Hardly four months in the saddle, Punjab education minister Dr Daljit Singh Cheema has enough to say on improving the school education system, as he also looks critically at central flagship schemes Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Midday Meal and makes a case for financial powers to the states for their success.
In an interview with HT, the minister warned the employees in his department against corrupt practices, while holding all the respect for his predecessor, Sikander Singh Maluka, who was embroiled in the library books and science laboratory kits scams and had failed to check the illegal recruitment of physical training instructors.
From training teachers to sensitising students, Dr Cheema said the state had a long way to go, but he had laid some suggestions before the cabinet. The government decision to merge the zila parishad schools in the education department (an Akali election promise) could now be implemented any day, he claimed. Excerpts:
HT: In less than four months of your tenure as education minister, what are the challenges you have understood in the department?
Dr Cheema: Personally, education is the most important department, looking at the circumstances of our young generation in Punjab. The selection of teachers, improving the education standards, and focusing on vocational education are some of the challenges we need to address. It is the question of managing more than 27-lakh children enrolled in the government schools (in the state), while completing the immediate task of hiring more teachers. Checking mass copying by sensitising the teachers as well as the students and their parents is another task at hand.
Q: With nearly 15,000 posts of teacher vacant in Punjab schools, what is the hitch in filling this gap, since there’s an army of unemployed teachers crying long for jobs?
A: On September 30, we are going to issue the letters of appointment in the master cadre to 5,100 teachers. All aspirants now have to clear the TET (Teacher’s Eligibility Test), mandatory under the RTE (Right to Education) Act.
Q: But hundreds of teachers who qualified the TET in the past are out on streets, in spite of the vacancies. Your take.
A: Clearing the TET is no guarantee of a job, as it is just like clearing the NET (National Eligibility Test) to be considered for jobs in the universities.
Q: Then what will be the fate of the many vacancies?
A: I told you we were working hard. We have to seek the government consent on decisions such as these.
Q: When you are part of the government as a relevant cabinet minister, how have you taken up this crucial issue of filling posts when schools are losing science streams at the Class-12 level and the students going to board examination don’t have the help of subject teachers?
A: We are going to create a recruitment board to rationalise the recruitment process in the education department. I am not all in all; it is the entire cabinet; but, of course, we have to fill these vacancies. These things happen gradually.
Q: Your predecessor, Sikander Singh Maluka, has been in the thick of controversies, over the library books and science laboratory kits scams, besides the illegal recruitment of physical training instructors, in which case the education department also lodged a first-information report. How well have you handled corruption in a department with this kind of past?
A: Well, Mr Maluka had done a good job overall; and I respect him as an efficient minister, who has never been indicted in any of these controversies. Jindal Commission gave him a clean chit (in the books scam).
Q: But the investigation report is yet to see light of the day. Jindal Commission recommended action against certain indicted officials. What stops your department from punishing them?
A: I do not know about any names mentioned in the investigation report but we have written (to the authorities concerned) for action against all held responsible (in the book scam).
Q: What good has Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan done to school education in Punjab?
A: Centrally sponsored schemes can be more effective if the states are given all the financial powers to use this money based on needs and circumstances. Specific funds are released under a component, and when we recruit the volunteers, the Centre withdraws that component, like in the case of EGS (Education Guarantee Scheme), wherein the absorbed volunteers later became the state’s liability after the Centre withdrew the scheme.
Q: Maluka had reservations against the Midday Meal scheme. How do you find it?
A: The scheme needs many changes, and we are working on the modalities, taking feedback from teachers. Again, the states should be given enough leverage in implementing these centrally sponsored schemes based on own conditions.
Q: Punjab School Education Board boasts of having restricted mass copying in the state. Do you support the claim?
A: The board has, of course, initiated the campaign that remained highly effective, as we have also taken action against many teachers and a district education officer (DEO) who was suspended for his reported involvement in cheating. Sensitising teachers, besides students and their parents is also on our agenda.