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Literacy and empowerment: An Indian scenario

Literacy and empowerment: An Indian scenario

Saini, Asha

“Education is the basic tool for the development of consciousness and reconstitution of society.”

-Mahatma Gandhi

Much of the world’s attention is focused on literacy and education as a way to enhance economic and social development in the 21st century. Such efforts raise the following basic questions: “What is literacy?” and “How can literacy resolve the existing worldwide disparities in living standards?”

According to Harris and Hodges (1995), trying to form a single definition of literacy is complicated by linguistic interpretations, because literacy development is affected by certain factors, including age, gender, and education. Hence, literacy must encompass the following three concepts:

Adaptations to social expectations

Power to realize aspirations and its effects on social change and ideological values

Ideological values and political goals, as well as the general skills, abilities, and knowledge required for a productive life.

Adult literacy may be conceived of as a level of ability that enables a person to enter, and function effectively in, the workforce. Formerly perceived as contrasts with sharp divisions, illiteracy and literacy are now considered as part of the same continuum.

Thus, literacy is part of a educational process by which a person’s mind and character are constantly developing. The process involves preparing a person to earn a living, live and work with others, and contribute toward the development of both self and the community. All three objectives have been goals of educational endeavors throughout history.

Recognizing the role of and the right to education, nations of the world have adopted the World Declaration on Education for All (EFA) and the Framework for Action to Meet Basic Learning Needs in March 1990 at Jomtein, Thailand, World Conference. These declarations represent worldwide consensus on an expanded vision of basic education and a renewed determination of the global community to confirm that the basic learning needs of all children, youth and adults are met effectively in all the countries.

The challenge remains to raise literacy rates around the world, and resolve long-standing problems related to illiteracy, such as high rates of school drop-outs and perpetuation of poverty cycles. These problems, in turn, have been acknowledged within a broader social context involving the ever-changing nature of politics and the gap between rich and poor. Within these changing contexts, increasing numbers of children and adults around the world have been denied the chance for a happy and productive life. Hence, Education for All (EFA) has called for national and international action to help countries where economic disparities are widening and literacy rates are low (Rao, 1998).

This article explores the place of education in Indian society, as well as recent outreach programs in preliteracy and adult literacy that translate the goal of EFA into a reality. The fact that a country’s educational needs and resources are largely a function of certain social, economic, historic, and geographic realities becomes clear through an examination of literacy in India throughout its history.

Pre-Independence: Traditions

The ancient scriptural and literary traditions of Indian society, recognized for celebrating its diversity among people, culture, language, and religion, date back to 1000 to 1500 B.C. The vehicle for these distinguished written scriptures, which contain information on virtually all aspects of human activity-spirituality, philosophy, art, history, and statecraft-is Sanskrit. The written script of Sanskrit was introduced in the 5th century, providing the basis for Greek and Latin. Other than linguists, few people are aware that the classics of Indian culture are thus the foundation for much in Western civilization.

Consequently, contemporary offshoots of the Indo– Iranian linguistic family provide the means of communication for one of every two human beings alive today. Sanskrit currently serves as the lingua franca of India even though it is not commonly spoken by the masses. Over the centuries, most of the Sanskrit manuscripts were destroyed as a result of political turbulence or weather. Many of those that remain lack translations.

From 250 B.C. to A.D. 250, free education for all (except unskilled workers) spread from the north to the south of India, attracting students from many neighboring countries. During the Muslim rule ( 1000 A.D. to 1800 A.D.), however, Indian libraries were destroyed, universities ransacked, students dispersed, and Sanskrit scriptures replaced with the teachings of the Koran. Widespread cultural activities and the study of logic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, accountancy, administration, and agriculture continued. Under the influence of Britain’s imperial rule (during the 18th century), the intelligentsia and literati of India became familiar with Western values. Employment in the public services and private firms became conditional on displaying scientific thinking, a good command of the English language and literature, and mastery of British culture and etiquette. A unified educational system promoting the ideals of democracy, equality, and rationalism facilitated, to some extent, the process of solving problems associated with regionalism and parochial loyalties. Unfortunately, education became primarily a means of producing a class of Indian clerks and low-level bureaucrats, who would fill key administrative positions for British officers (Sebaly, 1988). Under British rule, only 14 percent of the population was literate, and only one out of three children was enrolled in primary school.

During 1938-1947, the Indian leaders of the National Planning Committee succeeded in expanding this narrow goal of education into one that could support an independent India by educating all its citizens. The new initiatives mandated compulsory education, raising education standards at all levels, and conducting significant experiments for libraries and adult education. In addition, higher universities and institutions in science, technology, and research were established using the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as a model (Sebaly,1988).

