Manish Sisodia talks about the learning loss in the pandemic, AAP’s poll prospects and whether the BJP has forced parties to shift to the right. This session was moderated by National Education Editor Ritika Chopra and Chief Reporter Mallica Joshi
Ritika Chopra: What was your takeaway from the brief period of two weeks when the schools were open?
Children are curious about when things will get better. Now we have a new variant, so parents and children are scared. There’s an entire generation of students that has gone through an unbelievable learning loss. There’s no substitute for offline learning. It’s a challenge to make up for the loss. We don’t know how we will fill the gap once things go back to normal.
Ritika Chopra: Enrolments have considerably increased in government schools. Are the government schools, which always had a problem with infrastructure, equipped to handle this sudden spike in enrolment?
Fortunately, we have been working on infrastructure. At most places we had enough rooms to accommodate the children. At places where we didn’t, we immediately ordered prefabricated classrooms. If there’s a shortage of teachers, we will hire more. We have decentralised the schools and if they feel they have fewer resources for whatever reasons, they can directly hire resource personnel because we provide them with the funds.
Mallica Joshi: How many students could not become a part of the online classes and what efforts did you make to reach out to all the children?
When we began online classes, 80% of the students started attending them. Due to the efforts of the teachers, it increased to 93-94 % . There is no connection with six-seven per cent of the children. They might have returned to their hometown, they could also have changed their phone number. We don’t know if they’ll return to Delhi because there are no jobs in Delhi or NCR. That also is a big economic challenge before us.
Rahul Sabharwal: One of the reasons for closing the schools was pollution. But not everyone has air purifiers at home. Therefore, do you think it was necessary to shut the schools for two weeks?
There were some parents who were worried about sending their children to school due to the pollution. Yes, for some kids the difference in pollution levels at home and school might not be a lot but there are others for whom it would have made a difference.
Ritika Chopra: Delhi University colleges are old. The relationship with these colleges, which are funded by the Delhi government, is progressively deteriorating; teachers keep approaching the court. What is the problem that has not been resolved in a long span of seven years?
This fight has been going on only since the last four years. The then Vice-Chancellor of DU didn’t form a governing body for two-and-a-half years. The non-existence of governing bodies led to the problem. Once that problem got solved, another problem cropped up in the last two years. We directed all the government departments to be careful of spending of over Rs 1 crore due to the fund crunch during the Covid-induced lockdown. We asked them to use the existing resources available with them. Then we found that these colleges have a lot of money. When we told them to pay their teachers with the money in the FD (fixed deposit), they said that they are not governed by the government but by DU. As the Finance Minister of Delhi, it’s my responsibility to provide funds to the colleges but I am also the custodian of taxpayers’ money. There needs to be accountability and transparency.
Ritika Chopra: These investments are used as corpus by the colleges. If the teachers are invested in demanding salaries, don’t you think it will affect the academic environment?
Do you think the Finance Minister should not be invested in knowing the details of salaries in a department? Do you think any department that is busy with its core activity should not tell the finance department where their money is going? Professors don’t have to make this list; an office worker has to make it.
Mallica Joshi: There was information that the Rs 30-35 crore corpus with the college was students’ fund and could not be diverted for teachers’ salaries. According to them, it would be an illegal diversion of funds.
The moment you question the reason behind giving money, they question us. There are several colleges under Delhi government and we give thousands of crores to them for infrastructural development. They never say that they will not tell us how they spend the money they collect from fees. This is the first time in history that the terms of conditions of the receiver will prevail over the provider’s. They will take money from you but will not listen to your conditions.
Mallica Joshi: After Delhi, Punjab has been your strongest bastion with the most number of seats in the Opposition. Many changes have happened in the last six months, with respect to farm laws, changes in the Congress. How do you see your party in Punjab right now?
I’ve been going to Punjab and have seen that AAP is in a comfortable position; we can form a government.
