Bengaluru: In 2018, 90.6% of Delhi government school students passed their class 12--two percentage points more than the rate in private schools, as many percentage points more than the previous year and higher than the central board of secondary education’s national average.

Infrastructure and education methods have been revamped since the Aam Aadmi Party won 67 of 70 legislative assembly seats in India’s capital in 2015 (it did not win any parliamentary seat it contested in Delhi in 2014).

An advisor to the education minister of Delhi and a parliamentary candidate from East Delhi for the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), Atishi, 37, is the only woman of six AAP candidates for the 2019 elections to the Lok Sabha, parliament’s lower house.

Atishi--who dropped her last name, Marlena, a combination of Marx and Lenin, because it may have appeared Christian to voters--is the woman credited with the transformation of Delhi government schools. She has played a pivotal role” in the turnaround, including reforms to teaching practices in classes 6 to 8 based on learning levels of children. This has now been extended to class 3.

Many of Delhi’s educational interventions can be extended nationwide, Atishi said. Children who fall behind in school tend to get left behind for years, if they are not taught according to their learning levels.

Her connection to politics helped “touch the lives of 1.6 million children” in Delhi, more than she ever could as a social activist in the late 2000s, she said.

Atishi has two masters degrees, both from Oxford University in the UK, one as a Rhodes scholar, on educational research. As an activist, she worked in Madhya Pradesh villages on “progressive education systems”, which gives more value to experience than rote memorization.

In an interview with IndiaSpend, Atishi talked about her political vision, as she contests her first parliamentary elections, the demand for full statehood for India’s capital and reforms in education.

As a young candidate, what is your vision for the country, and how has your work with the Delhi government influenced this vision? How different is being a politician to being an activist?

The vision is the same whether one is an activist or a politician. We are striving for greater equity in the society we are living in. But the problem is that as an activist, despite a large social movement or working with a nonprofit, the impact one can have is limited in scale. If you are involved in electoral politics, change can be brought about at a larger scale. That has been my experience working as an adviser to the government of Delhi. Being a part of an elected government, I was able to touch the lives of 1.6 million children. That is really the scale that politics can bring.

You are fighting from the East Delhi constituency where nearly 67% voters were women in 2014. As the only woman candidate for your party, do you think your candidature will have an impact here? What will your priorities be for women, given that women’s representation in India’s parliament is 12.6%, well below the global average of 24.3%?

One of the biggest issues women in Delhi face is safety. This hinders equity. If you cannot step out of your home safely, then it reduces access to education and employment. This is one of the reasons why the AAP has taken up the issue of statehood. The Delhi police has to come under the elected government. For the Centre, be it any party, security and law and order would mean issues in Kashmir, or insurgency in the north-east or issues in states like Chhattisgarh [left wing extremism], not local law and order issues in Delhi. For the police to be accountable, it has to come under the elected state government.

Would you say that we need more women in political parties?

Yes, 100%. It is only when any social group gets representation the issues get taken up in a large way.

After five years of schooling, at age 10-11 years, just over half (51%) of students in India can read a grade II level text, according to the Annual Status of Education Report, 2018. You have been credited with the transformation in education and school infrastructure in government-run schools in Delhi. Do you have specific national policy-level interventions in education planned if you get elected to parliament?

The is exactly the situation that Delhi faced. We found the 75% of children in Delhi government schools could not read their textbooks.This has been one of the issue we have been struggling with in past five years. We have found that there are interventions that can be helpful in improving learning levels and do feel many of the interventions can be implemented at the national level.

One of the methodologies that we have taken up is level-wise grouping. In a class there are children who are at different learning levels, and we found that the teachers ended up teaching children in the first few rows that have “brighter” children. Children who fall behind, stay behind for years. Until the children can be addressed at their own learning level, they cannot make fast progress.

The Congress has promised to allocate 6% of gross domestic product (GDP) to education in five years. How do you assess this election promise given your experience in education?

It is hard to be believe. They have had multiple terms and have done absolutely nothing. AAP came to power after 15 years of Congress rule and we have seen the state of the government schools.

6% of GDP is a good starting point. It is not just a question of budget, but also intent. It is not that governments are not spending money on education. But despite the expenditure the system is not functioning. That is the political intent that governments need to work on.

