Learning to read. On Indian Literacy

Project Report 2011 31 Pages

South Asian Studies, South-Eastern Asian Studies


Learning to read: Gateway to the world citizenship: A report on Indian Literacy Movement:


“Acquiring literacy is an empowering process, enabling millions to enjoy access to knowledge and information which broadens horizons, increases opportunities and creates alternatives for building a better life” (Kofi Annan)

This message restates that basic education is the bedrock to do away with poverty and all other social miseries existing in the modern world. India, a multi-lingual, multi-cultural and multi-religious country, is divided into 28 states and 7 union territories with a population of 1.15 billion (according to Census Report, 2010). Though a developing country, the country’s economic power is growing steadily providing jobs for the citizens and India claims an international acknowledgement as ‘knowledge superpower’. But poignant as it could be, India has the largest illiterate population in the world. Professor Amartya Sen has delved into this issue last year at a conference held in New Delhi. He commented, “…it is clear how much needs to be done and can be done to change the organizational structure of school education and basic health care. ”(1) He has cited the example of Japan. According to Sen, the Fundamental Code of Education in that country was issued in 1872 and by 1910, the nation was almost fully literate. By 1913, they were publishing more books than Britain and twice as much as the United States.

Various causes added to the poor growth in literacy rate in India. There is a clear distinction between the literacy of the urban and the rural areas. It was found out that in spite of the progress of the quantitative expansion of education in India, multi-level inequities within the education system is remarkably sharp, leading to low growth in rate of literacy. Inequities are more complex among women belonging to Schedule Castes and Schedule Tribes and Other Backward Castes in the rural areas of the backward regions. The Indian Social Institute has identified in a research on schooling three major obstacles. They are: (a) lack of proper parental motivation, (b) poverty and (c) poor schooling standard. With the aim to overcome these hurdles, the 86th Constitutional amendment under Article 21A passed in 2002 has made education a fundamental right for all.

The Indian definition of ‘literacy’:

In a ‘developing’ country like India the term ‘literacy’ is measured by the rate of literacy, which is the percent of the population, mainly the adult population. The NSSO (National Sample Survey Organization) conducts surveys once in every five years to collect data on literacy rate and other socio-economic issues. The NLM (National Literacy Mission) designs, executes and monitors programs on literacy and prepares guidelines for literacy assessment. The NFHS (National Family Health Survey) provides database on literacy and other socio-economic factors based on sample study of the households.

The definition and the method of assessing ‘literacy’ by the Census of India, NLM, NSSO and NFHS differ widely. The ‘literacy’ as defined in the Indian Census is the ability to read and write with the understanding of a language. The National Literacy Mission, which was set up on May 5, 1988 by the government of Indian with the mission to eradicate illiteracy in the country through teaching functional literacy to non-literates, has gone beyond this rudimentary definition of ‘literacy’. Its aim was not just to make every citizen of India self-reliant in the 3R’s (reading, writing and arithmetic), but also ‘the ability to apply them to one’s day-to-day life.’

The growth rate in Indian literacy:

We all know that the problem of literacy is faced by both developed and developing countries. Illiteracy is a problem faced by developing countries mainly due to socio-economic conditions. The post-independence Indian government took the pledge to reach 100% literacy within forty years of Independence. But its dream remained far-fetched. Article 45 of the Indian Constitution says: The State shall endeavor to provide, within a period of ten years from the commencement of the Constitution, for free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years. But the 2001 Census report projects that Kerala has the highest rate of literacy with 90.9% and Bihar has the lowest, i.e. 47.5%. West Bengal, the highest populated state in India (8, 01, 76,197 million as per 2001 census report), and once considered the ‘elite’ state of the nation has only68.64 % literates.

