In a recent interview,(AAP) national convener and Delhi CM claimed that a Dalit voter in Punjab had come to him and said he would vote for AAP. “I asked him, why not [Punjab CM] who is claiming to be the messiah of Dalits. He said AAP has transformed government schools in Delhi and it is only education that can change the lives of people,” he said, making an appeal to vote for AAP if voters “want state-of-art government schools in Punjab like in Delhi.”
In a state where panth and religion have long dictated electoral politics, education has emerged as one of the core issues with the AAP and Congress, the two main contenders in the fray, indulging in politicking, discussions and debates. There has even been a Twitter war between the education ministers of Punjab and Delhi — led by Congress and AAP governments, respectively — eventually forcing other parties to specify their roadmap for school and higher education.
The political one-upmanship began early last year when, in the run-up to the elections, the state was declared the top performer in the Performance Grading Index (PGI) 2019-20, released by the Union Ministry of Education.
While the Punjab government then led bywent all out to take credit for the ranking, Delhi Education Minister Manish Sisodia suggested that it was rigged, saying Punjab’s top rank was the result of “the blessings Modiji has showered on Captain Amarinder Singh”. He added, “Strangely enough, this report has been released at a time when people have been raising questions regarding the performance and inadequacies of the Punjab government in education.”
Amarinder had hit back, calling the accusations “atrocious”. “Come to Punjab and I will show you our schools. If you are really interested in improving the education system of Delhi, maybe you should do a ‘jugalbandi’ with me and I will teach you how to manage things better,” the former CM had said.
Then in November last year, a Twitter war erupted between Punjab Education Minister Pargat Singh and Delhi Education Minister Manish Sisodia. Sisodia suggested that Pargat and he jointly visit 10 schools each in Delhi and Punjab.
Replying to Sisodia’s invite, Pargat tweeted, “However, we will take 250 schools each from Punjab and Delhi, instead of 10 schools, and compare them on the National PGI index. We will have a debate on school infrastructure and the number of smart schools…”
Sisodia then went on to release a list of 250 “best” schools in Delhi and challenged Pargat to do the same. Pargat had then called Delhi’s education model ‘fake’ and released a set of 14 questions for the Kejriwal government to answer.
The Twitter war soon shifted to the ground. On December 1 last year, Sisodia reached Chamkaur Sahib, CM Channi’s constituency, and claimed to have “exposed” the real condition of the schools. He alleged that the schools did not have enough teachers and drinking water facilities, the toilets were non-functional, and that the classrooms were filled with cobwebs and garbage.
Almost 20 days later, Channi visited those schools again to “expose the lies being spread by AAP”. He did aLive, claiming that the schools Sisodia visited were among the ‘best’.
Arvind Kejriwal wasn’t too far away from the action. On November 27 last year, he joined protesting contractual teachers in Mohali and promised them regularisation if the AAP is voted to power. State Congress chief Navjot Singh Sidhu, in turn, joined a protest of contractual teachers in Delhi near Kejriwal’s residence on December 5 and later tweeted, tagging Kejriwal, ‘Practise what you preach!’
Shiromani Akali Dal president and former deputy CM Sukhbir Singh Badal wasn’t to be left behind either. Calling Kejriwal’s Delhi model “fake”, he announced that if voted to power, his government would establish a mega government school with a strength of 5,000 students in each block, with one teacher for every 50 children.
Among other measures, Badal promised that 33% seats in higher educational institutions would be reserved for government school students.
Away from this political tussle, on the ground, teachers and experts say that while the focus on education and schools has helped to an extent, a lot remains to be done. They also point to how, in a bid to outdo each other, both the Congress government in Punjab and the AAP government in Delhi have been dragging students and teachers into politics.
Over the past five years, the state government claims to have transformed at least 13,844 government schools into ‘Smart Schools’ (nearly 72% of the 19,200 government schools in the state) with facilities such as LED screens, projectors, smart classrooms, audio-visual aids. School buildings have also undergone a makeover.
The state government had also started ‘Padho Punjab, Padhao Punjab’, a programme that was the brainchild of the state’s former school education secretary Krishan Kumar to “improve learning levels” among children.
However, critics of the government say many of these changes are cosmetic and that merely colourful walls cannot bring about a much-needed change in learning levels. Several teachers said they were forced to raise funds or even pitch in with their own money to carry out these changes.
Sukhwinder Singh Chahal, state president, Government Teachers’ Union, said, “The government started pre-primary classes, which was a good step, but there are no specialised teachers for them. Single-teacher schools still exist and all schools do not have subject-wise teachers…”
Teachers believe the reason education is finally in focus is because of the “continuous efforts” of several teacher groups to highlight the wrongdoings and loopholes in the system through protests.
Vikram Dev Singh, state president of the Democratic Teachers’ Front, said, “No political party talks about an issue if there is no uprising among people. Much like the farmers who persisted to get the farm laws repealed, teachers’ movements in Punjab have to be credited for education becoming a poll issue. We can’t be used merely as vote banks. Education policy and the learning process are supreme, yet the government has failed to bring in a new education policy for the state. Also, no new teachers have been recruited for the primary section. Government in-service training centres have been closed and teachers are still put on election duties.”
At least 17 teacher unions across categories — from unemployed BEd graduates to contractual teachers — are currently protesting against the government on different issues. College and university teachers are also protesting over the non-implementation of the Seventh Pay Commission.
Teachers also complain that they are still called in for poll duties and extra work though the Congress had in 2017 promised that “teachers will only teach”.
Experts also say what made schools the talking point was the mass migration of students from private to government schools during the pandemic.
Harpreet Dua, former syndicate member of Panjab University in Chandigarh, said the mass migration of youngsters out of the state too has forced people and politicians to speak about education. “There are no jobs or any opportunities left here for students. Not only the government and private sectors, but the industry has also failed to give them jobs. Delhi’s model of education is for urban areas whereas Punjab needs an urban-rural model,” he said.