Power of literacy

Published : Sep 23, 2005 00:00 IST

The National Literacy Mission has started a silent revolution in Haryana's Karnal district by empowering the weaker sections to seek equality and freedom from unjust social mores.

Text & photographs: T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Karnal

"LITERACY for social change," the National Literacy Mission's (NLM) main goal at the time of its inception, seems nowhere better exemplified than in the interior villages of Karnal district in Haryana. In these parts, ordinary people, mainly belonging to the socially and economically backward communities, influenced by the ideas of equality and social justice, have started a silent social revolution: minor girls prevent child marriages; neo-literate women force the closure of a village liquor vend; communities come together to quell a volatile communal situation; and a neo-literate Dalit woman gets elected as chairman of the Block Samiti, from a general seat.

In 2002, the NLM sanctioned the Post-Literacy Programme (PLP) for Karnal district. Primarily aimed at improving the basic literacy skills of neo-literates, the PLP was also intended to stimulate collective activities among its target population. An interesting aspect is that although the quantitative progress of the literacy movement may not be impressive, its effectiveness in bringing about social awareness, among other things, has been tremendous.

In early 2003, during the PLP phase, a play questioning the prevailing social mores was staged at Harsingpura village in Gharaunda block. Among those who watched the play were five young girls, who had been egged on by their teacher who is a member of the village literacy committee. The impact of the play was to be felt a few months later when Sushma, Sarita, Swati, Neelam and Sumita took the bold step to report a child marriage to the village sarpanch. The child brides, aged six and 12, were to be married to men who were well into their 30s.

Bhopal Singh, the father of the minor girls, a herdsman, owed a huge debt to his brother. The latter suggested that the girls be "sold", and the debt repaid with the money (the father settled for Rs.50,000) got from the sale. Despite hostility from within and outside the village, the five girls, along with a few others, finally persuaded the bridegrooms' party to return. The money involved in the "sale" was returned. The police, it turned out, took three days to respond to the complaint.

The Harsingpura incident was not only about child marriage and economic compulsions. It was also about the skewed sex ratio in Haryana. Just as in the rest of the State, in Karnal too there is a growing shortage of girls of marriageable age. Karnal's sex ratio is only marginally better than the State figure. It has 864 females for every 1,000 males, slightly higher than the State average of 861. Practices such as dowry, purdah, child marriage, female foeticide, caste oppression and untouchability characterise its social structure. It is learnt that Sagga village, from where the bridegrooms came, is home to a number of "unwed" boys. In fact the upper-caste Rajputs, the dominant caste of Sagga, are said to have persuaded Bhopal Singh to settle for the "sale", keeping in mind the shortage of young women. In order to display their backing for the proposal, Rajput men joined the grooms' entourage even though the brides and bridegrooms belonged to a backward caste, Gadariya.

The five girls were honoured by the district administration under the novel category of "social bravery" and later with the Bravery Award by the President. When Frontline asked them what attracted them to the literacy movement, the girls said it was the notion of equality that appealed to them. "What they show in the plays is what happens to us in real life," said Sarita. The best part, they added, was that "girls and boys were not treated differently". Sushma's father has given her the freedom to study anywhere she wants.

But not everyone in Harsingpura is happy with the newly won liberty. Some sections of the village have not forgiven the girls.

The story of the brave girls inspired Dera Sikligar, a camp of Dalits in Indri block, with 4,000-odd persons. The dera attached to the Bibipur Brahmanas panchayat where Brahmins dominate, does not exist on official records. It has a primary school and a middle school but hardly any teaching staff. Dalits live in thatched dwellings on shamlat or common panchayat land. The Sikligars are notified as a Scheduled Caste in Haryana but in neighbouring Punjab they are included in the Scheduled Tribe list. Not allowed to build permanent structures, the Sikligars footslog to nearby districts or even to the neighbouring State of Uttar Pradesh in search of work during the non-agricultural season. Although traditionally ironsmiths, they do all kinds of manual labour.

They return to the village only when it is time for marriage. It was during one such occasion that the Harsingpura experience had its echo. In April-May, two young Sikligar men involved in the literacy movement foiled some 42 child marriages. Sher Singh and Bhajan Singh received threats to their lives but they persisted in informing the matter to the block and district administration requesting intervention. Though they know full well that the community would not approve of their actions, the duo did not want to see a repeat of the previous year when four minors were married in the dera. The situation became so volatile that the Child Development Programme Officer fled the camp. The children were taken to the block office on July 22 and the Chief Medical Officer verified their age.

The reasons for child marriages in the dera are not dowry pressures but general insecurity. Bhajan Singh says the practice of dowry does not exist in their community. The women do not wear purdah, unlike caste Hindus. It is the absence of any other avenue for their children that makes the families settle for early marriages. "They think it best to marry the young ones off so that they can set up their own households," says Anjul Rane, an anganwadi superviser.

Anjul Rane, a typical government employee who believes that the Sikligars are poor because they have large families, takes the women for "operations" - that is, sterilisation. It is ironic that while the nearest primary health centre has no accessible route and no anganwadi worker is posted in the dera, the government zealously pushes its family planning programme here. One striking aspect is that the Sikligars do not practise female foeticide, nor do they discriminate between the girl and the boy child.

The district administration averted a child marriage at Jimrikheda village in Asandhi block on receiving information from an anganwadi worker. Rajni Pasricha, programme officer of the Integrated Child Development Services in the district, said that it was a case of "exchange marriage", under which a bride is taken in exchange for the one given. Social observers feel that exchange marriages are a compulsion born more out of a shortage of eligible women in the district and the imbalance in the sex ratio.

