Why Schools Are At The Centre Of Delhi Polls


Why Schools Are At The Centre Of Delhi Polls

A few weeks ago, Arvind Kejriwal, the doughty chief minister of the Indian capital, Delhi, made an impassioned plea to voters in an election campaign meeting.

“We’ve worked hard to improve our schools, the education system. Who will take care of the education of your children if you vote for any other party? Just give it a thought,” he said.


India’s populist politicians don’t usually talk about schools and colleges in stump speeches – education reform, they believe, doesn’t fetch votes, because results take time, and voters appear to be keener on more immediate outcomes. “Today’s politics wants instant results,” says Delhi’s education minister Manish Sisodia.

Mr Kejriwal’s Aam Aadmi Party (AAP), a regional start-up, is seeking a second successive term in power in Delhi.

And Mr Kejriwal wants to prove populist politicians wrong: he’s made education the centrepiece of his campaign.

His government’s performance in education – along with healthcare – is an unusual campaign plank, and a consistent headline maker. AAP swept 67 of Delhi’s 70 assembly seats five years ago, and hopes to repeat this performance on 8 February, largely on the back of its performance in education.

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Mr Kejriwal has much to crow about. His government runs 1,000 schools, attended by more than 1.5 million students. Education is free. In five years, he claims his government has succeeded in a way none of his predecessors have.

His main rival is the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The BJP has been running a bellicose counter campaign on a controversial new citizenship law, the stripping of Kashmir’s autonomy and building a grand new Hindu temple. In other words, it’s mostly about assuaging majority Hindu sentiments and promoting muscular nationalism.

The makeover

Mr Kejriwal has ploughed nearly a quarter of his government’s $5.8bn (£4.40bn) budget into education – the highest in India – and appears to have spent the money wisely. (His predecessors in Delhi spent up to 16% of the budget on education; and India’s states, on average, spend 14.8% of their budgets on education).

Investing heavily in education has helped change the gloomy image – slovenly and badly-run – of state-run schools in a teeming city of nearly 20 million people. “The assumption was only poor children go to these schools. The rich and middle class prefer to send their children to private schools,” says Shailendra Sharma, an education advisor to Mr Kejriwal’s government. “Anything free in India is perceived to be substandard.”

But this year, Mr Kejriwal’s schools, mainly attended by the city’s underclass and children of poorer migrants, have outperformed their more expensive and posh counterparts. Some 96% of the 12th class students from state-run schools passed the school-leaving exam, compared to 93% from private schools.

Such results have received estimable praise, most recently from Nobel-prize winning economist Abhijit Banerjee.

‘A liberating experience’

Education reforms are usually messy, but Mr Kejriwal’s government appears to have chosen simple initiatives to achieve a significant turnaround.

Classrooms have been renovated, toilets are scrubbed regularly, and playgrounds cleaned. Students and parents alike have welcomed a controversial decision to put CCTV cameras in classrooms to monitor children. Smart-looking desks, digital learning, well-stocked libraries, functioning science labs, and special theme-oriented classrooms have helped make the once-dowdy schools attractive places of learning.

“Government schools,” says M Shariq Ahmed, principal of a “model” government school, “have now become a very liberating experience for students, who come from stressed backgrounds.”

Why Schools Are At The Centre Of Delhi Polls


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