Thursday, August 17, 2017

The Right Questions

The other day we had this guest faculty who was talking about the correlation of physical activity and health, and how sports play a pivotal role in one's health prospects. To exemplify the dismal status and prejudiced mindsets in our country, he shared an interesting anecdote.
~In India, when parents meet, they ask,"What does your kid study? Where does he study? What percentage he got?". Once I was in Australia and talking to this friend of mine. He told me that when parents meet here, they ask,"What does your kid play?"

भारत का स्वर्णिम गौरव

आज हमें केंद्रीय विद्यालय संगठन के मुख्य कार्यालय में जाने का सौभाग्य प्राप्त हुआ और वहाँ दिए गए विवरण से ज्ञात हुआ की केंद्रीय विद्यालयों के छात्र किन किन उचाईयों को छू रहे है। उसके पश्चात् हम एक केंद्रीय विद्यालय में गए और वहाँ के छात्रों की प्रतिभा ने सभी का मन जीत लिया।
क्यूंकि मेरा पूरा शिक्षण केंद्रीय विद्यालय में ही हुआ है, मेरे लिए वो बहुत ही भावात्मक क्षण थे। आशा है की इसी तरह ये केंद्रीय विद्यालय आगे बढ़ते रहे। अंत में मैं वो खास शब्द आपके समक्ष रखना चाहूंगा जिन्होंने हमेशा ही मुझे सतत आगे बढ़ते रहने के लिए प्रेरित किया है....
भारत का स्वर्णिम गौरव, केंद्रीय विद्यालय लाएगा,
तक्षशिला नालंदा का, इतिहास लौट के आएगा।
तन अनेक पर एक प्राण, स्वर अनेक पर एक गान,
हम कण कण पर छा जायेंगे, बन कर भारत का स्वाभिमान।।

Innocence of antiquity

Often we come across these places which are the epicenters of nostalgia. Schools are one such exemplar. Today, we were among a talented bunch of 8 graders when they were being given some routine instructions for attempting a test and the sheer intensity of their attention struck a deep chord.
Children are such wonderful listeners with their unwavering gaze upon the speaker. With unprejudiced eyes and unblemished naivety, they convey their utterance. I wonder when do we lose it while growing up? What happened to that immutable smile, that enduring energy? That embracing of opinions, that affable guise. That innocence of antiquity!

Sunday, August 13, 2017

IAS Diaries Part 19- Toilet: Ek Prem Katha

Perhaps you all would remember having read about this unique newspaper item some years ago when a bride left her in-law's place just after marriage because there was no toilet in that house. Her name was Priyanka Bharti. One could only imagine how difficult it would have been for her to be the outcast, to defy the social compulsions in that overwhelmingly conservative set up and to stand up against the ubiquitous indifference to right to dignity. That one act of valor has inspired thousands of girls and women across the country to speak out loud against the prevailing beliefs supporting open defecation. Priyanka Bharti was later felicitated by Sulabh International which also helped in the construction of a toilet at her in-law's place.

Inspired by these events, we finally have a feature film "Toilet: Ek Prem Katha (TEPK)" now showing across the country ensuring that the inspirational resolve of that iron lady in propagated to all the nook and corners of the nation. We, the IAS batch of 2015, were fortunate to be around in the capitol for the premier show of this movie also attended by the cast of the movie. In the inaugural comments, I really liked one thing that Akshay Kumar emphasized strongly. He said and I quote, "I do not care what money this film makes but I really want this movie to be seen by all the people in all the villages and other rural areas. It is only during the making that I came across the troubles of these women for a thing which is so trivial to us".

When I first saw the trailer of this movie, there were several pointers which had gushed in. It would certainly be an arduous task to pull in the urban audience for whom the availability of a toilet is sort of granted. They do not see it as something worth of debating leave aside making a movie out of it. Moreover, this section seemed much amused with the title of the film. The real impact of such a feature would only be in the rural areas which still is not that much into the institution of weekend movie outings fueled by popcorn and aerated artificially sweetened drinks. The other challenge perhaps would be screenplay as it would always revolve around that one watershed moment of truth.

But as it turns out, the movie is an all out entertainer and not simply a documentary depicting the rebellious acts of a women single-handedly taking on the archaic shackles of the society restricting one to construct toilets at home in the name of purity. Bhumi Pednekar's portrayal of Jaya, a spirited young girl from a village, is exceedingly real and persuasive. The resolve to continue her fight at the cost of jeopardizing her personal equations is evident in her body language. And, of course people are talking about the kind of weight she has lost, so much so that what is trending these days in diet circles is #LoseItLikeBhumi.

The bro-duo of Akshay Kumar and Divyendu Sharma is electrically comic at times. And that perhaps helps to make a case for an entertaining start as it is paramount that you win the hearts first in order to successfully pass on relevant gyan later. On that note, I must mention movies like 3 Idiots, Lage raho Munna Bhai etc who had a deep and ultra relevant social message to convey to the people but at the same time they ensured that the same is wrapped beautifully in a hilarious cover up. Same is the case with TEPK.