There are even dramatic differences between male and female literacy rates by place of residence. The GPI (Gender Parity Index) shows the gender gap in literacy. There is also gap between women from urban and rural areas. In 1991 the literacy rate among urban females was twice the rural ones. Kerala has now the highest rate of women literates followed by Mizoram. On the other hand, states like Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, West Bengal have less than 30% women literates. U.P and Bihar together have almost 63 million illiterate women. The gender gap in literacy rate of Indian population in the age group of 15+ still continues to be high. Even after 64 years of Independence poor families prefer keeping their girl child at home to take care of younger ones or to help their mother in the household chores.

There are more than 400 Schedule Tribes (STs) in India. According to the Census Report of 2001, while the STs constitute 8.2% of the total Indian population, the Schedule Castes (SCs) comprise of 17.16%. Article 46 states: The State shall promote with special care the educational and economic interests of the weaker sections of the people, and, in particular, of the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes, and shall protect them from social injustice and all forms of exploitation. Unfortunately, both the Schedule Castes and the Schedule Tribes still face discrimination from the upper castes in many Indian states and they remain away from the main stream of the Hindu society. Dreze pointed out “educational disparities, which contribute a great deal to the persistence of massive inequalities in Indian society, also largely derive from more fundamental inequalities such as those of class, caste and gender,” (Dreze, 2003: 982). There is dominant need for making rapid progress in living standards, health, education and other socio-economic factors of Schedule Castes (SC), Schedule Tribes (ST).

Articles 29 and 30 of the Indian Constitution guarantee the minorities of secular India like the Muslims, Sikhs, Parsis and Buddhists the right to conserve their language, scripts, culture and also allow them to establish and administer educational institutions based on either their religion or language. The key factor responsible for the backwardness of the minorities in India, especially the Muslims, is the lack of access to the common school system. Syed Najiullah says, “… the literacy rate among Muslims is lower that all the religious communities in India. The literacy rate for women is further low. It is also less compared to the all India literacy rate…..”.(3) For the welfare of the minority groups the Indian government has framed a five-point program, which takes care of the appropriate representations of the minorities in governmental organizations and also pays attention to their economic and social development.

The Right to Education Act, 2009:

In 2008, the EFA (Education for All) Global Monitoring Report published by UNESCO suggested that by 2015 each child in this world should be literate. India had to react to this agenda of UNESCO. In 2009 the UPA government passed the RTE Act. According to Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act, it is obligatory for each child to attend a school in the neighborhood. As per the government, out of 22 crore children in the applicable age group, 4.6%, (around 92 lakh), are school drop-outs for various reasons. The UPA Education minister Mr. Kapil Sibal has ordered the school management committee or the local authority in different states of India to look into the matter. Some of the main clauses of this bill are:

- The State shall ensure a school in the neighborhood of each child. The school must maintain certain minimum standards as defined in the bill.
- For children living in small hamlets with no school facility in the neighborhood the State government or local authority shall make adequate arrangements like transport, residential facilities and other such facilities for providing elementary education in a school.
- Government-run schools must provide free education to all these children and the private-run schools shall reserve 25% of their seats for them. No capitation fee or entrance test in private schools for these children will be permitted.
- School Management Committees or local authority shall identify children who require special training and organize them for the benefit of such children. A child with disabilities shall be provided free special learning and support material.
- The School Management Committee shall be constituted in every school, 75% of which will be from among parents or guardians of children, 1/3 members from among the elected members of the local authority, 1/3 from among teachers from the respective schools and the rest 1/3 from among the local educationists or children in the school, subject to the decision of the parents in the committee.

While the Bill focuses on the needs of women and older children (especially girls), who have to quit work and schools respectively to take care of toddlers at home, it ignores the age group 0-6 years known as ECCE (Early Childhood Care and Education). There is no Montessori or Kindergarten schools run by the government, where the children from the poor families can go. All the government schools function from Class I. the private ones are admitting children of 3 years old. The government is now proactively giving importance to the ST in addition to SCs and OBCs for the overall development of these communities.

West Bengal:

Among the different states in India, West Bengal is one such state which has taken a back-seat in the literacy drive. Calcutta, the capital of West Bengal, was the first capital of The East India Company and in the nineteenth Century, this city was respected as the abode of Indian intellectuals.

