Monday, December 21, 2015

Smriti Irani responds, in detail :)

Imagine your thrill when a Cabinet minister responds to your questions! Smriti Irani was gracious enough to respond to my questionnaire published on MyInd Makers. Here are her detailed responses, published on MyInd too. 

Editor’s Note: Recently, MyInd Columnist S. Sudhir Kumar watched the much talked about interview of Union HRD Minister Smriti Irani with Barkha Dutt. After watching the interview, he felt dismayed and disappointed. He sent us a set of questions that he felt should have been asked to the Minister that would have helped us understand how HRD Ministry was functioning under Ms. Irani’s leadership.

We published those questions on our website and much to our surprise, the honourable Minister immediately responded that she would be delighted to answer the questions. This sealed our belief that Ministers or Administrators would be more than willing to answer tough policy questions provided someone was willing to ask. We thank the honourable Minister for answering all our questions including those that were sent by our readers.

You have recently claimed that separate toilets for boys and girls have been built in all government schools. All within a year!! How was this achieved?

In response to the clarion call made by the Hon’ble Prime Minister on 15th August 2014, the Department of School Education, under the Ministry of Human Resource Development launched the Swachh Vidyalaya initiative in partnership with States & UTs, 64 Public Sector Undertakings (PSUs) and 11 Private Corporates for the construction and repair of toilets in schools. Under Swachh Vidyalaya, 4,17,796 toilet blocks have been constructed or made functional in 2,61,400 schools. This includes even schools in districts that are facing Left Wing Extremism (LWE), in forests and remote mountainous terrain. With this, all 13.77 crore children in 11.21 lakh government schools all over the country now have access to toilet facilities.

To ensure transparency and enable close monitoring, the Swachh Vidyalaya programme conceptualized and developed a collaborative web portal which provided essential data in real time. The web portal, apart from other features, enabled corporates and partners to easily navigate and identify specific locations and schools they wished to support for construction and repair of toilets. It allowed them to pledge financial and in-kind commitments. The Swachh Vidyalaya portal not only helped forge new partnerships, but also enhanced accountability and improved service delivery. The digital solution meant that we could actually see the progress as it happened. The status was seen in real time through Counters and the Progress Bar on the portal. The solution also empowered citizens to partner and track progress.

Further, over 310 Central Observers from various Ministries of Government of India were deputed to visit districts to review the progress of the Swachh Vidyalaya Initiative. These observers visited schools in 443 districts across India and their feedback was of enormous value as they were able to share details of the actual situation on the ground. However, I attribute the success of this initiative to the collaborative spirit with which education is implemented in this country. It is because of the close partnership between the Centre and States that we were able to achieve this humongous target in such a short period.

Constructing toilets is a big step, a good step, but providing water supply and maintaining cleanliness is also very important. How does the government plan to tackle this problem?

Maintenance of these toilets will be critical for use in schools. Generally, the budget of all schemes of the Government of India has a component for capital expenditure and operation expenses. Similarly, as part of the budget of SSA, a School Maintenance Grant, is being approved regularly through the Annual Work Plan. Further an amount of Rs. 50,000 per school under the Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) is provided as annual school grant for secondary schools. Further, my Ministry is working with the Ministry of Panchayati Raj and Ministry of Drinking Water & Sanitation to explore the possibility of institutionalizing a system for ensuring the cleaning and maintenance of school toilets.
Panchayats are expected to play a critical role in providing funding for repair of old toilets in schools as well as for water supply and drainage. In addition, School Management Committees are being encouraged to devise innovative ways for maintenance and cleanliness of school toilets with cooperation of the local community. States are also workingwith Corporates and PSUs, to leverage their corporate social responsibility funds for this purpose. platform that was specially created to communicate with and receive communication from ordinary citizens has seen tens of thousands of inputs for the proposed New Education Policy. We have also heard that you are seeking opinions right from the village level. Can you explain this process?

Unlike the past where the consultative processes have depended on a top-down approach which involved a few experts, the current NEP consultations is undertaking an extensive, time-bound, participatory bottom-up approach. Celebrating the true spirit of democracy, citizens, parents, teachers, administrators, field practitioners, industry, academicians and experts, from across the country, have been invited to actively engage in the policy development process. While 33 themes have been identified to ensure focused deliberations, states were also empowered to add themes critical to their local needs as they deemed fit. The Government’s citizen engagement platform, MyGov, has played a critical role in enabling the inclusive consultations.

