More In Letter, Less In Spirit

Updated: Oct 20 2002, 05:30am hrs
When credit rating agency Standard & Poors recently downgraded India, bringing it on a par with countries like Costa Rica, there was a sense of disappointment and outrage in the country. Even though any comparison between the economic health or investment potential of the two countries is debatable, there is one field in which Costa Rica has left India far behindadult literacy and elementary education. (Costa Rica is said to have about 90 per cent literacy).

After more than 50 years of Independence, the adult literacy rate in India still hovers around 60 per cent, far below the average of even the least economically developed countries in the world. The low literacy rate is despite numerous campaigns for mass literacy in India, spearheaded both by the state as well as non-governmental organisations (NGOs).

Practice and Research In Literacy, a collection of papers by theoreticians and practitioners in the field of mass literacy, critically examines the programmes initiated and the alternative discourses. Compiled by Aditi Mukherjee and Duggirala Vasanta, both from Osmania University, Hyderabad, the papers presented in the volume discuss issues ranging from the isolation of the literacy movement from the local community, to the innovative methods adopted in certain states, like Andhra Pradesh.

The book challenges the dominant discourse on literacythat it is a neutral and skill-based enterprise, that the basic skills of reading and writing can be imparted to the masses if there are enough volunteers. Teaching people to merely decode letters...is meaningless. While mass literacy programmes are important for any society, the content, organization, methodology and political objectives of these programmes should be allowed to be scrutinized....For this it is necessary to identify and sustain local literacies. Unless the curriculum is negotiated, literacy instruction will not translate into action for social transformation, says the book.

Among the interesting papers in the compilation, is one by Sadhna Saxena. She shows how the literacy movement helped the women of Nellore, in Andhra Pradesh, to start an anti-arrack agitation by providing a venue for regular meetings, at which they could discuss their problems. Another paper, by Vasanta, Sonya Gupta and P Devi, evaluates the social impact of literacy.

Some of the responses that the evaluators got from neo-literates speak for themselves: What is the use of teaching us about immunisation when there are no doctors to vaccinate our children, Why instruct us to use clean water if the tube-wells in the village do not work

The authors question the National Literacy Missions (set up by the government of India in 1988) definition of functional literacy (the achievement of reading, writing and numeracy skills) as it has no relevance to the lives of a majority of the learners because they are not likely to encounter the conditions in which to apply their newly found skills. They cite the example of the anti-arrack agitation by the neo-literate women in Nellore to illustrate that the two movements there, literacy and anti-liquor, worked in tandem, as creating political awareness was part of the teaching and learning process.

A decade after it came into being, the National Literacy Mission prides itself for bringing mass literacy on to the national agenda. It does have many achievements to its credit, like inspiring the rural poor to educate their children and participation of disadvantaged groups, like scheduled castes and tribes, other backward castes and women, particularly Muslim women, in literacy classes. But this is not enough.

The campaign for literacy needs to be linked to the community and its social or political movements if it aims at real empowerment of people.