Monday, December 10, 2007

The Unsung Heroes of Indian Villages

On the mass literacy movement in India

In the five decades of independent India, the nineties witnessed the biggest achievement in mass literacy, taking India’s literacy level to 65.38 per cent according to the Census 2001 figures, released late last year. It is a great achievement in view of the enormity of the task covering a 1000 million population, the diversity of the languages and terrain, the problems related to a society divided by caste and untouchability, economic disparities and the immense poverty.
The nineties was a decade which saw a great awakening among the ordinary people all over India in a countrywide literacy drive, and the results were evident in the fact that while in all the four previous decades the average literacy growth rate was a meagre 9.41 per cent, in the nineties it was as high as 14 per cent.

The reason for the literacy revolution in the nineties was simple: unlike in the past when the government agencies and bureaucracy led the mass education programmes, the nineties saw a new approach with the non-governmental organizations and the civil society movements taking the lead, converting the literacy programme into a public campaign organically linked to the day-to-day life of the people. The result was a hugely successful mass movement with almost a million volunteers in various parts of India joining the ranks of the literacy movement, taking the message to a phenomenal 100 million people in the far corners of the country in the short span of a decade.

Chelakkodan Aysha, a poor Mulsim woman from Malappuram in Kerala; Usha, a Dalit literacy campaigner from Begusarai in Bihar, and Sagar More, a Dalit woman from the slums of Mumbai, are the public faces of the new movement that has spread all over India in the past one and a half decade. Chelakkodan Aysha is the pioneer of the movement as she was the person selected to make the historic declaration at a meeting held at Kozhikode in Kerala in 1991 when the state declared itself fully literate after a year-long campaign in which tens of thousands of volunteers were actively involved. Now at the ripe age of 80, Aysha is nursing ambitions of learning the skills of computer as her home-town of Malappuram is pioneering another mass education campaign, of making the people fully computer literate.

Usha became associated with the literacy movement in Begusarai in the mid-nineties when Bihar took up the cause of mass adult literacy seriously. None of her family members including her husband was literate and it was a hard task initially to get them agree to her desire to join the evening classes, she remembered as she spoke to journalists at the national convention of literacy workers at the freedom grounds near Humayun tomb in New Delhi recently. Through the literacy movement, Usha became associated with public causes and now she is a member of the Bihar Legislative Council and also the president of the Bihar State unit of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, the national level nodal agency coordinating the mass ltiteracy movement in India.

Sagar More recalls that as a small child, she was discriminated against in the class-room because she was dalit and an untouchable. “I was humiliated by the teacher and dropped out after one year in school,” she said. But she went back to the world of letters in 1988 as an adult student in the National Literacy Mission campaign becoming a volunteer in due course. “My daughter has now graduated from university and wants to study for master’s degreee,” she said prouldy in an interview to Unesco Courier, in an article celebrating the unsung heroes and heroines of Indian countryside in this silent revolution.

The paradigm shift in the literacy movement came after the success of a novel experiment in Ernakulam when the district administration joined hands with non-governmental organizations like the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad taking up an experimental programme for total literacy in the coastal district of Kerala in 1989.It was the first time this new approach of mass campaign was put to test and it was a phenomenal success. Emboldened by the successs, the State Government of Kerala took up the campaign a year later culminating in the total literacy declaration at Kozhikode in 1991.

It was then the turn of the Indian Government to take the movement all over the country, with focus on mass participation. The National Literacy Mission was set up in 1988 with the objective of covering 100 million non-literates in the age group of 15 to 35 by the year 1999 and to take the country to the dream target of 100 per cent literacy by the year 2005. Despite the unprecedented levels of achievement, the target of total literacy in the country remains still a dream and the governement has now set 2012 as the target year for total literacy in India.

“There has been shortfalls, bureaucratic hassles and setbacks,but it is fact that we have been able to develop a working model for mass campaigns like literacy,” says Dr Krishnakumar, national coordinator of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti, the voluntary agency that spearheaded the movement in the past decade. An asssistant director at the State Institute of Languages, Thiruvananthapuram, Krishnakumar said that it was the active association of popular mevoments and non-governmental organizations that made the programme a great success.

The Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti was established as the main engine for mass literacy in the country after the National Literacy Mission decided to emulate the Kerala model at the national level. The BGVS, as it is known today, was formed with eminent educationist Dr Malcolm Adiseshiah as president and Dr M P Parameswaran, a nuclear physicist turned popular science campaigner, as secretarty at a convention of the All India People’s Science Networks in 1990. After the death of Dr Adiseshiah, Dr Paramewaran became its president and Dr Vinod Raina of Delhi its general secretary.

Dr Parameswaran said that it was the organic relations the movement developed with the day-to-day life of the ordinary people that ensured its penetration to the grassroots. It was not just a movement to teach them how to read and write, but the focus has always been to help them face the hard realities of life, to give them the necessary skills to survive. The methodology adopted for literacy was to link the training programme to their urgent needs like teaching their children, communicating with others, fighting corruption at the village level, demanding better wages and working conditions, developing skills like mobility through methods like cycling, etc, that came in handy to their survival.

There are many interesting examples from the grassroots, which describe the success of this strategy. A classic case is the anti-liquor campaign launched by the rural women of Nellore in Andhra Pradesh, which became a mass movement that forced the cancellation of the arrack vendor auction scores of times in the various Andhra districts. It all started with a small lesson included in the first primer developed for the adult students in Telugu. It described the success of a struggle launched by the women of an Andhra village against the sale of illicit liquor in the countryside. As the literacy campaign spread, the women in various other villages took up the struggle and it became a mass movement very soon.

The women of Pudukkotai in Tamil Nadu have written a different chapter in this saga. Pudukkotai is a coastal region near Kanyakumari and most of the women here eke out a living as fish vendors. As the literacy movement was launched there, Sheela Rani Chungath, district collector of Kanyakumari, came up with a new proposal to add mobility to their skills as part of the programme and a team of women on cycles started moving around the villages singing the “cycle song” they had composed. Voluntary agencies helped them buy cycles and the women, encouraged by the sudden mobility that they gained through this simple means of bicycles, became a powerful medium for the new message in the villages. Today, most of the women travel on their cycles, with fish baskets behind earning their livelihood in a dignified manner.

However, there were cases of opposition and confrontations too. In Dhanbad in Bihar, where the unorganized coal miners who took to the classes, organized themselves and demanded better wages and shorter working hours, the movement was dragged into a class conflict. Through literacy and organization, the poorer sections were slowly enlightened about their rights and started demanding better wages, better living conditions, decent treatment at workplace, etc.

Now the literacy movement is at a turning point: in the past six years the National Democratic Government at the Centre was not very enthusiastic about the mass movement style of its functioning. In fact, former human resources development minister Dr Murli Manohar Joshi described the BGVS as a trojan horse for the left-wingers to penetrate the national political scene. “We were not receiving much support those days and the movement had to suffer because of lack of official support and paucity of funds,”said Dr Parameswaran who thankfully acknowledged a Rs 10-crore grant provided by the Tatas to carry on their operations. But in the past one year, Arjun Singh, Human Resource Development Minister, has had many meetings with the literacy campaigners and has promised better funds and support with a two percent cess for education.

“Now we have to redouble our efforts as we have already missed the target of total literacy this year,”says Dr Krishnakumar, who points out that as a nation we just can’t miss it again seven years hence. That is the new challenge before these unsung heroes and heroines of Indian countryside today.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The article was very interesting and informative.I loved it. Thanks for writing such a nice pice.

With regards
Debaprio D Choudhury
Sub-editor, NewsLink
New Delhi