Local authorities should monitor MDM scheme properly: Tharoor

Union minister and Congress leader Shashi Tharoor said the Central government wants the local authorities to monitor the Mid Day Meal (MDM) programme properly. He showed his happiness with the way the Odisha government is conducting the programme. In an interview with OTV, Tharoor said Congress party does not have much fundamental differences with BJD. Here are excerpts:
 
Q: Recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh in his I-Day address said the Mid Day Meal (MDM) scheme will be reformed and “concrete measures” will be taken to ensure that meals provided under it are nutritious and cooked hygienically. What concrete measures the HRD Ministry has initiated so far?
 
A: I discussed the issues of mid-day meal with the chief minister of Odisha when I saw him today. Certainly, the scheme is working well in Odisha. Nothing happened like the tragic incident in Bihar. Particularly, what is admirable in Odisha is that your state government has associated a lot of women self help groups to run kitchens. There is an engagement of the community. Odisha has also done something unusual introducing egg as part of the mid day meal which is very good initiative. There is certain standard required for storage and cooking of food. Before serving to children the food should be by two responsible ad-hocs in the school. We are insisting that the guidelines should be followed. We are certainly demanding the local authorities to be more vigilant while monitoring the operation. I believe in Odisha the process is happening without very much trouble and the chief minister is quite pleased in the progress being made in the mid day meal scheme in Odisha.
 
Q: At the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE) meeting held in April 2013, at New Delhi, you had suggested that educational institutions be exempted from load-shedding during teaching hours in order to allow uninterrupted functionality of the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) system. Have you got any positive response to your proposals so far?
 
A: On this issue the school education ministers who were present said they would take steps to either ensure that supply was not interrupted in the area during school hours. There is an infrastructures problem in our country, we cannot doubt it. There is no point in providing the computers and broad band to schools if you do not have electricity to run them. If we are going to successfully use the ICT to multiply the benefits of education. For example we will love to see, lecturers and professors in one part of the country being accessible to students in remote areas of another part of the country through videoconferencing and ICT. But if there is no electricity then this is not going to happen. Some of the infrastructure details must be overcome. State education ministers are certainly responded about the understanding that this was a legitimate concern I have raised. This is to be left to the state governments.
 
Q: Do you think the digital divide especially at school level is growing between urban and semi-urban or rural areas?
 
A: No, actually here my experience is opposite. The digital divide is narrowing more and more people in our rural areas becoming familiar with computers and what is more we are also guessing more broadband connectivity is an ambitious plan by the government to connect 2.5 lakh Indian villages to the global village by getting broadband connections. In addition the next stage we can look forward to revolution of mobiles. Only 12% of India currently has an access to internet but 70% of our population do not have mobile phones. As we go to 3G and 4G and as internet use on mobile telephones becoming faster, cheaper and more effective then I think you will find more and more people in rural India will be connecting internet through mobile phones. I would say before 2020, majority of Indians on internet mainly through mobile phones.
 
Q: Approximately 42% faculty positions in 16 Indian Institutes of Technology (IITs) are vacant. Further, almost half of faculty positions in National Institutes of Technology (NITs) are vacant. To mitigate current shortages, these institutes are engaging faculty on contract and visiting faculty. Will these steps suffice?
 
A: First of all we don’t expect the IITs and NITs to compromise on quality standards. We do not want them to hire anybody sub-standard just to fulfil the positions. At the same time we want to make an energetic effort to find suitable faculties in the country and we believe there are more people out there that have been intact. The President of India himself has said in one of his speeches to make all our effort to reduce vacancy position in all our institutions not just the IITs and NITs but across the board.
 
Q: Talking about the country’s university system. Are we producing well educated graduates to meet the needs of Indian companies today?
 
A: Probably not. I believe the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industries (FICCI), they did a study last year and which said that 64% of employers are not satisfied with the quality of graduates they are getting available to hire including from engineering and technological institutions. This is the real problem. Once you get passed the elite schools, the top institutions in our country those seem to be sort of islands of excellent floating in the sea of mediocrity. We find that big companies now hiring people whom they are totally not satisfied with and then reeducating them and I don’t just mean on the job training. You get a company like Infosys, their campus is like a University campus in Mysore where the new recruits are actually put through one year of education to make up for deficiencies of education that they have received in their college. So that is a bit of worry. That is a sign of too many of our colleges are producing people with degrees that are not way the paper written on and people who are not sufficiently qualified for industry. We would like to see more academia and industry collaboration. 
 
Q: Maoists are targeting schools as these educational institutions are being used to shelter security forces. Does your ministry take a serious view of that?
 
A: Well, the ministry is careful not to interfere in this matter. Because both law and order and school education are firmly within responsibility of the state government.  This is the question that the state government needs to address whether they are proceeding in the right way. I spoke to the CM about the larger question of Naxalite and left wing extremist situation in Odisha. And he was able to tell me there was a lot of progress have been made in many districts barring one district which is still in trouble and things have calm down in many parts of Odisha. If there is so we can look forward to see the end of this particular phenomenon.
 
Q: Naveen Patnaik says he is maintaining equidistance from Congress and BJP. Is there any possibility of Congress forging pre-poll or post-poll alliance with BJD? Is the door open?
 
A-Let me say that the door is always open, but it's not my place to work on this area. I have a very different role in the party. I know that many in our party have high level of respect for Naveen Patnaik and for his leadership of the state of Odisha. I don't think there are any fundamental issues between us by comparison with the fundamental issues that divide us from Mr Modi and BJP. Mr Patnaik leads a secular party and his values as a secular person and a democrat are not values that we have a problem with. Yes, we are in opposition in the state of Odisha, but that does not compare to how we feel about the principles or lack of principles that animate Mr Modi's BJP. So, as far as we are concerned, there is an ocean of difference (between BJD and BJP) and the door is very much open from our side. When the time comes, we all have to see what comes out of the elections.