Smriti Irani, all of 38, was a surprise choice for the heavyweight HRD ministry. And 100 days into her job and a few controversies later, she is resigned to the idea that she will continue to attract controversies because of her stardom. But none of that would take her attention away from all the promises made in BJP manifesto. Excerpts from an interview with ET.
Q. Three months into this job, what are your top achievements and major regrets?
A. When I came into this office, people were working in silos. School education and higher education should have converged efforts, but it wasn't happening. I got officials of both verticals to sit together for policy decisions. We introduced two female members in the IIT Council which has been an all-boys club. I also appointed the first ever female chairperson of the Indian Institute of Advanced Studies. As for regrets, I have never lived a life of regret.
Q. Can we expect any big announcements in the offing?
A. I understand that my predecessors - I would not like to name any individual - were people who were enamoured by big-ticket announcements. My belief is that god is in the details. I can't reveal more than that right now.
Q. You have said there will be a new education policy. What challenges will it address?
A. The PM had said in a conversation with our ministry that we need to make India manpower ready in 10 to 15 years from now. That apart, we need to figure out what new knowledge we can deliver to the world that will attract students and research scholars abroad to our country.
Q. Have you identified areas where India can offer new knowledge?
A. The IITs have identified 10 goal posts vis-a-vis research that vary from nanotechnology to aerospace to holistic healing. I will set up sub groups of experts who can help identify how we can arrive upon new knowledge. This will be an exhaustive process. Policy cannot be drafted between the polity and bureaucracy. All stakeholders should have a say in it. It's this process that India has waited for too long.
Q. You have lamented inadequate awareness about great personalities and the glory of ancient India...
A. It's extremely unfortunate that due recognition has not been given to many who have selflessly served the country. I was shocked to know that children don't know about Pingali Venkayya (who designed the national flag) or who our Param Vir Chakra awardees are. My desire is to see our contemporary heroes and other unsung personalities get their due place in history amongst our students. When I was being criticized for Sanskrit Saptah (Sanskrit Week), Manjul Bhargav, who got the Fields Medal in Mathematics, said he owed his success to the fact he learned Sanskrit in school. I think we need to understand our own strengths as a nation.
Q. But the HRD ministry is seen as a sort of rewriter of textbooks ...
A. Any effort undertaken within this ministry will not breach any constitutional propriety. I have chosen a gentleman named Syed Bari as the new Vice Chancellor of the central university of Gujarat on the basis of merit. Those who accuse us of being ideologically too rightist would not have imagined this. I have made a consistent effort to not come out and explain all my appointments and decisions.
Q. A major criticism of industry is that the education system does not produce people fit for the industry. How do you address this?
A. We are in the process of designing a council for higher education, industry and academia collaboration which will address all concerns on one platform. This will help us solve challenges vis a vis employability.
Q. Quality higher education is a major problem. How do you plan to address this?
A. I feel that education to empower people can happen through the 'Digital Indian' campaign. We are in the process of structuring the Indian version of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) which will help us deliver education to every individual free of cost. Only if you want certification would you need to pay a nominal cost. The industry-academia collaboration will suggest improvements needed in higher education. We are working with the UGC and AICTE on an online portal which ensure students are well informed of their choice before joining a college or university.
Q. Will you make changes to the RTE legislation?
A. In my conversation with all officers and representatives of states we have said that there is a need to review RTE (Right to Education Act), along with SSA (Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan), RMSA (Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan) and RUSA (Rashtriya Uchch Shiksha Abhiyan). The process of evaluation and course correction has already started and will be institutionalized.
Q. Quality of state-run schools, with the exception of the Kendriya Vidyalayas, are not good? How do you plan to address that?
A. There is a need to ensure that the facilities provided to government schools students are enhanced. One of our initiatives is 'Shala Darpan'. Under this, parents sending their children to government schools will get updates via SMS everyday on their child's attendance, timetable, teachers' attendance, homework and marksheets. This facility is not available to students in private schools. We are hoping to roll out this initiative in four states soon.
Q. What role do you see for the corporate sector in education apart from helping build toilets in schools?
A. They can help us with research. Next year I am planning a campaign in which I plan to bring together research and industry.
Q. There is this perception that the PM keeps a close watch on his ministers, which can be stifling. Is that characterisation correct?
A. That is the biggest misconception about him. As a leader he enables you to design your own path, to take competent decisions. He has never taken this paathshala (class) that many accuse him of. We are working together as a holistic entity. When the power minister was visiting Uri in J&K with the Prime Minister, they found that the Kendriya Vidyalaya there did not have Classes XI and XII. I remember I was asked at 9 am whether we could do something about it. By noon we started two new classes. This is possible only because there's such communication which is enabled by the PM.
Q. Why have you and your ministry have been involved in the largest number of controversies during the short term of this government?
A. Since I have had 15 years of experience in the media business, I know that only those people who are read about are written about. I happen to be one of those people. I can't help it.
Q. The Congress has accused the HRD ministry of curbing the autonomy of the IITs...
A. Since I am the chairperson of the IIT Council, I can say that there is absolutely no conflict, no institutions are at loggerheads with each other. If I keep addressing every gossip column then I'll keep chasing headlines instead of doing my job.
Q. What do you say to critics who say you lack the scholarship to head a ministry such as HRD?
Q. Don't you think this issue will keep coming up?
A. I wouldn't know and I wouldn't care.
Q. How has your family reacted to your changed profile?
A. It's great privilege to be given this responsibility at such a young age. As far as my family is concerned, they were never enamoured by my success as an actor and they are not enamoured by my job as a minister.
Q. If not for HRD what would Smriti Irani do?
A. Right now? I'd be preparing dinner for my kids.
Q. Do you see Amethi as something that will be part of your life going forward?
A. Those who doubted whether I will go back to the constituency perhaps never saw the fact I had a continuous engagement even with Chandni Chowk. In the heat of the electoral fight, many disregarded that and targeted me. These people were taken aback when they saw me go back. For me it's (Amethi) just a commitment I kept and I shall keep further.
Q. What would you consider a successful stint?
A. If I can meet all the promises outlined in our manifesto. These promises will be dealt with in the first one year.