Even her most unrelenting critics will admit this about Atishi Marlena – she tried to understand the “ground realities” of public schooling in Delhi. On her watch as advisor on education to the Aam Aadmi Party-led Delhi government, school infrastructure improved and the interventions she spearheaded increased the enthusiasm about government schools dramatically.

Marlena, also a spokesperson of the party, was appointed advisor to Manish Sisodia, Delhi’s deputy chief minister and education minister, in 2015. As advisor, she has earned the sum of Re 1 per month for the past two-and-a-half years. On April 17, she and eight other advisors for various departments had their appointments cancelled after the Bharatiya Janata Party-led Union government said that its approval was not taken for creation of these posts. Four of them, including Raghav Chadha, who had served for just two-and-a-half months in 2016, were no longer serving as advisors. A senior member of the Aam Aadmi Party said at least two of the advisors were salaried, with their appointments approved by Delhi’s Lieutenant Governor. Marlena’s was an honorary position.

The favourite theory within the Aam Aadmi Party is that Marlena was the primary target of this slew of dismissals. Sisodia’s social media posts immediately following the order said as much.

Education has been important to the Aam Aadmi Party from the time it started contesting elections. It featured prominently in the 70-point manifesto the party issued ahead of the 2015 Delhi elections. After it won its landslide victory, the party made good on its promise of funding the sector, allocating 24% of the total outlay to education in its first budget in June 2015.

Over the next three years, the Delhi government introduced a range of initiatives and reforms that addressed every group involved in public education. Special campaigns were organised to help struggling children read. Summer camps were organised for the first time in 2016. A cadre of 200 “mentor teachers” was created to support schools and teachers locally. New workbooks and teaching material were designed. Parents were engaged through festival-like parent-teacher meetings – “Mega PTMs” – held in all schools simultaneously. Statutory parents’ bodies, the school management committees, were granted more powers and over 200 schools started nursery classes.

Much of this was spearheaded and monitored by Marlena. A history graduate from St Stephen’s College, Delhi, and possessing a master’s degree in educational research from University of Oxford, she is the only woman in the Aam Aadmi Party’s Political Affairs Committee, and is more prominent than most of its legislators in the Delhi Assembly.

Not all education measures carried out in Delhi were popular or even effective. Many teachers and principals were resentful about the dozens of non-government organisations brought in to devise and implement reforms. But as Ambarish Rai, an education activist pointed out, Delhi managed to do what few other states have – “generate real enthusiasm about public education”. The national convenor for the Right to Education Forum, a network of non-profits, activists and academics working in education, Rai has otherwise been critical of several of the Delhi government’s pet projects in the sector.

Teachers and senior party members now worry that reform efforts will lose their momentum. “They just want to disrupt our lives,” said a member of the party, referring to the Union government.

On appointments

Marlena was appointed honorary advisor after the Delhi government’s ongoing tussle with the Union government, represented by the Lieutenant Governor, had already begun. Most of it was over who had the authority to approve appointments and transfer staff. As a result, between May 2015 and August 2016, the Delhi government did not send files on appointments to the Lieutenant Governor for approval.

It resumed doing so only after losing a case in the Delhi High Court in 2016. “The files were sent for post-facto approval in 2016 and now the LG has refused to approve [the appointments],” said a party member. “Marlena is an honorary advisor and as per the rules, they are allowed to maintain their party affiliation. [The Centre] must have realised there is no legal problem.”

The only explanation, party members believe, is Marlena’s work on education. “The government was getting a lot of traction on education,” said a party member. “Anyone within the system will know she is handling much of that work and wanted to derail it.”

Rai, at least, considers this a plausible explanation. “It is a shameful attack on the Delhi government’s efforts to improve education,” he said. “Delhi is funding education and infrastructure development and effectively mobilised every group of stakeholders – teachers, students and parents.” Other states are shutting down schools while Delhi aimed at transforming its schools, he said.

And the Union government had noticed. Although in a recent interview to The Indian Express, school education secretary Anil Swarup said that he is “yet to really visit Delhi”, the state government’s flagship programme Chunauti, or Challenge, 2018, had featured prominently in his department’s roadmap for school reform in Uttar Pradesh. Adopted in Delhi in September 2016, Chunauti’s main feature was dividing children of a class into groups according to their learning levels and teaching them separately. Groups of mentor teachers developed a new series of text and workbooks called Pragati. For short-term training programmes, the practice of lecturing at teachers from a stage was abandoned in favour of workshops, and many teachers were trained outside Delhi and even in universities abroad.

Pragati textbooks designed and written by mentor teachers displayed outside a seminar in Delhi (Credit: Shreya Roy Chowdhury)

‘Momentum will fizzle out’

Among teachers and principals, opinion about the reforms was divided. An East Delhi principal was critical of the “parallel system” that was established to manage education, which involved many non-profit organisations. “The government did not trust its own people but relied on them to implement programmes designed by non-profits that did not know the ground reality,” he said, asking not to be identified. Chunauti, for instance, required many more teachers to work than most schools have. “Maintaining an average [student] attendance of 70% is [also] a struggle for me,” he added.

Children’s learning levels slid despite the interventions in education, and the one-size policies robbed teachers of all autonomy, said a former coordinator for school management committees in the Badarpur area of South Delhi, bordering Haryana. He also requested anonymity. As a committee coordinator from 2015 to ’17, he had helped several schools in his area implement the reforms. “Now teachers spend most of their time filling registers with data and sending reports,” he said, adding that the programmes will still run because the non-profits are still around.

The principal believes that the many campaigns for reading and engaging parents might have worked better if instant results were not demanded. The government, he said, wants quick-fixes so the results may be used for political gain, “so they can say the revolution has happened”. This increased the pressure upon teachers.

This meme started doing the rounds after news that the appointments of Atishi Marlena and other Delhi government advisors had been cancelled on the directions of the Union government. It reads: Modi's advisor (left), and Kejriwal's advisor. The meme references the BJP-led Madhya Pradesh government’s decision to give five sadhus the status of ministers.

Still, both coordinator and principal agreed that the government acknowledged the learning deficit and attempted to address it. “Before them, school education in Delhi was not a concern at all,” said the East Delhi principal. “With this government, it is on the top. That transformation has definitely taken place.” He added that Marlena routinely visited government schools, that infrastructure has improved and the newest batch of special category schools – the five “schools of excellence” starting this year – are drawing away students from private schools.

But for many, Marlena’s departure has dropped a question mark over the education programmes initiated by the Delhi government. Mission Buniyaad, aimed at closing learning gaps in municipal schools that teach Classes 1 to 5, and the Delhi government’s own schools – most of which start from Class 6 – was launched on April 11. Another “mega parent-teacher meeting” is scheduled for April 21, and Marlena was just beginning to organise parents whose children attend private schools. Teachers organised into “assessment units” were working on improving the quality of question papers. “Schools still require that handholding,” said Vandana Gautam, a mentor teacher for a set of schools in South Delhi. “Atishi was always present on our social media groups and would respond to our queries even at 1 am. Once out of the official position, resistance to the changes will grow and the momentum will fizzle out.”

Marlena did not issue orders directly. Plans and projects were executed through the Directorate of Education. One section of government teachers believes she can frame policy and oversee implementation even from outside the Delhi Secretariat. Others are not so sure. As a senior Aam Aadmi Party member said: “It is not as if something will happen in two-three weeks but the fact that all these policies were being monitored right from the deputy chief minister’s office did make a difference in their implementation. Plus, education reform is a 10-year project. Systemic-change cannot happen in three years.”