As India joins the rest of the world in celebrating the 51st International Literacy Day today, I would like to emphasise the important role of literacy in the development architecture of all countries and its crucial role as a development accelerator. It is a day when we recollect our freedom struggle and the words of Mahatma Gandhi who called mass illiteracy a sin and a shame that must be eradicated. It is a day when we reflect on our progress over the last 70 years and evaluate our progress in achieving the goals put forth eloquently by Jawaharlal Nehru on the midnight of August 15, 1947: “To bring freedom and opportunity to the common man, to create social, economic and political institutions which will ensure justice and fullness of life to every man and woman”.
As we take stock of our achievements over the years, we can look back with pride at the many milestones we have crossed. Only 18 per cent of our population could read and write in 1947. Today, nearly 74 per cent of our population has basic literacy skills. Over 95 per cent of the country’s children are in school and nearly 86 per cent of young people are functionally literate. This is not a small achievement. However, we have to draw inspiration from our past successes and move forward.
We cannot ignore the fact that today nearly 35 crore youth and adults are outside the world of literates and are unable to participate effectively in the development of the country. About 40 per cent of our schoolchildren do not acquire literacy skills with satisfactory proficiency even after completing elementary education. We have a formidable challenge that needs to be recognised and systematically addressed.
We have an opportunity today to celebrate our collective achievements. Many individuals and institutions have contributed to this national effort. The enlightened rulers of Travancore and Baroda expanded education opportunities. Inspired by Mahatma Gandhi, Welthy Fisher and Frank Laubach set up the Literacy House in Lucknow in 1953. There were active campaigns for adult literacy like the Grama Shikshan Mohim in 1959. Excellent momentum was generated through the 1990s by the Government of India’s National Literacy Mission.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi reiterated the current government’s credo at the BRICS conference in Xiamen, China on September 5. “The bedrock of our development agenda lies in the notion of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas,” he said. The country is embarking on a faster development trajectory to shape a new India in the next five years. Globally, we have committed to the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The agenda envisages a “world with universal literacy”. Target 4.6 of the Sustainable Development Goals is: “By 2030, ensure that all youth and a substantial proportion of adults, both men and women, achieve literacy and numeracy”.
If India has to ensure that all youth, and a substantial proportion of adults, acquire these skills, we may need to review our past strategies in light of today’s requirements. We need to learn from successful examples from within the country and outside it. We may have to chalk out new ways to reach out to learners who have not been reached till now. This has to be a collective effort: The government has to lead the process but the civil society and the private sector should also play key roles.
I recall the words of the Telugu poet Gurajada Apparao, “Deshamante matti kaadoy, deshamante manushuloi” (The country is not the land under our feet but it is the people who live on the land). The government of India is committed to inclusive growth. That is the underlying guiding principle of “sabka vikas”. Literacy is the first step towards building a participatory, vibrant and more inclusive democracy. It helps individuals to access and exercise the various rights and entitlements provided to them under the Constitution. Problems like poverty, infant mortality, population growth and gender inequality are better resolved in a literate society. Literacy enables individuals to access economic, political and social benefits. In India, literacy can play an important role in empowering people as well as improving their quality of life — especially of women and those belonging to the disadvantaged groups of society.
We should continue to strive for universal literacy through the two-pronged approach that we have been following. First, we must improve the quality of pre-primary and school education to ensure that all children graduating from school have the necessary literacy skills. Second, we must provide opportunities for learning to those who have never been to a school or have dropped out, and also to the young people and adults who need to acquire basic skills to expand their livelihood opportunities.
The Saakshar Bharat Programme and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan are the government’s key policy instruments in the realm of improving literacy. The Saakshar Bharat Programme focuses primarily on rural areas in low-female literacy districts. The initiative has helped in the establishment of an institutional framework that promotes adult education centres up to the gram panchayat level. I am glad that the focus has been on female literacy because of its potential multiplier effects, including better health outcomes and improvement of nutritional status.
Today, more than a crore adult learners appear for the bi-annual Learners Assessment Tests held across the country. Around 6.66 crore learners have passed the assessment test conducted by the National Institute of Open Schooling up to March 2017, 70 per cent of them are women. The National Literacy Mission Authority (NLMA) is not only imparting basic literacy to adult learners but has also forged partnerships with various agencies to link literacy with other dimensions of socio-economic development like electoral, financial and legal literacy. Its initiatives pertain primarily to rural women. A special drive was undertaken under Saakshar Bharat districts to mobilise more than one crore learners to open and operate bank accounts under the Pradhan Mantri Jan Dhan Yojana. The NLMA’s state partners, such as the state literacy mission authorities (SLMAs), state resource centres and jan shiksha sansthans have motivated over one crore beneficiaries to avail benefits of the Pradhan Mantri Suraksha Bima Yojana. The authority has also tried to align the Saakshar Bharat Programme with the Saansad Adarsh Gram Yojana.
Literacy programmes can enhance their value if they are creatively linked to the other initiatives of the government like the Swachh Bharat, Mission, Pradhan Mantri Ujjawala Yojana, Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Digital India Mission and Skill India Mission. The Human Resource Development Ministry has decided to redesign the Saakshar Bharat programme keeping in view the country’s requirements in the next five years. It is also heartening
that in the new variant of the Saakshar Bharat Programme, school and college students are likely to be involved in teaching their illiterate parents, grandparents and neighbours.
We must use technology to make the literacy programmes more effective. Digital learning materials can address the diverse learning needs of different age groups more effectively. Literacy can be made more meaningful if it is linked to the daily lives of the learners. Community learning centres can become the hubs of imparting literacy and community empowerment.
Let us create a new India built on the base of a literate, educated, empowered population. Let us realise that heaven of freedom that Rabindranath Tagore spoke about when he said, “Where the mind is without fear and the head is held high, where knowledge is free; where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls”.