first recognising letters, then making sense of words, and then stringing them together into sentences. There was quiet determination in classrooms, among teachers and students alike. It powered children on their journey from being non-readers to readers.

Earlier, government school teachers would be embarrassed to speak about their jobs, because they were known to be made to do all kinds government fieldwork, such as Aadhaar seeding, census duty, election duty, surveys, immunisation drives, and so on. We believe the core of educational improvement lies in building teachers’ capacity. So we started investing in teacher training programmes. We sent teachers and principals to the best universities in the world: Harvard, Cambridge, Oxford, the National Institute of Education, Singapore, universities in Finland, essentially countries known for their pioneering teaching methods. We ensured that in calibre, teaching aptitude, content knowledge and pedagogy skills, government school teachers are as good as those at private schools. For this, we raised the budget for teacher training from Rs 10 crore to Rs 100 crore. It was a breakthrough: the quality of education in government schools has improved; hitherto infamous for their poor teaching and by-rote methods, school teachers are now keeping abreast of contemporary knowledge in their domain areas and improving their pedagogic skills.

In 2018, we introduced a happiness curriculum from class I to VIII. Education is much more than just reciting what’s written in books. Children must grow into well-evolved adults with ethics and sensitivity. Happiness classes help children reflect on their attitude and what they deeply feel about themselves.

We need to focus more on taking learning beyond the classroom by including more extra-curricular activities in government schools. This year on, schools have started organising clubs for languages, painting, drama and other activities. The idea is to create and sustain the excitement of learning in students.

Why should Delhiites choose you?
One of the things the people of Delhi have realised is that Modi’s people are not letting Arvind Kejriwal’s government function and they sympathise with us. In the Lok Sabha elections of 2019, the people of Delhi will have to choose between two kinds of candidates: one, who are never seen or heard and know nothing about their constituencies, but work hard to prevent the AAP government from functioning; two, those who will strengthen the hand of the state government so that peoples’ issues can be raised in parliament.
Aren’t Lok Sabha elections about prominent faces and waves, such as the ‘Modi wave’ of 2014, rather than candidates per se?
Wave ke election baar-baar nahin hote. Achche din hamesha nahin hote. (Election waves do not always repeat themselves. ‘Achche din’ aren’t forever.)
What makes you feel so sure?
On September 16, I addressed a sabha of some 50 people in Patparganj village. I asked them who was the local MP and 80 percent of them had no idea! In four years, no one had heard the name of Maheish Girri, and no one had any idea of what he has done for the people.
You have been associated with the successful improvement of state government-run schools. How do you think an MP can play a role in the education sector?
Education policies are being debated and framed by those who do not have a background in education. The ‘no detention’ policy, and so on. Otherwise, they are more concerned about removing this chapter or that. So the education system is in a crisis. If the real issues of schools and students can be debated in parliament, it will matter to the whole nation. Parliament is not a small forum. The reforms in Delhi’s state government-run schools have been praised and are receiving worldwide acknowledgement. Why can’t this be discussed in parliament? The whole nation can learn from it,  and yes, it matters. 
(The interview appears in October 15, 2018 edition)



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