Another gem of a performance is by Sudhir Pandey who plays the deeply orthodox father who would not let his aging son marry for the want of a girl who must have two thumbs on one particular hand. The concreteness of ritualism and the undying faith in the customs is categorically evident in his protruding eyeballs. The enduring tussle between his ingrained belief and the prospective customary dereliction by his son is more than apparent in his evolving and frustratingly difficult demeanor. Through him, the director Shree Narayan Singh brings home an important point. He is unable to empathize with the predicament faced by his daughter-in-law and by women in general but when circumstances corner his mother, it hits him hard. One only realizes the immense power of gravity when one takes the free fall himself/herself. A very fundamental flaw with most of us.

Some people would surely feel that the lath-mar Holi sequences and the whole love establishment efforts were unnecessary and uncalled for. At this juncture, one must ponder upon the unyielding idea of monolithic story telling to find the obvious answers. Taking all that together, I feel it is a very balanced and entertaining approach to convey a quintessential point regarding sanitation. The movie takes into account the various stigmas pertaining to sanitation and takes them down head on.From my experiences in the field, I am sure it would act as that medium to quench the thirst of ritualistic sections opposing the idea of toilets at home. It would also motivate thousands of women and girls to raise their voices in unison who are forced to go out in those wee hours to relieve themselves. We must ensure that all those Baujis get a chance to watch this path-setting tale of a determined Bahu.

In times when the tide of Swacha Bharat Abhiyaan is making a great impact on the shore of our civilization, TEPK is an important wave we mustn't dodge.

Saturday, July 29, 2017

IAS Diaries Part 18 - Education Reforms in Rajasthan

Ever since we joined as Assistant Secretaries in the Department of School Education and Literacy, HRD Ministry, we had been showered with impelling tales and snippets about novel Education reforms underway in the state of Rajasthan. And recently we were fortunate to get this opportunity to travel to Jaipur and to see for ourselves, what these reforms actually were and what impact they were making on the ground. And as I sat pondering before embarking upon the return journey, I was more than sure that whatever had been said till now, was simply not ample. There was so much more to it that other states must know so that they create their own models to rekindle their education setups.

On our way to the Govt. Sr. Sec. School Nimodiya, Tonk Road, I was reminded of my travels during the district training in Sonitpur, Assam. Multitude of small Primary Schools mushroomed across the landscape of the Bramhaputra Valley with petty enrollments. There were even some single-teacher schools devoid of optimal functioning. But given the limitations of the central pool of resources, more outlets meant less for everybody. Few years ago even Rajasthan was grappling with similar issues where they had several such schools with single digit enrollment. And then came the idea of restructuring of schools eventually paving the way for a harmonious integration process.

Imagine Scenario A  where you have several Primary Schools in the vicinity with 02 teachers only and abysmally low enrollment. Apart from that you have a Secondary school with 4-6 teachers. The Primary Schools are structured in such a way that there would be no Head master/Principle to monitor and mentor the teachers. The monitoring is done by the Block level officer who sits far across and has too much on his plate to effectively deal with all these schools. The teachers of these Primary Schools have no one to look up too. Since the school base is low, so would be the resources at hand. The parents also would be constantly haunted by the apprehensions over migration to a Secondary school later as the kids progress in isolation.

Now Imagine Scenario B, where all such smaller Primary Schools in a Panchayat which are located nearby are merged together along with the one Secondary/ Sr Secondary school. Now you have the Head master/Principal of the Secondary School looking after all the teachers including those who were part of the stand alone Primary Schools. Now you have the common set of resources to be shared and utilized optimally by all these schools. Now you have junior and senior teachers interacting and facilitation of cross-learning happening across peer groups. Now you have the convergence of SSA and RMSA funds enabling them to innovate beyond. Moreover, it streamlines the migration of students from primary to secondary so that we minimize the dropouts. In a larger setup, the students also gain confidence to communicate better as it gives them the opportunity to interact with the senior classes. Restructuring process in Rajasthan is about moving from Scenario A to Scenario B. These integrated schools are envisioned in every Panchayat and they are being tagged as Adarsh Schools.

Along with the branding of these integrated schools, an array of other initiatives had also been undertaken. Now the Head Masters/Principals of these schools had suddenly the task of handling an enhanced number of students and teachers across platforms. For that, they were empowered with high level leadership modules conducted at the state level to ensure they have the necessary tools to administer this new role effectively. But there was a more fundamental predicament to effective monitoring that had been the major irritant in the past as well. The control of all these schools from the block office was a lost battle already. The sheer gigantic volume and the geographical spread made it almost a non performer.. Here came an important structural change which would decentralize monitoring to the Panchayat level. These Head Masters/Principals were also made the PEEO (Panchayat Elementary Education Officer). Now since they only had 4-5 other schools to look after and the fact that they were all close distance, monitoring process was revolutionized. The principals also felt empowered with these additional responsibilities which raised their morale to a new high.