Mallica Joshi: Who will be the Chief Minister if you win in Punjab?
It has not been decided yet.
Sourav Roy Barman: Were you surprised to see the TMC entering Goa?
That’s how a democracy works. Of course, any political party would love to not have an opponent. But how will democracy function in that scenario? We’re not a two-party system.
Mallica Joshi: Will you consider tying up with the TMC in Goa or any other states?
So far we haven’t had anything as such.
Shahid Pervez: Arvind Kejriwal has good relations with Mamata Banerjee. What do you think of the TMC trying to expand its footprint in states where even the AAP wants to grow?
Instead of four parties, we’ll have to contest against five parties. I don’t see a reason for being upset that we have to fight against one more party.
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: How do you see a coalition of Opposition parties taking place before the 2024 Lok Sabha elections?
2024 is far; we haven’t even entered 2022, which is going to see a major election. It’s hard to say what will happen in 2024. There was a lot of speculation the last time too, but what happened?
P Vaidyanathan Iyer: Delhi government’s finances are down due to bad collection, excise etc. What development projects are getting affected due to this?
You cannot consider 2020-21, because it was a bad year. So if you take 2019-20 as the base year, we are slightly down. We presented a Rs 70,000-crore budget this year and I assume we will be around Rs 67,000 crore. There was a considerable improvement in the last quarter. If there are no problems due to the next variant, then we will recover. No infrastructure project has stopped. The delays in Delhi government’s projects were lockdown-related — labourers returning home. Nothing has stopped due to financial constraints.
Ritika Chopra: The Opposition is often criticised for not playing an effective role in countering the party in power. Even Mamata recently said that there is no UPA. Do you think such comments will hurt the unity of the Opposition against the BJP?
There’s no unity in the Opposition at the national level today. Every party that is running a state government is opposing at that level, there’s no Opposition at the national level. There’s an Opposition vacuum. An Opposition will emerge from a state.
Mallica Joshi: AAP has been organising a lot of religious programmes, including one on Diwali recently. How do you view public spending on religious functions?
The problem is not with religious functions. For example, most state governments have been organising Chhath Pujas in the regions that they are celebrated. It doesn’t matter which party it is — left, right or centre — they organise religious events. There’s immense government support for Ganesh Chaturthi in Maharashtra and Kali Puja in West Bengal, irrespective of the party in power. This problem is due to the Ram Mandir. People have surrendered Lord Ram to the BJP. Our party says that Lord Ram is everyone’s, not just the BJP’s. Nobody questioned the Kanwar Yatra or any other religious events. In our country’s mindset, the BJP has said that Ram belongs to them and the non-religious section has also accepted it. So we debunked the myth that Lord Ram belongs to the BJP. Lord Ram belongs to everyone.
Mallica Joshi: Can we expect a Christmas mass and its live telecast?
It’s possible. We don’t have a plan yet but it’s possible.
Sourav Roy Barman: Narendra Modi continues to dominate the public imagination after seven years. As someone who has interacted with him, what is your analysis of him?
I have never interacted with him; he never gives me the opportunity. Modi gives good slogans but is poor in implementing them. Where is the implementation of Swachh Bharat even in Uttar Pradesh, a state ruled by the BJP? Where do you see the implementation of Skill India and Digital India? He has ideas but just slogans won’t help; you need a plan. You are the PM of the country, not a slogan writer. You have governments in so many states and at the Centre. You could have implemented something. History will remember Narendra Modi as someone who gave good slogans but failed badly at implementing them.
Sourav Roy Barman: Modi has shifted the centre of gravity of Indian politics rightwards. In a way, Modi has also forced you to redefine your politics. How do you see that?
Our politics is that we have to take everyone from the left, right and centre with us. The politics of exclusivity, where left-wingers will help only those from the left or right-wingers doing it for their sympathisers, is wrong. Even a left-winger’s child needs education, even he needs treatment in hospitals and is hurt by the high power bills. They are all Indians and we need to think of everyone.