Extensive grassroots consultations, which included deliberations by village education committees across 2.5 lakh gram panchayats along with multi-stakeholder meetings in blocks, districts and urban bodies/municipalities, commenced in June 2015. Parents, students, teachers, elected officials, administrators, members of civil society and citizens have actively participated in these meetings, which addressed issues across the 33 themes. Based on the consultation reports, State teams have held state consultations and are in the final stages of submitting their reports to the Centre.

In February this year, I convened a meeting of representatives of various ministries of the Government of India, inviting suggestions for devising curriculum from their perspective as well as providing inputs in terms of employability and manpower requirements. In March, consultations were held with state education ministers and state education secretaries to discuss the consultation process for the formulation of the NEP, in New Delhi. The NEP consultations were also extensively discussed during the CABE meeting in August. This was followed by six zonal meetings during September and October, which were attended by Education Ministers and officials of the respective States/ UTs. I have also had the opportunity to directly interact with district collectors and public representatives across the Nation through video conferencing.

Additionally, various central and state institutions, including UGC, AICTE, Association of Indian Universities (AIU), NCERT, CBSE, the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies (IIAS)-Shimla, Indira Gandhi Open University, Maulana Azad National Urdu University- Hyderabad, Central University of Gujarat, NLMA, Central University of Rajasthan, NUEPA, Central University of Sikkim and National Council for Teach Education, have held national thematic workshops. Over 200 such thematic workshops have been held across the country.

To further support offline consultations, online comments and suggestions were invited across online platforms. Over 29000 citizens have submitted recommendations on Field practitioners have participated in the online consultation process through UN Solutions Exchange (a knowledge management initiative of the UN). Over 15000 students have submitted their suggestions on education in India through CBSE’s portal. Further, UNESCO and the Mahatma Gandhi Institute for Education for Peace, Sustainable Development has undertaken a youth survey on the National Education Policy.

How do you plan to coherently accumulate all these inputs and then evolve an entirely new policy? Isn’t it too chaotic?

The mammoth task of engaging with citizens from all corners of the country has required cooperation and coordination across all political parties, state governments, civil society members and institutions. State education ministers, state education secretaries and district collectors have lead the efforts in their jurisdictions. In addition, 2.5+ lakh executive officers of local bodies are also directly involved in the process.

Further, technology is playing a critical role in the implementation. The team at MyGov has created an online consultation module, which has enabled the upload of reports/recommendation after each consultative meeting. As on December 9th2015, 1,07,865villages, 5337 block, 12871 ULB, 612 district and 12 states reports reflecting their aspirations for education in our country, have already been uploaded on the MyGov platform. The platform also allows for assimilation of recommendations from all levels as well as comparisons across themes.

Lastly, a Committee for Evolution of the New Education Policy has been formed. This committee comprises of distinguished Administrators-Shri T.S.R. Subramanian, Former Cabinet Secretary (Chairman); Smt. Shailaja Chandra, former Chief Secretary, NCT of Delhi; Shri Sevaram Sharma, former Home Secretary, NCT of Delhi; Shri Sudhir Mankad, former Chief Secretary, Gujarat, and Prof. J S Rajput, former Director, NCERT. They have been tasked with drafting the National Education Policy along with a Framework for Action (FFA). The National University of Educational Planning and Administration (NUEPA), New Delhi will assist the Committee, and perform the functions of a Secretariat to the Committee. I am confident that they have the necessary experience and skills to coherently accumulate all the inputs and draft a representative policy.

For far too long, we have debated only about history and social sciences. There is very little focus on the problems that plague our science education right from school to college levels. What is your view and how are you going to tackle this problem?

The Ministry of Human Resource Development has launched the Rashtriya Avishkar Abhiyan(RAA) to motivate and engage children in Science, Mathematics and Technology through observation, experimentation and fructification of ideas through inferences and model-building. Under the Rashtriya Avishkar Abhiyaan, we are working towards systematic improvements in the school system by focusing on teacher preparation for Science, Mathematics and Technology, increasing recruitment of Science and Mathematics teachers and strengthening school science and mathematics laboratories. We have made provisions of additional teaching-learning equipment and supplementary books/materials in classrooms and the use of technology in Science and Mathematics teaching. There is work being done to develop resource materials as well as strengthening institutional support for teachers. Further, Higher Education Institutions have been identified to mentor schools.

RTE or Right to Education is another hotly debated topic on the social media. Sadly, it is not debated much on main stream media. In fact, you have even met with a prominent blogger who has done some phenomenal research on RTE. What, in your view, are the short comings of this law? How do you plan to address them? What are the political implications of such moves? Given your mandate, how much risk are you willing to take on modifying this law?