Post-Independence: Trends

Once the Republic of India gained independence on August 15,1947, the challenge remained of balancing a fragmented and skewed education system that was characterized by schisms along regional, class, and gender lines. To help achieve greater economic development, as well as equality and quality in education, India launched a non-discrimination policy. Gandhi’s “basic education” policy emphasized experiential learning, and served as the foundation of India’s constitution. Universalization of Elementary Education (UEE) provided free, compulsory education for all children up to the age of 14, and the Constitution called for adult education programs for those between the ages of 15-35.

The language of instruction in each state is that state’s mother tongue (one of the 18 dominant regional languages recognized as official among the 845 spoken in India). In addition, Hindi is taught as the central language; English (used for official and commercial business) is taught as a third language. Sanskrit has been introduced in some states in middle school. Constitutional support of this multi-language system requires all states to publish books in up to a dozen or more languages (Rao, 1998).

The National Policy on Education (NPE) and Program of Action (POA) set the stage for a concerted effort to expand and improve basic education programs, both formal and informal, for children and adults. It emphasized helping students from lower castes and tribes, especially girls; improving school facilities; and attaining satisfactory levels of learning.

Embracing the EFA movement, India adjusted its existing education policies in 1992 and expanded formal and alternative outreach literacy programs to reach vulnerable children and adults, especially girls who often are compelled to drop out from formal schools to help at home. This new approach to literacy and education focuses on functional literacy, vocational education, special education, and nutrition, as well as on the quality of content and process in primary education. Other areas, according to the revised National Policy of Education (1992), allow different communities to establish their own priorities. The national government has set up a number of resource institutions, including the National Council of Educational Research and Training and the National Institute of Educational Planning and Administration. Education funding has increased to 6 percent of the Gross Domestic Product (GDP), of which 65.5 percent goes to elementary education (Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1999).

India’s commitment to empowering its children, youth, and adults is illustrated in several ways. Two particularly noteworthy and ambitious programs are the Total Literacy Project (TLC) (Joseph, 1996) and the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) (Ministry of Information and Broadcasting,1999).

Aksharakeralam: Total Literacy Project (TLC)

Funded on the national level, the Total Literacy Project (Aksharakeralam) was initiated in India’s second most populous district-Kerala-in 1989 in an effort to completely eradicate illiteracy. As a result of this program, Kerala became the country’s first totally literate state, achieving this goal within only one year.

The success story began with a statewide survey by specially trained teams involving about 350,000 volunteers from all walks of life and ages. Volunteers served as planners, trainers, and motivators. A large-scale survey identified the number of illiterates and revealed that 63 percent of the population was above the age of 35, with many having significant visual and/or physical disabilities. Health services-eye-testing campaigns and provision of eyeglasses-attracted people to the program who otherwise were reluctant to join.

Next, the program faced challenges pertaining to curriculum design, resource facilities, staff development, and program evaluation. Learners and instructors mutually agreed upon hours and places for instruction. Excursions and tours were part of the curriculum. Careful monitoring and evaluation of classes maintained the pace and standard of instruction to prevent possible drop outs. Special care was taken to accommodate linguistic and tribal minorities. Although the project emphasized literacy and numeracy, it also, through specially designed media and materials, strove to raise people’s self-respect, motivation, and sense of responsibility. The project also dispensed crucial information related to hygiene, immunizations, cooperative farming, and small saving schemes.

Overall, the TLC Project in Kerala has been one of the most successful projects in India. Research on the project demonstrates that literacy encourages people to become more responsible citizens and capable parents. Other benefits include a considerable reduction in the school drop-out rate, the petty crime rate, and illegal voting practices. The program’s phenomenal successes are attributed to the wholehearted cooperation of both governmental and nongovernmental entities; the dynamic leadership of the district collector, who had both a great vision and commitment to the cause; and a wellcoordinated, tenacious campaign to enlist committed participation from a host of organizations and from different strata of society.

Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS)

ICDS-the world’s largest integrated early childhood education and care (ECEC) program-started with 33 experimental projects in 1975 and currently serves 2.4 million children. The goal of ICDS is to empower underprivileged children younger than age 6, as well as women ages 15 to 45. It strives to ensure that children are physically healthy, mentally alert, emotionally secure, socially competent, and intellectually ready to learn when they reach primary school age. To meet the dual focus of ICDS-promoting children’s school readiness and mothers’ basic education skills-the integrated package of services includes:

Pre-literacy skills-early stimulation, parenting education and participation

Food and nutrition-supplementary feeding and primary maternal care

Health and hygiene-immunization, health checkups, pre- and post-natal care, environmental sanitation, and referral services.

