the real illness
other day, while I was after addressing a group of bright
young students at NALSAR on governance issues and reforms,
someone asked a question about literacy"but isn't low
illiteracy our main problem?" The questioner, like many
of our well-meaning and enlightened citizens, was concerned
about illiteracy in our country and felt that until we become
a literate society, our governance and society cannot improve.
That set me thinking about causes and consequences of many
of our difficulties.
illiteracy the cause of our owes woes or is it the consequence
of decades of misgovernance? Let us examine the evidence.
Like India, many other states shed the colonial yoke and acquired
independence after the Second World War. China, Malaysia,
Sri Lanka, Indonesia and many other Asian countries became
free around the time of our own independence. All of them
had literacy levels comparable to ours in 1950. All those
countries were poorer than India at that time.
each of those countries has close to 90% literacy. Each of
them is a fast-growing economy, and achieved much higher levels
of prosperity and industrialization than us. Only civil-war
ravaged Sri Lanka has serious economic problems, though their
social development is well-above ours.
experience of these countries shatters two myths. First, it
is commonly believed that illiteracy is the cause of misgovernance
when the contrary is reality. Look at our public expenditure.
We spend only 3.2% of our GDP for education, and school education
gets even less. The norm in much of the world is 6 - 8% of
GDP! Even if the little we spend is well utilised things wouldn't
be so bad. A large chunk is spent on buildings and salaries,
with little attention being paid to quality of schooling and
accountability of teachers. And even the amount spent on education
is mostly wasted. When much of Asia outside the subcontinent
has proved that good public polices, sensible priorities,
focus on school education and genuine and innovative efforts
can promote literacy even in poor backward countries, there
is no reason why we cannot adapt those practices to suit our
Our tradition and culture always respected learning, and most
parents dream of educating their children, and go to great
lengths to educate them. Even the poor rickshaw pullers and
domestic workers are willing to spend large sums for their
children's schooling. But children of the poor are enrolled
in indifferent schools and naturally the dropout rate is high.
It is the sheer indifference, incompetence and lack of imagination
of those in government that made our public education unreliable.
The second myth is that literacy can improve only when poverty
is eradicated. This is a classic case of putting the cart
before the horse. In no society has poverty been reduced without
high literacy. Poverty should be no obstacle to reasonable
schooling and high literacy in a sane society. In a modern
economy, literacy and skills are vital to enable citizens
to become productive workers. We cannot take advantage of
technology, or enhance productivity with medieval skills and
low literacy. Illiteracy dampens economic growth. Poverty
is a consequence of illiteracy, and not a cause of it.
need not go very far to understand these truths. Kerala and
Tamil Nadu in our own country are good examples. The social
movements in Kerala and emphasis on human development saw
high levels of literacy in Kerala. Tamil Nadu's case is even
more significant. Genuine implementation of mid-day meal programme
(to attract poor children, particularly girls), reasonable
infrastructure, and political will dramatically improved literacy
levels in Tamil Nadu. As a result, population reached near-stable
levels, and skills improved. Large scaleLarge-scale investment
and employment resulted.
government in India is good at military-style operations,
but not at sustained development. The massive literacy festival
launched by AP government is a classic military-style campaign.
Such campaigns have their uses in popularizing schooling.
But they are no substitute to painstaking institution-building,
long-term sustenance and designing and enforcing systems of
accountability. Poverty is no hurdle to literacy, and illiteracy
is the consequence, not cause of misgovernance.