Uma Vishnu: You admitted that there has been an unbelievable learning loss due to the pandemic. What is being done to bridge the gap, now that children are back in school?
We are using offline and online modes, there can’t be a one-shot solution. When schools reopened, we trained teachers to not directly jump into the syllabus. We asked them to talk to children; they should feel that they have returned to their school, their team. There’s also an emotional loss. We told this to private schools too. We have decided to hold a gap-assessment once we get the opportunity.
Ritika Chopra: Do you think that being confrontational with the Centre was hurting the party?
Our fights were till 2018 regarding the rights of Delhi government. In 2018, the Supreme Court said that this (Delhi government) is a government and treat it as such. Now the fight is over, why should I fight for the sake of fighting? We recently fought over ration. We will always fight for the rights of the people of Delhi.
Shubhajit Roy: There’s a sort of dual leadership with you and Kejriwal. Who do you think your duo most resembles in Indian history?
We’ve been friends before the formation of the party. As a party member and minister, I feel proud that I enjoy his confidence. If your boss trusts you, you enjoy the work. I can’t talk about those who are not present, but I would not like to resemble the present duo (Modi-Amit Shah).
Ritika Chopra: How has your relationship with Kejriwal evolved?
It’s the same. We were together when we were activists. Today, I have respect for him as a CM. But we still eat together and our families spend time with each other.
Sandeep Singh: Some members have also been expelled due to disagreements.
If disagreements rise to such a level that nobody wants to agree, then separation is the only agreeable option. In the party, we share our viewpoints and after discussions someone or the other has to change theirs. But if someone cannot change their views, then it is good to disengage.
Rinku Ghosh: Education and public health are two important social issues but they don’t have saleability as a poll plank. Do you see that changing?
It happened in Delhi, but we have to test it outside Delhi. If you just talk about education, people will say that there are other issues that some other party has worked on. People like work that has been done; if the things we talk about have been implemented anywhere. In Punjab, people themselves say that there was a lot of work done on education in Delhi. I hope people remember that when they go out to vote. That’s AAP’s value addition to politics; today Congress also has to talk on education, even if they are not asking for votes on that issue. Education has come into the political discourse.
Rahul Sabharwal: Munawar Faruqui’s show was cancelled in Gurgaon, people are thrown in jail over Facebook posts. As a government, can you provide space for an artist to perform even if certain people disagree with him?
We did provide space to TM Krishna. We also started Awaam Ki Awaaz, where we invite people to express, through art, their dissent towards the government,
political system and society.
Rahul Sabharwal: Do you think there is a shrinking space for freedom of speech?
The problem is from both sides. We should learn from our families. If we don’t like something, we present our dissatisfaction delicately. The country and society are also like a larger family. Both the sides should understand, you can’t be upfront about everything but you cannot also silence dissenting voices. Every government should be large-hearted.
Mallica Joshi: Delhi MCD elections are coming in April-May. Can you stop the BJP from winning for the fourth time?
After five years, people have realised that we are result-oriented. Our biggest promise, among others, with respect to the MCD is that we will clean Delhi. People are ready to trust AAP.
Rahul Sabharwal: In the second wave, the hospitals were under tremendous stress. As Deputy CM, what was your experience and what were your learnings? Do we have adequate infrastructure?
There’s no ready-made answer for this. We were more equipped in 2021 when compared to 2020. But the problem is that we don’t know the scale (of the wave). We are working with the experts of the Government of India to set better targets.
Rahul Sabharwal: What about a booster shot?
I have no idea. The international consensus on a booster dose is also at a premature stage.
Abhinav Rajput: How do you respond to the criticism that AAP is not very vocal on minority issues?
That’s not the case. We oppose everything that we feel is wrong, from mob lynching to honour killing, and we will keep doing it. But we will do it in our words.
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