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Called the ‘architect of educational reforms in Delhi Government schools’ in recent years, Atishi tells us about her vision and work in a very warm, engaging interview.
“After a lot of activism and work at the grassroots level, I realized that things weren’t changing while working in those roles. Be it as someone helping NGOs in the social sector, or as an activist leading movements, ‘duniya waheen ki waheen thi’ (the world was still there). There was a need for change, but I wasn’t able to move things.”
That’s how she describes her motivation to join politics. Meet Atishi, the 37-year-old social activist, educator, and politician, whom I spoke with last week, on a rainy morning in Delhi at her AAP office having been connected through Saajha, a non-profit part of the Delhi government’s Schools Reforms initiative. Atishi reflected on her journey, the process of reforms at Delhi government schools, the Happiness Curriculum and much more…
Often called the ‘architect of educational reforms in Delhi Government schools’, Atishi comes across as a very simple and down to earth individual, with a sharp focus, and a strong vision determined to bring transformation at the grassroots level.
A young and dynamic woman, full of confidence and positivity, Atishi is an Indian politician – she is a member of the Political Affairs Committee of the Aam Aadmi Party(AAP) – educator, and social activist. She was earlier the Advisor to the Delhi Deputy Chief Minister Mr Manish Sisodia, from July 2015-April 2018. In that capacity, she has worked in the education domain, where she was the driving force behind quite a few aspects of the Delhi government’s Schools Reforms project.
Atishi was removed from the Advisory post by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs in April 2018,and this had kindled a lot of backlash on social media against the Union government. Currently, she has been appointed as the AAP candidate for East Delhi constituency for the 2019 Lok Sabha elections.
Springdale, St Stephen’s, Oxford, Rishi Valley, working in rural Madhya Pradesh, and then politics: I ask her if activism was always within her?
Atishi admits, “Activism was definitely always there in the family. Then I had been working in rural MP for 4-5 years when the IAC (India against Corruption) movement started. I had a lot of questions about grassroots change, and at the same time, AAP formation was happening, which for me represented the voice of people in many ways. These two developments paved my path into politics”
Recently announced to be the party candidate for the 2019 general elections from the East Delhi constituency, I am curious to know more. Now that she is truly into it, does she feel that politics is the answer for changes to happen?
Atishi answers, “It will be a little bit arrogant to say that it is the only way, but yes it is the most effective, and an important way. Politicians make the most important decisions related to our lives. What kind of schools our children are studying in, what kind of health care we have, what kind of water comes out of our taps, what kind of air we breathe, what kind of jobs are generated – there are all these decisions which are important to our lives. So yes, Politics is very important for impactful changes.”
So how has this process of educational reforms at the Delhi government schools been like?
Reminiscing about the last few years and how the School Reforms story started, Atishi confesses, “When we first formed the government in 2015, there were two things. Firstly, we earnestly wanted change, but didn’t know how to do it. Secondly, we didn’t have that much of an idea as to how bad the situation actually was. From the fact that the toilets were filthy, that there were blocked sewers, that lack of running water, to the fact that there wasn’t any drinking water, there were broken blackboards, children sitting on the floors, broken fans and lights,… it really was too much! It was also very overwhelming. Agar aap school saaf nahin rakh sakte to aap padhai kya karaoge? (if you can’t keep the school clean, how would you make students study)?”
No wonder then, that the foremost thing which needed to be fixed on a priority basis was the infrastructure and maintenance in the government schools. “Because, if the school is not clean, what is the message? Message to the children coming to these schools was that no one cares for you, you are second class citizens. You don’t have any future. Message to the teachers was that the government doesn’t take these institutions seriously, why should you take the children seriously? So really, sorting some of these basics out was our first priority.”
