Literacy in India: A Mission Possible

Ulhas Joglekar ulhasj at
Wed Feb 28 19:03:14 MST 2001

Tuesday 26 October 1999


Literacy: A Mission Possible
Bhaskar Chatterjee is the director-general of the National Literacy Mission
(NLM), an organisation which has been entrusted the onerous task of
eradicating illiteracy from the country. On September 8, International
Literacy Day, NLM received UNESCO's prestigious Noama award for literacy.
The award, which carries $15,000 and a silver medal, vindicates the
voluntary spirit of the movement and is a tribute to literacy workers, Mr
Chatterjee tells Sant Kumar Sharma.
What is NLM's brief?
During the first post-independence census in 1951, our literacy stood at an
abysmal 18.3 per cent. The focus during the first three five-year plans was
on creating institutes of higher learning like universities, IITs, IIMs and
such other bodies. In 1978, the first serious attempt was made to address
the problem of adult literacy under National Adult Education Programme
(NAEP). The programme revolved round setting up centres for adult literacy.
The reason was that parents being illiterate themselves were not at all keen
in sending their children to schools. This continued till 1988 when five
technology missions were started. NLM was one of them and acts as the nodal
agency working for eradication of illiteracy. Even this remained dormant
till 1990 when Ernakulam achieved the distinction of becoming the first
fully literate district in the country. Ernakulam gave to us the concept of
Total Literacy Campaign (TLC) which, over the years, has become our
What is the cornerstone of TLC?
Every campaign is time-bound and so are TLCs which are propelled by the
spirit of volunteerism and do the spadework for creating a favourable
environment in the target area for literacy. To create an awareness about
how literacy can change their lives, for the better, involvement of local
people, local organisations, traditional folk forms and lok jathas is
resorted to and then come to books which teach the three R's -- reading,
'riting and 'rithematic.
How wide is your reach?
Our programmes are being implemented in 460 of the 520 districts of India.
In another 20-odd districts we are running centre-based programmes. That
makes them fairly widespread. But we can't leave things at teaching the
three R's as discontinuing literacy classes could mean the neo-literates
would relapse into illiteracy. As such, we are running post-literacy
campaigns in 200 districts. In the third and final phase of continuing
education, our programme takes into its sweep various activities which aim
to broadbase the idea of literacy and not restricting it to the three R's
alone. The third phase is already on in 66 districts.
How far away are we from total literacy?
Well, any dreams of a 100 per cent literacy would be misplaced but an
achievable goal would be what we call sustainable threshold of literacy. We
peg this at 75 per cent. The target age group here is 15 to 35 years which
we call productive and reproductive group. At 75 per cent literacy, we as a
nation won't slide back and since a very large section of the parental group
would have become literate, they would send the children to schools and
ensure that they stayed there. This would lower dropout rates and improve
things in the time to come.
When do you expect to reach this level?
Our projections tell us that if we sustain the present momentum, we will
reach our target by 2005 or a year later.
How big is this `if' in your reply?
Our projections are based on surveys made by National Sample Survey
Organisation (NSSO) as any in-house surveys would have been termed
unreliable by economists and of course the media. In the 1991 census,
literacy was pegged at 52 per cent but according to NSSO survey, it had
climbed to 62 per cent by December 1997, a rise of 10 per cent. This, in
turn, translates to about 1.8 to 2 per cent improvement per annum. Further,
this is for the first time that the number of illiterates has now started
coming down.
But a lot of women are still illiterate?
Of course. But the encouraging trend is that the women's literacy is growing
at a faster rate than men's literacy. While the literacy among women is
growing at the rate of 11 per cent, the corresponding figure for men is nine
per cent per annum.
What is NLM doing to address this problem?
Of course, without ensuring higher participation of women, we will not be
able to reach anywhere near our target. As such, women comprise two-thirds
of our total target group. We focus on women in the literature we produce,
arrange special classes for them in areas where the literacy is very low,
for example, Rajasthan, and do other things aimed specifically at women. As
part of our strategy, we are also recruiting more women volunteers, run
exclusive classes for them and have flexi-hours of learning. In states like
Mizoram and Kerala, the rates of literacy for men and women are almost
identical. But in some districts, the literacy rate for women is as low as
six per cent. The barriers against women's education, including social and
economic, are really daunting but our efforts are yielding positive results.
How important are the voluntary organisations in NLM's scheme of things?
Without the voluntary spirit, things would have been infinitely worse. The
volunteers have given several years of their lives to the cause. But that
spirit may not last for ever. As such, we are devising methods to ensure
continuous participation of the volunteers in the learning process. We plan
to pay Rs 1,200 and Rs 700 per month to senior volunteers -- preraks) -- and
their assistants, respectively. In fact, the finance ministry has already
okayed this plan and it can be implemented after a cabinet meeting. We have
been getting commendable help from NGOs, industries, local youth
organisations etc. in inching towards our goal. We are also involving
panchayats in a big way. I can say that whatever local supportive mechanisms
are available, we wan to minimise our role to be that of a facilitator only.
What is the attitude of the government?
Of late, successive governments have backed us whole-heartedly and told us
to just go out and do it. We have not accepted any foreign funding for our
programmes and our pace is only inhibited by the colossal nature of the
How will Noama literacy award help?
At an international level, the perception was that India is a country having
the largest number of illiterates and that nothing was being done to address
this problem. The award has brought us international recognition and will
help change this negative image and can open the door to foreign funding.
But we will accept any foreign funding only at our own terms.
Without the voluntary spirit, things would have been infinitely worse. The
volunteers have given several years of their lives to the cause. But that
spirit may not last for ever. As such, we are devising methods to ensure
continuous participation of the volunteers in the learning process.

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Bennett, Coleman & Co. Ltd. 1999.

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