Situated in the eastern part of India, West Bengal is the fourth most populous state of the country and also the seventh most populous sub-national entity in the world map. Kolkata is the second largest city of India and it is the primary economical hub of both eastern part of India and also the north-eastern states. The minor communities include besides Muslims, Chinese, Anglo-Indians, Tamils, Telugus, Nepalese, Gujaratis Armenians, Jews, Tibetans, Punjabis and Maharashtrians. No other state in India has such diversified demography. The primary language of this state is Bengali, but English and Hindi are also widely spoken and learnt by the dwellers of this state. A majority of the Schedule tribes live and work in the different districts of West Bengal. The major problem in the rapid growth in population in this state is the Muslim refugees from Bangladesh, entering everyday crossing the border in search of food and shelter. In West Bengal, where the total rate of literacy is 68.64 %(Census Report, 2001), the Muslims constitute about 57.47%, far below the average literacy rate and the Muslim girls are falling much behind their male counterparts.

Governed since 1977 by the Communists, West Bengal is an interesting state for research as it is a state, where in schools children have the scope to learn Hindi as mother tongue besides Bengali. The main inhabitants are Bengali. It is also the home for Gurkhas, Nepalese, and tribes like Santals, Kol, Koch-Rajbanshi and Toto tribe.

The schools in West Bengal are divided here into government-run institutions, private-run ones and also by minority religious groups. Under the private-run organizations, we have schools owned by Indians, the medium of instruction being English, also schools run by people who once came here on business purpose like those from southern part of India or from the state Gujarat and even Punjab. Besides, there are a few International schools falling under this category. The religious schools like Khalsa (run by the Sikhs) has an autonomous body but the Madrasah schools are mainly under the aegis of the state. The Madrasah and the Khalsa schools are run by respective seminaries and the religious scripts form a part of the curriculum alongside their languages Urdu and Gurumukhi.

As an inhabitant of this state and the city, I did a survey of the schools on how they are taking initiative to make the children of today the citizens of tomorrow. I met principals, head mistress, managing committees of schools and NGOs and parents of some children. An analysis of their views will give us an idea of our project How Does the World Read. Here is an introduction of those institutions and the educationists:

- Chetla Girls’ High School, a state-run Vernacular based urban institution in the southern part of Kolkata since 1937 with 1184 girl-students,
- Ahead, a private- supported rehabilitation and research institute for mentally challenged children, working in this field since 1979 and situated on the southern fringe of the city. They have children both from upper and middle class society and a few from lower middle-class,
- Wahed Memorial G.S.F.P. School, a high-school established in 1944 with 500 odd children, from the slum area around the school,
- The Force for Rural Empowerment and Economic Development (FREED) is an NGO with a wide range of projects on girl-child of tribes and other backward classes living in the districts of Bankura, Purulia, West Midnapore and North Bengal, staring from education till making them economically independent and self-reliant, and
- South Point School, the first private-run English-medium co-educational school since 1954 in the state of West Bengal catering to 12000 students. It caters to children both from the upper and middle strata of the society.

Chetla Girls’ High School: Mrs. Satyabati Nadkar( Head Mistress of the senior section of the school)

- What does the typical school day look like?
My school starts at 11.00. Before that there is a general assembly. The girls assemble at the Assembly Hall at 10.45 and they sing a prayer song. After that they go to their respective classrooms and the classes begin at 11.00.
- After certain time, they have their tiffin-break.*
Yes, after four periods of 45 minutes duration each, they have their recess.
- Since it is a government school, do the children get here any mid-day meal everyday?**
Yes, there is a provision fro mid-day meal. The rice is provided by the government and they give us Rs.4.00 for each student.
- How many students are there?
There are more than 1100 students. The actual figure is around 1184.
- So each child gets…..
No, not , not all the students. The government provides mid-day meal for only classes V-VIII.
- And the rest?

And the rest, they don’t get their mid-day meals from the school.



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learning indian literacy




Title: Learning to read. On Indian Literacy