“For the first time, people started realizing: ‘achcha, school saaf na rakhna itni serious baat hai kya? (is ‘not keeping the school clean’ such a serious issue?)’ Also, the subtext in all this was ‘yeh to garibon ke bacche hain, inko kya zarrorat hai safai ki ya achche education ki? (these are the kids of poor people, why do they need clean schools or a good education?)’ They themselves come from filthy places, so what’s the need for clean schools?” says Atishi about the various difficulties and challenges.
Talking about the phased approach to tackle the apathy and systemic neglect of government schools in the past few years, she says, “We went on a war footing, making sure the schools were clean. Inspections, suspensions, hiring of new sanitation contractors, close supervision of men and materials, penalties on the violation, and getting community participation. In a week’s time, we got 1000 schools inspected, with the help of community participation and the use of technology. And believe me, it was not rocket science, but something which had never been paid attention to. It was for the first time; we sent a visible message that schools cannot be treated like filth, and that we cared for these institutions. This clear messaging brought about a change in the culture at these schools.”
In the last few years, the Delhi government has made major improvements to the government school infrastructure by adding some 8000 new classrooms, and around 10,000 more which are in various stages of being built, apart from introducing new technology and equipment in these schools.
“Till now, the message to the teachers from various governments earlier had been – ‘government school ka teacher free resource hai, kahin bhi laga lo‘ (a government school teacher is a free resource, can be used anywhere) and that academics is not their serious business!” says Atishi.
But no educational reform is complete without teachers, as they are important stakeholders in the process. So what was done to make teachers a part of the reform process?
“We have invested a lot in our teachers and their training, treating them with dignity and respect. From removing all kinds of useless duties from their To-do list – Aadhar seeding, Immunization, Family register etc. to making them focus on their development and academics. There was so much overhead of duties and hence where was the time and focus on teaching? We also sent hundreds of teachers and principals to world-class training at Cambridge, Harvard, IIMs and Singapore which has given them exposure to world-class workshops.
Recognizing revival and the empowerment of SMCs (School Management Committees) as another major reform, Atishi says, “I don’t think we could have effectively changed the situation in every school at the grassroots level if the parent participation through SMCs hadn’t happened.”
RTE (Right to Education) 2009 recognizes SMC as a critical bridge between schools and the community, which also plays the role of providing oversight, to ensure all basic requirements are met. Atishi shares, “Though the concept was there on paper, it had never been implemented in the true sense. We brought about a proper process where SMC members were elected, parents given nominations, and the full parent community came out to vote. We empowered them to take on inspections of mid-day meals, cleanliness of schools etc., such that they felt a part of the process. Also, we ensured that every SMC had a representative from the MLA department as well as a social worker, so this changed the balance of power in schools. From a voiceless group to a forum where a representative from the MLA office is attending the meet, equations changed, and results started to become visible, which in turn led to change in the culture of schools.“
The recently initiated Happiness Curriculum in the Delhi government schools has been in a lot of conversations. I congratulate Atishi on the successful launch and a very positive feedback about the curriculum. I am curious to know what her thoughts are on having something like this implemented in all schools, especially since India ranked at 133rd position on the World Happiness Index 2018.
Atishi smiles, “I think, ‘hum to pehle kar lein’( let us do it first). Yes, it is an absolute need today. We stay in a society where children are committing suicide, are depressed, and need to manage stress. Now, this is particularly important for children coming to government schools, as they come from backgrounds with great adversity. Sometimes from places where they have a single parent, experience domestic abuse, alcoholism, and violence on a daily basis. So even to perform academically well, they need some kind of social and emotional well being before studies can happen. So the Happiness Curriculum is a must! And with respect to having it in private schools, we are hoping for a day soon when everyone studies in government schools.” (ends with a wistful smile!)
Last year when Plan India, a leading non-profit working for the underprivileged children especially girls came out with a unique assessment tool – GVI (Gender Vulnerability Index), Delhi ranked the lowest on the Education dimension across all Indian states. Delhi’s performance on the Health dimension too was unsatisfactory along with Protection and Poverty. Clearly, the situation is worse for girls and women, and Atishi doesn’t deny this.