You have said that if Delhi is given full statehood your government will open new colleges and “85% seats will be reserved for children from Delhi”. What problems do you face now despite your success with school-level transformations?

The Delhi Universities Act (1922) prohibits the opening of any collegiate university in Delhi. The state government cannot open new colleges. Collegiate universities are the fastest way of expanding higher education, but the present parliamentary provisions prevent new ones. Every year, you have 450,000 children passing out of class 12 in Delhi and we have only 100,000 seats many of which are taking by students outside Delhi. Most children passing out of Delhi government schools are doing their under-graduation via correspondence, and, we, despite having money and intent, cannot open new universities.

The other issue is that when children from Dehi go to other states, they are only competing for a certain number of seats because they are reserved for students from that particular state. But in Delhi you have students coming from all over the country. Where are the children from Delhi going to go for higher education? We are not against people coming from outside, but there have to be adequate provisions for children here.

Legislation is an issue in this case and this can be done only at a parliamentary level.

The AAP is contesting the elections with the slogan “Poorna Rajya Banao Jhadu ka Button Dabao (Get full statehood, press the broom button)”. How do you plan to achieve this objective given the fraught relationship between your government and the Centre?

When we say this, we are expecting that there will be a regime change. If the Modi-government comes back to power, then they will not give Delhi full statehood because they have shown no interest in doing so in the last five years.

We will find support from other regional parties. Our approach is not that if we get our MPs elected to parliament they will be able to fulfill this promise on their own. We will need to build consensus like in the case of Telangana or Chhattisgarh. Even the CM [Arvind Kejriwal] has said that we will work towards getting full statehood.

In 2014, Rajmohan Gandhi, who stood for the AAP from East Delhi, was the runner up. What are you planning to do differently, given that the constituency has a mixed community, with parts that are Dalit- and Muslim-dominated? Do you see an anti-incumbency wave?

Most people here, unfortunately, do not know who their MP is, although they know their MLA or councillor. While there is a significant population of Dalits and Muslims here, there are also unauthorised colony voters who are biggest beneficiaries of our policies like laying of water pipelines and sewer line and other basic facilities that have been provided to them. Before this parties would say that the colonies are illegal and so the government cannot spend on you. Our government has set up a separate budget for unauthorised colonies across Delhi where 10,000 new streets are being constructed. More than 400 colonies have been given access to piped water.

So, there is a demographic that was systematically left out before our government came to power. Therefore, we do have a strong support base among the lower economic class. Further, the beneficiaries of improvements in the Delhi government schools and mohalla [neighbourhood] clinics are Dalits and Muslims who are the most marginalised. Given all this, I would say that there is a sense of anti-incumbency here.

The Yamuna, which flows through parts of your constituency, has 16 million faecal coliform parts per million (safe level is 500 PPM for potable water) and is heavily polluted. How do you plan to tackle this water quality crisis?

The Delhi Jal board, which is under the CM, is working on a massive sewage plant near Wazirabad industrial area where much of the affluents flow into the Yamuna. We are hoping that once that is ready it would improve the condition of the river significantly. It is a matter of time. We are also working on reviving Delhi’s lakes.

While you are crowdfunding to fight the elections, nearly Rs 1,716 crore worth of electoral bonds were sold between January and March 2019. How do you view this development and the use of electoral bonds in India?

The AAP has pioneered clean funding for political parties since its inception. Our first election in 2013 was crowd funded through our website, fundraising events and raised Rs 20 crore. We have always believed that if the election is funded by ordinary people, you will serve them better. You can see this approach when we ensure that private schools are not allowed to hike fees and electricity rates which have been maintained at the same rate for over four years. These decisions that go against vested interests are possible only if the party is funded by clean money.

We have followed the same philosophy and have been able to raise Rs 53 lakh [for Atishi] over the last few months and majority of the contributions are in the range of Rs 100 to Rs 500. Electoral bonds is the worst form of political corruption and institutionalises what we have always suspected when it comes to quid pro quo and lack of transparency. The BJP has got 95% of the money through this process and we have no information who those people or organisations are.

(Paliath is an analyst with IndiaSpend.)

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