In less than 100 days of having taken charge, schoolchildren across Karnataka know this minister. They have the liberty to pick up a phone and ‘complain’ as they would to their favourite elder in the family.
They can have him stay in their schools and have the problems fixed as they want them fixed. All of this while he also ensures that the students pull up their socks and prepare for their exams.
His twitter handle (@nimmasuresh) reflects his persona too as the Minister for Primary and Secondary Education. S Suresh Kumar is just that — nimmasuresh (your Suresh).
It is surreal to witness a schoolteacher from a remote rural school in the state directly ring up the Education Minister and complain about a non-cooperative headmaster, who isn’t facilitating the setup of LKG, UKG classes in the school.
“Sir awarannu transfer madi,” said the teacher, requesting the headmaster (HM) be transferred.
When the minister asked for details and assured action, the teacher insisted that the headmaster be transferred.
“Is it important that the said HM be transferred or that LKG classes be started?” asked the minister.
Taking down details of the school, he assured that the school will have LKG, UKG classes from the next academic year.
This is a unique live phone interaction programme that the Education Minister held with the teachers, students and the general public of the state. Called ‘Samvedana’, the programme is intended to be a fortnightly affair, where the minister is available for conversations and addressing issues that people face in schools.
But who can hold Kumar and his team accountable for the promises they make or actions they assure during these interactions? “You can,” he says, “as the minutes of the interactions will be logged”.
All details about the query, the response provided, the action plan and the progress in the direction will be filed and also provided to the audience in the next interaction, which he intends to hold every fortnight.
“May be we will also update the same on our website. That way people can track and know how their issues are being addressed,” says Kumar.
For a state that boasts of having many of the better higher education institutes of India, that Karnataka’s primary and secondary education has lagged isn’t flattering.
Government schools in the state have especially been battling many an odd to stay afloat with their numbers decreasing every year.
The appointment of teachers had been pending for years. Government schools, especially Kannada medium ones, have seen a steady reduction in the strength of students. Many have shut down owing to dismal number of students and unavailability of teachers.
But all this is bound to change, says S Suresh Kumar in an animated yet thoughtful conversation.
From reducing the weight of schoolbags, appointment of craft and physical education teachers to the personal inspection of schools with the ‘shaala vastavya’ (school stay) and implementing the suggestions he gets during his interactions, to tweaking the new education policy that will be drafted by the Centre to suit the needs of the state, Kumar sure is positive about revamping the education scenario in the state.
His vision for education in Karnataka he says is, “quality education which is affordable and accessible, because even today many of the rural children don’t feel like attending schools. So it is our motto to make school a place where children feel like attending.”
Since he has taken charge, the ministry has been in the news almost every day.
“There were many lapses in the transfer policy, which we have tried fixing with some major amendments after discussing it with teachers and teacher organisations. These amendments will be put in place once we have our first session in January. Over 10,500 primary school graduate teachers were awaiting appointments for the last few years. This too was fast-tracked and the list has now been put out,” says Kumar.
The other key focus of the ministry will be to reduce the size of schoolbags he says. Remembering the words of author R K Narayan, who also expressed his concern with regard to the weight of the bags in his only speech in Rajya Sabha, the minister assures to not just “come up with a formula to reduce the weight of the schoolbags but also have one day of the week as a bag-less day.”
He has also been touring the state, and not just visiting schools but also spending a night at certain schools in remote corners of the state to find out the issues that plague them.
All his interactions so far, he believes, have resulted in him receiving suggestions that “no educationist could ever give”.
We have this conversation even as he prepares for his second ‘shaala vastavya’ in a remote village called Gopinatham in the border district of Chamarajanagar. This village had been in the news for all the wrong reasons during Veerappan’s era, he tells Swarajya.
It’s not only about managing trends on social media but coming up with practical solutions for the real world. The latest instance of this being Kumar implementing the idea of a ‘water bell’ in Karnataka government schools after reading about it on Twitter.
In government schools in Kerala, a bell would be rung at 10.35 am, noon and at 2 pm. This would signal that it was time for students to drink water. Staying hydrated cannot be taken for granted in this part of the world.
As news reports of this unique practice were brought to the attention of the Karnataka Minister for Tourism, C T Ravi, he tagged the Minister for Education, S Suresh Kumar.
Within a week, the Commissioner of Public Instruction had been asked to formulate a plan to get this practice going based on the situation in different districts.
Even the issue of Kannada medium schools in the border district of Kerala has been taken up. Kumar wrote a letter to the Education Minister of Kerala to consider the sensibilities and the needs of the border school.
“In Kasaragod, most of the people speak only Kannada. Even when I go for election campaign, my speeches will be in Kannada only. So the students were right in demanding that they want Kannada teachers, which is why I wrote to the Kerala government. I think the government has now understood the need and reality and are taking corrective steps,” says Kumar.
But Kannada schools in the state have also not been in the best of shape. Many have been shutting down over the years.
“All these years, we were facing a continuous decline in the number of students. But for the first time in the recent years, this has stopped. Instead, there has been an increase of 2,000 students all over the state in government schools,” he says, adding that it is also because of citizens themselves that the change is taking place.
He cheerfully shares instances of schools that have been adopted by organisations or individuals.
“Recently, I had been to a school in Bantwal in Dakshina Kannada. The number there had once fallen to just 30. But the villagers said, “we should somehow save our village school; formed a committee, adopted the school and after three years the number in the schools has risen to 670,”says Kumar, adding that the school is now seeking to be a high school.
As for that part of school that most students dread — exams — Kumar plans to introduce exams from Class VII onwards so that the students are acquainted with them and ‘fearlessly’ appear for their SSLC exams.
“The exam hall is not a war field. Students should see it as a sports ground and just enjoy while giving their best there,” says Kumar.
Coming to controversial issues like Right to Education and the exclusion of Tipu Sultan from textbooks, the minister says there isn’t any change in the policy regarding the former while being very vocal about the latter.
Tipu in textbooks would never be an issue of the scale it is being made out to be had it not been for the politics around the celebration of Tipu Jayanti, which was scaled up by the Opposition.
“Tipu has been a controversial figure in our state. People in Kodagu, Mangaluru, Chitradurga, and some places in Mandya have very strong sense of anger and anguish when it comes to Tipu. That is the reason, one of our MLAs who comes from the region, sought the exclusion and has provided a voluminous document supporting it,” says Kumar.
The Department of State Educational Research and Training will now examine the documents and furnish a report based on which it will be decided if and how Tipu Sultan will make it to the school curriculum in Karnataka.
(This is an abridged version of the minister’s interview).
Harsha is an Associate Editor at Swarajya. She tweets @bhatinmaai.
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