While the Right to Education Act has many merits, it also comes with its sets of challenges. In particular, the no-detention policy has been widely questioned. In fact, in the last Central for Advisory Board on Education (CABE) meeting, the no-detention policy as mandated by the RTE was deliberated in great detail.  During the meeting, a sub-committee to review this specific aspect of the RTE has been setup and all States have been asked to submit their views. Based on the sub-committee decision, I will initiate further appropriate action. In so far as how much risk am I willing to take, let me put on record that for too long HRD was looked upon through a political prism and ever since I have assumed office my resolve is that whatever is in the best interest of students shall be done.

For far too long, we have heard of a lethargic and a stubborn bureaucracy. Could you shed some light on how your work experience has been so far? Is it easy to push new and innovative ideas within the existing system?

My experience of the last 18 months has been that bureaucracy responds to strong leadership. If a clear vision is laid out, they respond with quick and appropriate action to implement policies and initiatives. I have had the opportunity to work with some excellent officers, who are dedicated to improving the systems. It is because of their cooperation & diligence that some of the innovative ideas of this government are being implemented successfully.  However, one must recognise that change takes time.

There seems to be a wide gap in government's communication strategy. Many feel that the pre 2014 momentum in disseminating information and facts is missing. Some even suggest that some amount of complacency has creeped in. Would you agree/ where do you think the government is faltering when it comes to Communication?

This government still has a strong communication strategy and has been effectively leveraging social media to directly engage with citizens. In fact, now most Ministries and Ministers have social media handles which are active and are being used to respond in real time to concerns of citizens. As recently as 2 days ago, the Minister of Railways, Mr. Prabhu helped students and teachers receive food and water in a delayed train, when they communicated their grievance via twitter. I have personally responded to a number of requests received through social media.
While it may seem that the momentum is disseminating, one must acknowledge that the nature of information being shared is now different. Our job now is to talk about the actual initiatives undertaken by the Government and communicate its impact, while ensuring that the voices of the people are heard. My Ministry has a comprehensive website, which provides updated and actionable information for all stakeholders.

I hope that the social media and other online resources are actively used by citizens to engage with my ministry and myself, along with others in the Government.

9. Primary role of HRD Ministry is education in the country. Digital India is a big initiative of the government. How are you planning to incorporate Digital India in education?
The HRD Ministry endeavours to use ICTs to expand educational opportunities, improve access to information and ensure transparency in implementation.

We are creating a National e-library to support learners by making quality learning resources available freely. We are also in the process of developing a robust Indian platform called SWAYAM, which will flow specially designed MOOCs courses- close to 250,000 hours of e-learning for students to learn and absorb inexpensively at their own pace. The Know Your College portal is developed by AICTE with the objective of helping prospective students make informed choices about which colleges to pursue admissions in. The searchable database of all accredited colleges in the country provides detailed profiles for each institution and also allows students to lodge grievances online.

e-Pathshala is a web portal and mobile apps which hosts all school books from grade 1 to 12 free for our students, teachers, parents, researchers and educators. Shaala Darpan enables parents to be kept informed digitally, in real time, about their child’s presence at school, mark sheets and time table. Shaala Siddi is a comprehensive framework which leverages an online platform for evaluation of school performance and standards.Saransh is an online self assessment tool developed by CBSE. It enables schools to look at their performance at an aggregate level and at the level of each student and compare their performance vis-à-vis all CBSE schools at various levels.  The tool includes data for 2.02 crore students, 1.5 lakh teachers across 15,000 schools, for a period of seven years. The Ministry of HRD has also taken an initiative to map elementary and secondary schools across the country on a GIS platform. We are using this GIS mapping for sanction of schools in gap areas for 2015-16 Annual Work Plan of SSA and RMSA.

Himanshu (Question received via Twitter):Education is a state subject, what is Centre’s role in policy and in persuading states to follow national footsteps?
Education is on the concurrent list and is not a state subject alone. In education, the Centre provides the policy and legal framework, funding and monitors the implementation of various schemes. This ensures that quality is maintained and equal access is provided to all. Further, intensive data collection at the national level to monitor progress is also undertaken by the Centre, whether it through UDISE for school’s education or Know Your College portal for higher education. Having said this, it is important to remember that States are responsible for implementing most policies, especially, for school education. Further, in most cases States do have the flexibility to customize the implementation according to regional needs. This is the beauty of the federal structure, which provides uniform direction yet accommodates for diverse needs, a critical requirement for education in India- since there are no one-size fits all solution.

Having said this, for too long this Ministry has been known for political compulsions and friction. However, I am proud to say that in the last 18 months, we have been able to build political consensus, which has ensured successful implementation of major projects in a short time. The Swach Vidyalay initiative is one example of this.
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Balvinder Dadyal said...

sukhbir singh badal

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