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Article in The Times of India
Authored by Dr.Jayaprakash Narayan


National Coordinator of
VOTEINDIA movement

Illiteracy, the real illness

The 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.

Is 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.

Today, 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.

The 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 conditions.

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.

We 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.

The 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.





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