Gaining Independence from Illiteracy

Last Updated: Friday, August 14, 2009 - 00:26

Devika Chhibber

India’s literacy growth rate since independence: 18% to 65% as per 2001 consensus

Male literacy rate: 76%

Female literacy rate: 54%

Variation from state to state: Kerala’s 91% against 47% in Bihar

Statistics mentioned above indicate that while progress has been made, measures have been far from adequate. We therefore need to upgrade our education system so that illiteracy can be completely uprooted from India. No matter how hard we try to fight the problem, it simply seems to persist. That even after 62 years of independence we have to lay stress on this issue is a shame- but at least it’s better than brushing it under the carpet.

India, the land of Vedas, where we have learnt over the years that culture flourishes with literature, is one of the nations with highest illiteracy rates. Even underdeveloped countries like Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Vietnam and Thailand have achieved higher literacy levels in shorter time.

In his India Development Report 2002, Kirit S. Parikh pointed out, “With a literacy rate of 65, we have 296 million illiterates, age seven years and above, as per the 2001 census. The number of illiterates today exceeds the population of the country of around 270 million at Independence, age seven and above.”

Our society faces several challenges in the form of poverty, unemployment, child labour, female feticide, overpopulation etc. But all of them evolve from illiteracy which is actually the mother of most our problems.

A high literacy rate can contribute to valuable social and economic participation by the people which will go a long way in human development and poverty eradication. Spread of education is necessary for modernization, urbanization, industrialization, communication and commerce. You name an issue and literacy will be a prerequisite for its solution.

Illiteracy in India can be easily characterized by the wide gaps between the urban and rural populations. The urban population is more educated and therefore desires a life of comfort and luxury. On the other hand, the rural population depends on agriculture for their survival. They are the food providers of our country, who work for basic necessities and thus feel no need for education in their lives.

Children in rural areas drop out of schools for a variety of reasons: some leave because of a sheer lack of interest; others quit so that they can work in fields or elsewhere, while some have no other choice due to inaccessibility and lack of school teachers.

In villages, a large percentage of the dropouts are females. Forced by their parents, they are limited to performing household chores. They are married at a very early age and are taught since birth that what is important for them is their family and the looking after the house. Education is not even a secondary item on their to-do lists.

Inadequate number of teachers and their absence in schools across the country is another roadblock towards complete literacy. A large number of teachers refuse to teach in rural areas and those who do, are usually under-qualified. Many teachers lack the necessary enthusiasm because of their meagre salaries.

In one of his research papers, Nobel laureate Amartya Sen has mentioned, ‘Absenteeism of comparatively well-paid teachers, particularly where bulk of the students come from scheduled castes and tribes, poses a major problem. Students are circumstantially forced to go in for private tuitions. Sometimes the very institutions that were created to overcome disparities and barriers tend to act as reactionary influences in reinforcing inequality.’

Lack of infrastructure like buildings, benches, books etc is a widespread problem too. Some schools are located in warehouses while others in small thatched rooms which are of little use during rains. Many rural schools operate without electricity. The distribution of government funds is another major hindrance in the reform of our educational system. According to World Bank, ‘30 % of the total educational funding goes toward higher educational institutions.’ What with announcements of quota in higher education and an increase in the number of IIMs & IITs, the government clearly cares little for primary education.

Even private institutions are seen to be a hindrance in the progress of children. In such schools, the children from poor households are seen as lowly, below average and thus not fit to sit and study with the children of upper caste or class. Untouchability has been abolished but this new rift between rich and poor students continues to take its toll on the country’s fortunes.

Our education system is more or less a remnant of the long gone colonial system of the British Empire. No emphasis is ever laid on vocational courses, which can provide many job opportunities. "We are bumbling along with this out modeled system of elementary education, which is a real shame," says Krishna Kumar, director of the Central Institute of Education in New Delhi.

Reservation is yet another problem. Though it exists in other countries as well, reservation in India has a totally different approach. Our government grants reservations on the basis of caste when the correct basis of granting quotas must be the economic standards of the people. As a result, even better off backward caste students seek to get an entry in venerable institutions like the AIIMS through petty quotas. Quality be damned, seems to be the motto of such policies.

Amidst this gloom, a recent welcome measure has been the passage of the Right to Education bill, during this session of Parliament. Its guidelines are like this:

- Compulsory education for children between 6-14 yrs

- Rs 10,000 fine if any child prevented from going school

- No selection and screening process to choose preference over candidates

- No physical punishments

- States need to plan techniques to monitor advancements in the program

- Roping in private schools to keep 25% seats reserved at entry level

- Banning capitation fees

It is a commitment that has taken decades to get fulfilled, but more efforts will be needed to implement it properly. As we have seen all these years, only directions and guidelines cannot resolve any crisis in the country.

Various organizations and schemes have been fighting this problem. In 2003, the Magsaysay Award was awarded to Shantha Sinha in recognition of her work to end child labour, a major reason for illiteracy. The Supreme Court, in 1993, ruled that children had a fundamental right to free education.

The Sarva Siksha Abhiyan launched in 2001 was to ensure that all children in the age group 6–14 years attend school and complete eight years of schooling by 2010. District Primary Education Programme launched in 1994 has so far started more than 160,000 new schools, including almost 84,000 alternative schools. The National Literacy Mission, launched in 1988 aimed at attaining a literacy rate of 75% by 2007.

India is developing but at a very slow rate and one of the main reasons is the low level of literacy. Literacy enables a person to think rationally- for himself and others around him. A literate person is aware of all his fundamental rights and duties. It is a kind of panacea to fight problems like communalism, terrorism and under development. Not only the government, but also every literate citizen should contribute in battling the demon of illiteracy.

Each one should teach one if we are to become a superpower. Mahatma Gandhi once said, ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’ So let us enlighten the world by bringing this change into our and everybody’s lives.



First Published: Friday, August 14, 2009 - 00:26

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