In one of these Adarsh Schools, we sat listening to the Principal, Shri Om Prakash Vijay Ji,  who so proudly and enthusiastically enlisted the several other smaller steps which have supplemented this reform story. He insisted that we take a detailed look at this online portal "Shala Darpan" made by the state itself to facilitate data inputs for decision making. He swiftly takes out a Portable Wifi Device from his pocket, connects it to the desktop in his office and logs in into that portal. As he explained to us how he uses all these information tools, I was overwhelmed by the penetration of technology even in these rural interiors and how it is empowering people like him to be more effective in their pursuits. Shala Darpan portal has been slowly developed step by step and it is interesting to note that no formal training sessions were imparted. The principals and teachers have learnt it on their own as it is such an useful and user-friendly interface.

On one wall of his room, there was this large poster with photographs, educational qualifications and other details of all the teachers and staff in the school. This brings transparency and helps the parents to know who are the teachers nurturing their children. There were several other small posters on the other walls regarding the Parent-Teacher meetings where in you see large scale publicity of these meetings. Rajasthan has innovated this new model for these meetings wherein they make it a state level festival by scheduling these meets on the same day across the entire state. And therefore, riding on the colossal fervor of its grandeur, almost all parents attend these meetings. A great solution to ensure participation.

Outside his room, there was this box labelled Akshay Petika mounted on a little table securely locked over it's two tinny latches. It is meant to facilitate local level donations for the schools wherein the parents, visitors and simply anyone can go and put in any tiny amount for the development of the school. The locks are opened in the supervision of the School Management Committee (SMC) and thereafter they also decide how best they could utilize these funds for the betterment of the schools. There are several other Principals from across the state who are putting in special efforts to take their schools forward. They are creating alumni databases and are contacting them  with the issues faced by their Alma mater. Recently one such school got a donation of 5 lacs INR from one such alumnus.

Another wonderful reform is the conceptualization of SIQE (State Initiative for Quality Education) which is a state level modification over the several existing systems of evaluation and continuous learning prescribed at the national level. The fundamental idea behind is that a single framework of teaching does not fit all. All the students are different in terms of their capabilities and their strengths lie in varying domains as well. Ergo in this setup, an initial benchmarking of students is done and they are divided into several grades such as A, B, C and D etc. This classification is kept confidential as far as the students are concerned but of course the parents are made privy to it. The students from the lower grades are given extra support so that they can come onboard with the others. The number of students idling in the last grade is linked to the performance assessment of the teacher which in turn incentivizes him to do the needful.

On the note of integration of schools, one additional facet that needs to be highlighted is the inclusion of Anganwadi Centers (AWCs) in these schools. Often we come across isolated AWCs where the basic amenities are missing. Sometimes even the physical structures are absent and they are run in the houses of the caretakers.There was no way to ensure that they were functioning as per prescribed norms. Under this intervention, those AWCs which did not have the infrastructure and were within a certain distance from these schools, where hence given space inside the school campus itself. This is doing wonderfully well for several obvious reasons. The caretakers are feeling motivated to be part of a larger setup where they are getting all kind of support and guidance from the teachers and principals. The kids are motivated as their elder brothers and sisters are also around. Moreover, the facilities of the schools can also be shared with the AWC. The admission into the Primary school would become streamlined as the prospective kids are already in the loop. This structural innovation is also being replicated across India by taking inspiration from Rajasthan.

Apart from the regular schools, we have these Swami Vivekanand Model schools conceptualized for every block having the highest standards of teaching, infrastructure and opportunities. These are fully funded by the state itself in terms of the recurring expenditure and given the commendable performance in recent years, there has been a reverse migration of sorts from private schools. In one of the classes, when we asked them how many came from private schools, almost all of them raised their hands. They showcase the kind of magical results you can realize when you provide the best of facilities to these talented young guns of the rural localities. With shades of the JNV model, these schools come as boon to the low-icome group parents aspiring quality education. Similar role is being played by the KGBVs and the Sharda Girls Hostel scheme ensuring that the girls do not drop out because of household chores.

Towards the conclusion of our enlightening voyage, we also got the opportunity to interact and listen to Naresh Gangwar Sir (Education Secretary, Govt. of Rajasthan) who is the man behind this revolution in school education Rajasthan is witnessing. To read more about his education initiatives, CLICK HERE. At the very outset, he shared this brilliant anecdote which perhaps relates not only to education but to everything in the government or otherwise. Every problem can be reduced to the Highway-Car-Driver analogy. We have a bad road in front of us, a worn-out vehicle and an unskilled driver. And most of the time, we try to solve the issue by replacing the car as that's the most convenient thing to do. But the road is still damaged and the driver hasn't gotten any better. We need to upgrade the highway and we need to skill the driver. Of course it would take many fold the effort that would go to replace the car but there is no other way. So let's get our acts together and let's mend our Highway.

Inspired by the positive winds of change Education is witnessing in Rajasthan, I quote John F. Kennedy...

“Our progress as a nation can be no swifter than our progress in education. The human mind is our fundamental resource.”