“Once, I was at a government school and in the assembly, we asked ‘tum mein se kitno ke bhai private school mein padhte hain?’ (how many of you have their brothers going to private schools?) 85% of girls raised their hands, and that was shocking! If families can afford to send just one child to private schools, they still send their sons.“
I ask her about the reforms vis-a-vis girl students.
“You see, interestingly, improvement in health care and education has the greatest impact on marginalized sections in society to specifically include girls, and they represent the highest percentage of people who access education in these government schools. I think, that the one thing for sure that we are going to achieve through this project on schools is that we are definitely going to transform the lives of a generation of girls studying in Delhi government schools. There are a lot of other basic things which need to be in place like clean toilets, supply of sanitary napkins, access to healthcare, and we are focussing on all that. This all is going to empower women”.
And how are the health reforms impacting women?
Shares Atishi, “If you look at something as simple as healthcare, a common sociological phenomenon is that an Indian woman will not go to visit a doctor for herself unless absolutely necessary. She will take her children, her parents, and in-laws, tell her husband to go to a doctor, but not spend money on herself. And that’s how illnesses become worse over the years. Now with mohalla clinics, which we have set up especially to facilitate health care for women, free healthcare, and medicines, far more women are coming out and using these services. Recently, the Centre for Civil Society did a study, and they found out that 75% of people coming to these mohalla clinics were women. This, I think, is going to go a long way with respect to reforms related to women.“
Atishi perceives that politics is challenging for women because one is walking off the beaten path. Yet, she is optimistic and happy sharing examples of how ordinary women are coming ahead by virtue of their involvement in SMCs. “So to give you an example, in Kirari in Delhi, there is this SMC leader and her house is just next to the school. She is an ordinary Muslim woman whom you would always see in a burqaa. So she tells me with pride about how she keeps an eye on the school from her home which is on the second floor, even while doing her daily chores. ‘assembly theek se ho rahee hai kya, guards duty par hain kya, aur agar kuch gadbad lagti hai mein school pahunch jaati hoon..’.(is everything going fine in the assembly, are the guards on duty, if I observe anything improper, I just reach school in a moment). I think this really is a success story of women coming ahead and taking charge; you have empowered them and let them be a part of the process, and now they are leading the change.”
I ask her what her message is to the young and aspiring women who would read her interview.
“There are two things I want to tell them. Firstly, there are enough people who want to dampen a woman’s confidence. ’Tum aisa nahin kar sakti, tumhein yeh nahin karna chahiya’ (you can’t do this or you should not do that). My message to all the girls even when I visit schools is ‘tum sab kar sakti ho (you can do everything!)’ So to each woman reading this interview: you can achieve anything, let not anyone dampen your dreams and aspirations.
Secondly, as women, we have seen what it means to be marginalized and face difficult circumstances, and so it is a greater responsibility on us to go out and transform the world!”
Amidst an engaging and a warm conversation, I don’t realize that it’s time for her to move to the next appointment in her schedule. Atishi says, “In the past three and a half years we have been able to transform the schools in Delhi, despite working in difficult circumstances, and within a lot of constraints. Yet it took us such little time to make a lot of change. That has given me the confidence that changing the country is not a fifty or a hundred year project, but can be done in ten years if you have the right people in the right decision making positions.”
As I wind up, I am not just inspired but also filled with a sense of hope and belief. But before I leave, I am curious to know the Atishi sans her activism and politics, so I ask her what her hobbies are. She bursts into laughter, “Or the lack thereof. There was a time when I was a lot into reading books. Then I switched to newspapers and magazines, and now I just read WhatsApp messages. But I love reading philosophy and psychology books. In fact, I even enjoy thrillers, both to read and watch. (smiles).
I bid her adieu, wishing her the very best in all her future endeavours, and hoping that more people like her join and lead the reform process in the country!
Images source: Atishi and Anjali Sharma
An engineer and a telecom business professional, Anjali Gurmukhani Sharma is a Delhi University rank
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