Literacy: A Key for Development

M L Satyan
14 Sep 2020

In January 2020, a Bengaluru based NGO conducted a baseline survey among the migrant workers who were mainly from Bihar, UP and Odisha. Out of the 100 men interviewed, 20 men did not know to write their names. They also could not read any language. Out of 100 women interviewed, 95 women did not know to read and write. They were habituated with the practice of ‘thumb impression’. Only 5 women could write their names and read their mother tongue. The natural consequence was the ‘exploitation’ by the agents.

Between 2016-2018 I had visited several women SHGs in AP, Telangana and MP. They were enrolled for an economic development project. In the initial stage of the project we found that more than 70 percent could not read and write. As a result, they were far behind the mainstream society. Towards the end of the project, most of them learnt at least to write their names. Moreover, regular capacity building programs helped them to become aware of the socio-economic-political situations and development-related issues.          

Important facts on literacy and education in India
·       India is home to the largest population of 287 million illiterate adults in the world. This amounts to 37% of the global total.

·       Kerala stands first with its literacy rate of 96.2% Delhi is in the second place with 88.7% and Uttarakhand is in the third place with 87.6%

·       Surprisingly the recent national survey shows that the last five places are occupied by UP (73%); Telangana (72.8%); Bihar (70.9%); Rajasthan (69.7%) and Andhra Pradesh (66.4%). 

·       47.78% out of school children in India are girls. They will be calculated as illiterate women in the next census and this will have an impact on the education of their children.

·       The number of out-of-school children is estimated to 3.45 crore.

·       Out of every 100 children, only 32 children finish their school education.

·       Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh are amongst the bottom five states in terms of literacy of Dalits in India.

·       Though India’s literacy rate has increased since Independence, yet it has the world’s largest population of illiterate adults.

·       The literacy rate of female Dalits in Bihar is far behind India’s progress trend.

·       92% of government schools are yet to fully implement the RTE Act.

·       India is ranked at 123 out of 135 countries in female literacy rate.

Literacy is one of the most essential indicators of the quality of a country’s human capital. While the country has made significant progress in improving literacy over the years, it continues to be home to 313 million illiterate people; 59 percent of them are women. The high rates of illiteracy among Indian women and the corollary gender gap in literacy attainment are attributable to many social, economic and cultural factors. Official reports focus on studying the adult literacy rate among individuals aged 15 years and above. The adult literacy rate for both males and females increases at a slow pace since most of the progress occurs through improvement in child and youth literacy. 

Certain factors and implications

§   Child and youth literacy numbers for both males and females show that sustained efforts to improve literacy have borne fruit over the years. The introduction of the Mid-Day-Meal Scheme (1995), the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (2001), and the enactment of RTE (Right to Education Act-2009) have contributed significantly to improving literacy. According to the latest available data, child and youth literacy in India stands at 93 percent and 94 percent, respectively. If India is able to sustain this momentum, then the country might be able to achieve universal literacy for children and youth by 2030.  

§   The gap between male and female literacy rates for children and youth has been shrinking steadily, signalling greater gender parity in literacy attainment. The problems in female education are not confined to issues of increasing access, expanding coverage and improving quality. Rather, the biggest hurdle is to transform mindsets and convince parents to send their daughters to school.  National Programme of Education for Girls at Elementary Level, 2003 has played an instrumental role in improving female literacy.

§   The illiteracy of older adults and the elderly is also a pressing concern, as they are more susceptible to ill health, exploitation and human rights abuse. They are more likely to remain unemployed and earn lower wages. The National Literacy Mission (NLM) launched in 1988 included adult education as one of its key components. It focused on imparting functional literacy to non-literates in the age group of 15-35 years. More recently, a new variant of the NLM called Saakshar Bharat (2009) was introduced to bolster adult education and skill development. 

§   The progress that India has made in the realms of child and youth literacy often gets offset by its poor performance in the literacy of older adults. This is one of the reasons why India still ranks low in most of the global human capital indices. To achieve universal literacy by 2030, creatively designed literacy campaigns and initiatives need to be integrated with non-formal education pro­grammes for older adults. 

§   The wide literacy gender gap for older adults and the elderly is masking the progress made with regards to the gender gap for children and youth.

Latest NSS data reveals that female literacy for the working-age population is 59 percent, 20 percentage points lower than the male literacy rate for the same group. While educating young girls will continue to be India’s top priority, policymakers must keep in mind that educating and empowering mothers is just as important as “ beti padhao”.

§   To achieve universal literacy for youth by 2030 there is a need to focus on education quality, digital literacy, and skilling. Even as India has its fundamentals in place, the country must ensure that the younger generation is able to benefit from digitisation and not suffer its costs.

In India, thousands of women and men enter adulthood without the ability to read and write and consequently miss opportunities that would have enabled them to improve their lives and contribute to the country’s growth. If this unfortunate trend is to be arrested, policymakers need to re-examine their development agendas and make adult education a priority. Literacy must no longer be confined to the basic, foundational skills of reading and writing but linked to the broader notions of financial, digital, civic and multicultural literacy. Some concrete steps are given below:

Inclusive Education: The RTE Act (2009) has resulted in increased enrolment of children in schools, but the Act is applicable for children between 6-14 years of age. Children, especially girl children, who drop out of school after 14 years of age, find it almost impossible to continue their education. The purview of the Act must be increased to make education accessible to every individual.

Increased investment in government schools: Lack of basic facilities like toilets, hand-washing area, and drinking water compel children, especially girl children, to drop out of school. Increasing government expenditure in public schools will make them more accessible.

Vocational Training: The current system of rote learning without practical training affects the quality of education and fails to develop employable skill sets. Thus, vocational training is important to fill this gap. Carpentry, plumbing, electrical wiring, cell phone repair, stitching and nursing are some of the skills which can help individuals seek fulfilling employment.

Teacher training: Lack of qualified teachers in both public and private schools impact learning outcomes of children. There is a need for making drastic changes to ensure that schools hire qualified teachers, retain experienced teachers and provide opportunities for teachers to undergo regular training.

Changing social norms: Social norms play a huge role in determining the growth of a country. Regressive social norms result in girls dropping out from schools or children not being sent to school at all, and this creates a vicious cycle of illiteracy and patriarchal norms for even future generations.

Former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said, “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope. It is a tool for daily life in modern society”. More than two decades since Annan said these words, they still ring true. As India climbs the development ladder, literacy must occupy a high spot on the policy agenda since it not only has a high intrinsic value but is also a powerful force multiplier.

(Published on 14th September 2020, Volume XXXII, Issue 38)
 

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