Journalist Shipra Mathur Tells Us What It Took To Shake The NEENV Of Education In Rajasthan
- IWB Post
- August 12, 2017
As soon as the cab stopped in front of the Rajasthan Patrika office in Jaipur, it looked as if I was in the wrong location.
I could never imagine such a grand, and traditional Haveli could be bustling with newspeople scrambling to get the paper ready before dusk? And through the halls, in one quiet room, a woman sat in a teal saree engrossed in a book.
As the Editor of Media Action Group at Rajasthan Patrika, Shipra Mathur’s journey with the education campaign began 6 years ago when the RTE came into effect. It was efforts of her team that made the government more accountable for the money they spend on education. She even helped organize parent teacher conferences in remote villages last year on Independence Day. Shipra managed to shake the NEENV of the education system.
Her table had a minimal clutter of stacked papers, something rare for a journalist. Unlikely my mind was the chaos of thoughts as I launched the conversation.
How did you come up with the name NEENV for this campaign?
NEENV started two years ago, we were initially focused on the 25% reservation clause and had got 50,000 children enrolled in schools, but that was a slippery slope. So as an offshoot to the Aao Padhaye, Sabko Badhayein (Come let us teach and work for the rise of all), we started NEENV. The name refers the entire system to the basics.
Why was there a focus on government schools specifically?
Government schools are never on the priority list of mainstream media as an ongoing subject. There is no conflict of interest as well. The argument I have kept making is that government schools have ample resources but why isn’t there any quality. There were almost 14 thousand government schools that exist within Rajasthan itself.
As she continued to talk she got up to take out a large file titled NEENV that landed on the table with a huge thud. It felt like the file too realized the gravity of the issue we were discussing.
This must not have been possible to complete with just your team here. How did you manage it all?
So we worked as a team with active citizens, NGOs, and volunteers who all came from different parts of India and they surveyed 1500 schools going to places where the government’s own surveyors could not reach nor had any journalist reach there before. These volunteers became citizen auditors, and through the experiences of what they saw, they became citizen journalists.
People didn’t believe that these young, elite youngsters would actually go up to such locations. Once it went into full swing, we didn’t sleep for almost a year and a half!
Do you think that it was better to send the young and elite to the remote villages?
It surprisingly was, the villages actually appreciated the fact that such people had come all the way there to help them. It helped break the ice, and the volunteers came back with staggering stories. They made the issue into a front page agenda which worried the government. And made the government reach out towards the issue, effectively.
So if people from different regions was a good idea, do you think other countries who want to help India’s education system should also provide human resources?
Absolutely, in these regions, the value of the fact that someone has come from a far away place makes people more proactive. It is the opposite of any other country. Our diversity helps us with this. People here tend to open up more because of the curiosity.
As our discussion continued from child tracking data to what actually was free in RTE, she was flipping through her big file of all the articles published. I noticed a few headlines on the female education crisis. This seemed like the perfect moment to step into some bigger issues again.
In the schools that you visited and reported about, what was it like for girls who wanted to go to school? Are there new policies specifically for them?
So through the reports that we created and the other sources we had, it became evident that there were fewer girls enrolled in government schools relative to the number of boys. There were 84 girls enrolled for every 100 boys. There used to be a bathroom problem, or because of safety reasons, they couldn’t go to a school which was just two kilometers away from their homes. Active citizens who heard about such conditions through the articles, reached out to donate money for clean bathrooms or a bus to help in safe transportation.
Policy wise, child tracking mechanisms of the health department both in the central and in Rajasthan have become equipped with better technologies. Now each girl child is accounted for at birth, and there is a check on the mortality rate of girls between the ages of 0 and 1 to ensure that female infanticide levels continue to decline. People have become more vigilant in the communities too.
So the fact that they were enrolled would that mean they were getting an education as well?
They were, but maybe not what they deserved. If a poor family has two children but can only afford a private school education for one, the boy would get an English education at a private school. And the girl would go to a government school where teachers would not show up and basically they wouldn’t have classes.
We went on to discuss how the government responded slowly but steadily in making positive changes and how people in government would ask her why she was after them and she had a simple response, “We’re not after you, we’re after the issue, and we’d support you, but we can not hide the truth.” To me, this was a powerful point, and I wondered if such conversations were normal to her.
Being a woman in journalism, does it ever backfire, I mean do people take you less seriously or does it become riskier in difficult situations that you may have faced during the campaign?
It was more positive than a backfire. I have always felt I could influence more, and empathize. I knew what hardship meant, for example, I knew what it was like when there isn’t a clean toilet around. I could empathize with the emotion of how it felt when you are not allowed to speak up, or when you are in a room of ten men, and you are forgotten. But I looked at it all from an advantage point that I could make a difference or influence more. Some people in the civil society came up to me and said that I was the only one they could listen to because I would always take people to task if they were not doing this or that. “Hum sirf aap se darte hai” (We are only scared of you). I took that as a compliment that if they are scared of me, it is because they actually care about the issues I am working on.
On a fun note, walk us through your typical work day.
In the morning I am always busy with my family, and afterward I come to work, between all this I can never have time to eat properly, and I am often called out for that by my family. But I always try and take some time out for myself. I love chocolates, especially the fruit and nut ones, and love having a little bit of chocolate to relax on my way home.
Here we pushed the heavy file away and went on talking about everything else.
By the way, it is a brunch time, what woman role model, dead or living, would you invite for a quick snack?
I would love to go to brunch with Kathy Laurini. I recently met her at an event and would love to continue talking to her or listening to her about heading the Space Exploration Operations at NASA. It was magical, especially when she acknowledged ISRO and that I came from India.
Well, since space travel is still something of the future, if you could visit to explore any other country, on an all expense paid trip, where would you like to go?
Oh, I would love to go to Japan, I love some of the things like how they are so close to their culture, the beautiful practices that they have that even we can adopt into our cultures. I would love to know more about their philosophy on life and how they are so energetic. I recently read about an 80-year-old woman who created an app. That is something inspiring that we can all learn from, they don’t take age as a negative stress, they continue to do what they are curious about.
When the conversation took us to Japan, my phone started to flicker that I was running low on the battery and I realized that time had sped at lightyear speed. When I was leaving, I saw her pick up the book but with a smile that had something more to it.
Is this how the self-fulfilment smiles?