India: Local Heroes

By Shedde, Meenakshi | UNESCO Courier, March 2000 | Go to article overview

India: Local Heroes


Shedde, Meenakshi, UNESCO Courier


To tackle illiteracy, the Indian government made a U-turn by putting local communities and volunteers at the helm of the campaign

'You know, my daughter has graduated from university and now wants to study for a Master's degree," exclaims Sagar More as tears of pride well up in her eyes at the thought that her own daughter can dare to dream so big.

More, who is involved in India's National Literacy Mission as a volunteer with CORO (Committee of Resource Organizations), is a Dalit. As such, she belongs to the "Scheduled Castes"--the lowest castes in India. "As an 'untouchable', I had to sit one outstretched arm away from the upper caste girls in my class," she recalls. "I was constantly humiliated by the teacher, and dropped out after one year of school. But after becoming literate through CORO, I became a volunteer teacher with them."

When India's planners acknowledged that development could never really take off as long as the country was anchored down by illiteracy, a national literacy mission was initiated in 1988 to impart functional literacy to adults between 15 and 35 years. It ushered in a radical change of course by emphasizing initiative at the grassroots level.

Driven by some ten million volunteers, the mission has recorded remarkable progress, especially in rural areas and amongst women. India's literacy rate, which was 18 per cent of the total population in 1951, rose from 52 per cent in 1991 to 62 per cent in 1999. If the present trend continues, India could attain a 75 per cent literacy rate by the year 2005, well ahead of 2011, as originally forecast.

"The national adult education programme was actually started by the government in 1978, with NGOs assigned barely 10 per cent of the funds," explains Murlindhar Gode, former chairman of the Maharashtra State Literacy Commission. "However, it was never perceived as a people's programme, and suffered from embezzlement of funds and poor target achievement. In 1988 the system was turned or its head. An autonomous National Literacy Mission Authority was established, to which the central government directly sanctioned funds, by-passing the state governments. District literacy committees were put at the centre of the programme, receiving 100 per cent of the funds. This brought it success at the grassroots level."

These committees are autonomous bodies which report directly to the National Literacy Mission. Education experts and NGOs are strongly represented on them alongside local officials. They conduct door-to-door surveys to identify non-literates, organize mobilization activities, select organizations and volunteers to participate in the campaign, and develop locally-relevant learning materials while keeping the larger national canvas and its concerns in view.

"We realized that in order to succeed, literacy had to become a grassroots social movement, and that is why we put volunteers at the heart of our strategy," explains Mr D. R. Parihar, Maharashtra's deputy secretary of school education. The campaign is driven by over 10 million unpaid volunteers nationwide--teachers and students from schools, colleges and universities, public sector employees, housewives, ex-servicemen, retired government officials and NGO members. Every state has a specialized resource centre which conducts a two-day training programme for volunteers and provides them with literacy materials. "The primers are simple with lots of drawings, written in the local Marathi language, and about very practical things like purchasing vegetables or bringing up children," explains P.Wankhede, an adult education officer in Maharashtra state.

In the Bombay area, CORO was founded when NGOs active in women's rights and youth movements and amongst trade unions realized to what extent illiteracy was impeding their work. …

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