The cost (only $10 annually per child) of ICDS is financed by the Central Government, except for the supplementary nutrition, which is the charge of the state governments. The program is coordinated by various government and nongovernment departments and organizations and is supported by international development agencies.

Comparative studies have established that ICDS has resulted in substantial improvement in drop-out rate, attendance, academic performance, psychological test scores, and enrollment. Significant improvement also has been demonstrated in terms of lower infant mortality rates and greater acceptance of having fewer children. Poised to reach at least 80 percent of Indian families by the end of 2002 (Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, 1999), ICDS has become a force in shaping the entire philosophy and approach of Indian universities.

India is on the threshold of a major transition, the foundations of which have been laid by fundamental changes in its demographic structure and the cumulative effects of various economic and human development policies pursued since it gained independence. The change that is evident, both in the rural and urban areas, is noteworthy considering the lingering class distinctions. Successful alternative literacy programs at early childhood, elementary, and adult levels are successfully empowering millions of people, who reflect an irrepressible desire to succeed and build a better future for themselves and for their country.

Today, India not only has the third largest education system in the world, following the United States and Russia, but also is among the world leaders in the fields of space technology, nuclear research, and electronics. Moreover, the nation has established itself in agriculture and industry.

Future Challenges

With its population reaching close to one billion (Arora, 1999), the future shape of education in India is too complex to envision precisely. Yet, India’s principal asset for the development of human capital remains its educational system. Given the ancient traditions and current trends toward putting a high premium on intellectual and spiritual attainment, India is bound to succeed in achieving its objective of increasing literacy. Glimpses of India’s recent initiatives and achievements offer hope that, once again, she can stand up and guide humankind. The Total Literacy Project of Kerala and the Integrated Child Development Services have provided health and education at a reasonable cost, which holds promise for the new economic and social order that is critical for a strong democracy.

With overall literacy rates steadily improving to 62.2 percent in 1997 (T.V. Asia News,1999), from 18 percent in 1951, India yet has a dubious distinction of having the highest illiteracy rates and number of children not enrolled in school. The literacy rates vary considerably from state to state, as a result of the long tradition of disparities in formal and informal education services. The goal of universal literacy that once was targeted for the vear 2000 is now targeted for 2005.

A variety of new challenges and social needs make it imperative for the global community to formulate and implement the innovative Education for All policy. Nothing short of this will do. Countless children, youth, and adults are deprived of the basic skills that could prepare them to adapt to social and cultural changes and to enhance their quality of life. We must heighten awareness of the rights and capacities of women and the underprivileged, the need for cooperation among nations, and the need for scientific and cultural development.

The people of all nations must connect. If we are to survive in this millennium and benefit from benevolent application of the remarkable, recent advances in science and technology, then we must wage war against illiteracy. Education for All may help transform the world as it continues to do for India. How much more essential it is, then, that all the nations come together to bridge the literacy gap. India’s TLC project proved that the battle against illiteracy cannot be won by government alone; local resources, both human and material, were the key to its phenomenal success. Every educated citizen of the community must take the opportunity to contribute. The following quotation will help translate the vision of universal literacy into a reality.

“So long as the millions live in hunger and ignorance, I hold every man a traitor, who having been educated at the expense of poor, pays not the least heed to them. Our natural sin is the neglect of the masses.”

-Swami Vivekananda

References and Resources

Arora, V. (1999, August 20). Population said to cross the 1-billion mark. India Abroad.

Basham, A. L. (1959). The wonder that was India. In The evergreen encyclopedia (Vol. 1E, p. 145). New York: Grove Press.

Harris, T. L., & Hodges, R. E. (Eds.). (1995). The literacy dictionary. Newark, DE: The International Reading Association.

Joseph, P. J. (1996). The total literacy project of Ernakulum: An epochmaking experiment in India. Convergence, 29(1).

Ministry of Information and Broadcasting, Government of India. (1999). A reference annual. India: Author.

Rao, D. B. (1998). Encyclopedia ofeducation for all (Vol. l-5). New Delhi, India: Discovery Publishing House.

Sebaly, K. P. (1988). India. In The world education encyclopedia (Vol. 2, pp. 576-589). New York: Facts on File Publications.

T.V. Asia News. (November 4,1999).

World Bank (1999). Sustaining primary education reforms. Washington, DC: International Bank for Reconstruction and Development/The World Bank.

Asha Saini

Asha Saini is Assistant Professor, Early Childhood Education, University of Nebraska-Kearney.

Copyright Association for Childhood Education 2000

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