Manipur education and labour minister Thokchom Radheshyam Singh Credit: EastMojo image

New Delhi: Manipur’s education and labour minister Thokchom Radheshyam Singh is committed to overhauling the state’s creaky education system by the time the N Biren Singh-led government completes its five-year term in 2021. The son of a village schoolteacher, Singh considers education reforms as most critical for the state’s 360-degree development.

A former Indian Police Service (IPS) officer, Singh was recently in New Delhi to seek views of representatives of Manipur student bodies and civil society on ways to ease the life of students arriving in India’s mega-metros from the state.

Here are the excerpts from EastMojo’s exclusive interview with Singh:

EM: Despite its small population, Manipur has a high number of students studying outside the state. What are you doing to improve the quality of your educational infrastructure?

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Singh: Manipur might be the only state that sends out the maximum number of students to study outside the state due to the lack of quality educational infrastructure. So, right from schooling to pursuing post-doctoral research, our students have to go elsewhere. But since that is a drain on our resources, we are trying to improve things right from the school to a higher level. Presently, the state only has one central university. Now we have started Dhanamanjuri University under the Rajkiya Uchchatar Shiksha Abhiyan (RUSA). A bill has been passed for setting up of one private international university and it is in the pipeline. We have also started construction of seven residential schools. Our efforts at improving the quality of education in government-run schools have restored the trust of people in them and enrollment has increased.

Singh with representatives of Manipur student bodies and civil society in New Delhi

EM: You have recently initiated steps to make the life of Manipuri students who wish to seek admission outside the state easier. Tell us something about that.

Singh: Since the state sends out a large number of students, we are planning to tie up with student unions in cities like Delhi, Mumbai, Bengaluru, Chennai and Kolkata. We are thinking of forming committees with nodal officers from the government acting as focal points. Like many young people travel to Delhi without proper documents. Now we can encourage union members to open camp offices at suitable locations in Manipur to provide all the relevant details. Such facilitation centres will help students save their precious time and resources. I had a discussion with students’ representatives in Delhi and they have given some great ideas. We will shortly start work on them.

EM: This might be the first outreach of its kind by a state government from the region? Moreover, the student union representatives that met you represent a diversity of political ideologies.

Singh: Yes, and the thought came to my mind since I have also studied in Delhi and understand the challenges that a student is likely to face. I have appealed to all stakeholders, including students and their parents, to cooperate with us to make this possible through teamwork. I am planning to soon organise a big interaction in New Delhi and then take it to other parts of the country.

EM: You often regret the scarcity of world-class educational infrastructure in Manipur. Do you have a long-term vision for the state’s education sector?

Singh: As long as I am there in the government, I will pursue this as a challenge. And it is not just about constructing buildings. I have seen schools in South Korea and the UK where teachers treat schoolkids as their own children. Learning commences the moment a good relationship is established between a student and a teacher. We are, therefore, committed to setting-up world-class public schools in Manipur and have identified 60 schools in different constituencies for the purpose. This holistic approach will ensure the availability of well-trained and highly motivated teachers as well as properly done up smart classrooms. I have big dreams for Manipur’s education sector, which are also shared by the chief minister.

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EM: You have been putting in a lot of effort to introduce transparency in the state’s education sector. How successful have you been on that front?

Singh: The most important thing in education is teachers. Ignoring the fact that education is a profession, we started regarding it as a job opportunity. As a result, teachers were appointed to create employment. I am not trying to blame all teachers but there were some who simply weren’t qualified. Like there were teachers recruited in 2011-12 who were also pursuing their medical degree, with a few continuing to draw two salaries even after becoming doctors! There were government teachers who were also working at private institutes! Then there were contractual teachers who were regularised but couldn’t teach! But there are also plenty of well-qualified good teachers and we are responsible for their welfare. Some of the teachers hadn’t received salaries for months or years! They also faced problems with promotion and transfers. If there were schools that had no teachers, there were also schools that had not students! Also, it took several years for retired teachers to get retirement benefits. Now that those concerns have been identified, we are going to address them. We have made it imperative for teachers to possess a diploma in elementary education or B.Ed. The service books of state government teachers will be digitised. There will be lot more such important changes over the next three years.

EM: How did the state government benefit when you successfully managed to plug in abuses in the system?

Singh: Although things are improving, we still have a long way to go. Like at one point in time we didn’t know about the number of employees in the education department! We booked errant teachers and recovered the entire salary from them. Teachers in especially difficult areas manipulated their service books. Now they feel that once the process is digitised they would be caught. So, we assured them that wouldn’t happen as they had already put in long years of service. My purpose is to first create an effective system of deterrence. I keep receiving a lot of congratulatory messages on my WhatsApp and email.

EM: Another interesting aspect to your stint is that you are perhaps the first education minister of Manipur who has travelled to remote areas along the state’s 400 km border with Myanmar. What are you looking at implementing in those areas?

Singh: Education and health are two sectors that are responsible for widening the divide between the people of hill and valley. The teachers who were posted there never moved in. After seeing the condition in remote areas, I realised that there were neither proper schools nor teachers there. For instance, three classes were being held in a single room with one teacher. We then decided to empower the local communities and have started identifying educated local youth for appointment as teachers. We are going to have district level appointments that fulfill at least the basic minimum requirement so that no villages are without schools or teachers. The student unions in those areas are helping us in this task. We are also going to appoint teachers in anticipation of ensuing retirements to maintain a reserve.

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EM: Since 2014, the central government has been very emphatic on the Act East Policy. Consequently, infrastructure development of the region has also been put on the fast track and new employment opportunities are likely to rise going forward. What are you doing for skill development?

Singh: Up to 70% of our labour force comprises of construction workers. Every year, buildings like schools, houses, hospitals and community halls are constructed. We deduct 1% cess from every construction project, which is then deposited with the Manipur Building and Other Construction Workers’ Welfare Board. The body takes care of the education of the workers’ wards. Registered workers get a pension after retirement at 60. In case of any fatality, they or the next of their kin are entitled to compensation. We utilise the fund to upgrade their skills, while vocational training is provided to their family members. We also have a skill development department under Pradhan Mantri Kaushal Vikas Yojana (PMKVY). The labour department has undertaken training in healthcare, wellness, construction, carpentry, electricals, etc. Although we had the necessary funds, selecting the right training partners was somewhat challenging as Manipur is very new to the idea of skill development. Now that we have identified training providers, we have started the programme in different areas. Over the next few years, we will not only have plenty of skilled manpower available but some from among them will also become job providers.

EM: How are you preparing the workforce in Manipur for the all-round disruption on account of new technologies?

Singh: We cannot survive without imbibing technology. Young minds from the state need to be trained in the latest technologies available. We cannot sail against the winds of change but have to go with them. Like artificial intelligence is one important area. The state IT and education departments have started several new initiatives such as smart classrooms. The world has become a much smaller place and the people of Manipur have to adapt to these changes, and technology is the only way to do that.

EM: With protests around the Citizenship (Amendment) Act still fresh on everyone’s mind, what are BJP’s chances in the two Lok Sabha seats from the state?

Singh: We are hoping to win both the seats. We are 100% sure about one seat, while the contest on the other is reportedly a bit tight. Therefore, let us wait to be pleasantly surprised on May 23.

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