"We have not experienced something like this before."
Seema is talking about the transformation of teachers in Delhi's government schools. Her son Varun, 14, has been going to Sarvodaya Secondary School in Vasant Vihar all along. The past three years or so, however, the thirty-seven-year-old said, have been different.
"Teachers have been meeting parents one-on-one to talk about their child's growth," said Seema, and added, "They treat us equally, and with a lot of respect. The sincerity with which the Parent-Teacher meetings happen today did not happen earlier."
Seema lives in a predominantly Dalit basti of Kusumpur Pahadi in Vasant Vihar, one of the costliest neighbourhoods in South West Delhi. Kusumpur Pahadi is also one of the largest slums in Delhi which lacks basic sanitation facilities. Several women here do housework, and the men do odd jobs. Seema is a homemaker and her husband works as a mechanic.
When asked about the changes that are apparent in the state's government schools these days, the residents here placed a lot of emphasis on the way they were "treated" at these schools. The teachers sitting across the table and respectfully engaging on equal terms is something the parents here had only occasionally experienced before.
Seema with her 14-year-old son Varun who studies at the Sarvodaya Secondary School in Vasant Vihar. Image/Parth MN
"We did not attend the meetings in the past," Seema concedes. "Now, we set aside any work we might have on the day and make sure we are present at the meeting. We feel equal stakeholders in our child's education. And most importantly, my son looks forward to going to school."
The Sarvodaya Secondary School is also witnessing a makeover with better infrastructure. Rakhi, who serves mid-day meals to students at the school vouches for the change ushered in after Arvind Kejriwal became the Chief Minister of Delhi. "With the change in the overall attitude, it has also brought a behavioural change among children. Earlier, the kids did not study, they would fight among themselves, and many had the habit of smoking. The staff was also inadequate. Kids would end up sweeping the floor before class. But when teachers and management is serious, it has a percolating impact on the entire school system."
Kejriwal and his Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) score big among Delhi's lower income groups and/or Dalit voters, for its educational reforms. With a population of over 25 lakh, Dalit votes is one of the key factors in the 8 February Delhi elections.
Principal of RSKV Jeejabai School said that the infrastructure of the school has undergone a sea of change. Image/Parth MN
In October 2019, AAP had planned an outreach program of connecting with 6,000 Dalit bastis in the city. Social Welfare Minister Rajendra Pal Gautam had told the media that their team had gotten in touch with influential people in the bastis. "These people are informed in advanced when our teams visit their areas so that our party members can interact with a fairly large group of local residents," he had said. "We will share the achievements of the government, how the life of ordinary people has improved and our vision for the next five years."
Delhi has 12 reserved constituencies out of 70, and AAP had bagged all of them when it swept the assembly elections in 2015 winning 67 seats. Before the historic 2015 victory, Congress largely had a cinch over Dalit votes. Come 2020 and it is highly unlikely that the Congress will regain its lost vote share. Subsidised electricity, mohalla clinics, and, most importantly, school reforms have ensured that votes will stick with Kejriwal.
Under AAP, School Management Committee's have been set up at every school that act as a bridge between schools and parents. SMC comprises of 12 elected parents of students, the school principal, one teacher, one elected representative and a social worker. The SMCs apprise school principals in case the parents have a gripe or a demand.
Students during one of their classes at the RSKV Jeejabai School. Image/Parth MN
Kamlesh, a member of the SMC at the RSKV Jeejabai School in Trilokpuri which currently has 3,600 students, says decentralisation has brought in several positive changes. "It makes parents equally involved. School reforms in Delhi have showed that a political party can bring in a change if it wishes to. Most of the students here belong to lower income groups. As parents, we often rued the fact that we cannot enroll our kids in private schools. Today, we feel reassured that our kids are at par with other kids," she said.
The infrastructure at the RSKV School, where majority of the students studying are either Dalits or Muslims, has undergone a huge change, said the principal Chandrakant. "Earlier the premises would be submerged in water after heavy rainfall," she said and added, "But today, the school looks slick with better furniture, vibrant classrooms, and spacious buildings. The government had also taken us to Cambridge as part of our training program. It helped us come up with several innovative ideas to enhance the school education system."
One of the innovative ideas of the Delhi government that is extremely popular among the students is the Happiness Curriculum. In July 2018, Kejriwal launched it in presence of The Dalai Lama. Deputy Chief Minister Manish Sisodia had told PTI that a team of 40 experts came up with the curriculum. "Imagine the impact of involving 10 lakh students and around 50,000 teachers," he had said. "It is our belief that the modern day problems like terrorism, corruption and pollution can be solved through schools and a human centric education."
The curriculum includes meditation, moral values and mental exercises. At a Dalit residency in Shadipur area, Kusum, 16, enthusiastically describes the happiness class, and how the students wait for it every day. "We are told stories, we are also asked to tell stories, we draw, we paint, we colour. It is great fun," she says and takes a friendly jibe at her elder sister. "It was not there during your time."