Says Ashok Arora, secretary of the literacy campaign called Uthaan Saksharta Samiti (USS): "As the shortage of girls of marriageable age is so acute in pastoral communities like Gadariya and Rod, they do not wait till the girl child grows up to settle an alliance." But the girls are allowed to join their husbands only after they attain puberty.

SINCE 1998, the village has been undergoing a slow transformation thanks to the literacy movement and some committed government teachers. Mahender Kumar, a government teacher who introduced the literacy movement in the village, played a role in getting a middle school sanctioned for the village. He complains he is often accused of "instigating" the villagers. He says: "The villagers are now aware of some of their entitlements, such as having pucca homes under the Indira Awaas Yojana. They have even approached the administration several times for deputing adequate teaching staff."

Mahendra Kumar says no one likes to take up a teaching job in the dera despite the fact that the schools there have a pucca structure. One trend observed increasingly is that it is Dalits and other poor sections who send their children to government schools.

The teachers in these schools, in all likelihood, come from the landed sections and in a context where caste sentiments are strong, the lower-caste children get willy-nilly deprived of their right to education. The dropout rate in the dera schools is high. Mahender Kumar says that whenever he took the roll-call, he would hear children shout "lad gaye ji" (a term used to describe children whose families had left the village in search of work). Mahender Kumar, who has worked in a number of government schools, said that even the elected panchayats did not take much interest in the progress of the government schools. There were apparently other "practical" concerns that were behind the deliberate neglect. One of them was that if Dalit children took to education, who would work on the fields of the land-owning castes? The general pattern, therefore, is that the relatively well-to-do send their children to private schools. In this situation, the only hope for the children of the poor in the literacy movement. Bhajan Singh is perhaps the only Sikligar to have sent his daughter for education outside the village.

A survey done in the dera in July by the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA), the Central scheme for the universalisation of quality elementary education by 2010, found that 250 children in the 6-14 age group had not attended school at all and 50 had dropped out. Mahender Kumar said that only 75 children were found on the rolls. Prior to the survey, 474 children had enrolled and 180 had dropped out. But the children who had dropped out could not be traced. The government schools are grossly understaffed, which is one of the reasons for a high dropout rate. The level of poverty in the dera was such that most children could not even think of alternative forms of schooling envisaged under the SSA, Mahender Kumar said.

According to government figures, the percentage of illiterate youth in the 15-35 age group in the country is 28.7 (18.95 per cent for boys and 39.63 for girls). It is much higher among the S.Cs and the S.Ts. The percentage of illiterate youth among the S.Cs is 39.21 (boys 25.94 per cent; girls 53.3 per cent) and the S.Ts is 48.28 (boys 34.19 per cent and girls 62.13 per cent).

Most of the women of Dera Sikligar have not studied beyond Class VIII. Till date, only four males of the Sikligar community have completed Class XII. There is not a single graduate in the community despite the presence of a slew of educational and research institutions in Karnal.

In these parts, it is dihaadi (daily wage work) first and then come studies. Mahendar Kaur, a landless Dalit, said that with the money they earned, children buy books and pencils needed for school. The children are associated with street theatre groups organised by the Haryana Gyan Vigyan Samiti and are also part of the Kala Jathas. Some of them have never attended formal school, but are keen members of the Jathas and sing songs of social change and struggle.

Karnal is a water-rich region, located close to the Western Yamuna Canal. But agricultural land is concentrated in a few hands. Much of the population here works as agricultural labour.

The literacy campaign, according to Search, an organisation that conducted the external qualitative evaluation of the movement, provided a platform for Dalits and women focussing more on social empowerment rather than functional literacy. The campaign is now in the Continuing Education phase, the stage after the PLP. It is an all-inclusive set-up. Ashok Arora says: "It is the poor, the women and the Dalits who have realised that there is something in this for them. It is the language of equality in the literacy mission that appealed to them." Arora is a veterinary surgeon. As permitted by government rules, he opted out of his department to join the literacy campaign. This kind of work, he says, gives him much satisfaction even though it involves working beyond the eight-hour schedule he was used to. Rajinder Singh joined the campaign from the Agriculture Department.

In Alipur Khalsa village there is strong awareness about the importance of literacy. Local activists of the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA) mobilised neo-literates to close down a village liquor vend. Literacy activists were able to mobilise agricultural labourers to come under the cover of Jan Shri Yojana, an insurance policy of the Life Insurance Corporation. Under this scheme, every insurer gets Rs.100 each a month for his/her children studying in Class IX and X. This has increased the retention rate in schools.

The impact of the NLM has been felt in other ways too. Krishna could not contest the elections to the post of sarpanch, as she was ineligible under the two-child norm prevalent in the State. She got her mother-in-law, a neo-literate, to contest the election. Krishna feels that the government has no right to decide how many children people should have.

In Sadarpur village bordering U.P., the NLM had altogether different impact. Here there are a sizable number of Muslim families. A rumour regarding cow slaughter from across the State border raised tensions in Sadarpur in July 2002. Literacy activists such as Lakhwinder, Shahzaad, Sulekh and Parveena Tomar prevailed upon the village elders to defuse the situation. These youngsters also managed to get the administration to sanction a telephone connection to the village. There is nothing in the name of infrastructure in this village.

There is only one primary school; the nearest secondary school is located around eight kilometres away. That was one reason why girls from poor families did not pursue higher studies, says Parveena Tomar. She said though there was awareness of the legal age for marriage, owing to lack of educational opportunities it was not uncommon to find girls getting married at the age of 15 or even less.

The NLM's thrust areas include improving female literacy in low female literacy areas, organising projects for residual illiteracy in districts that have a substantial number of illiterates, setting up continuing education centres for providing opportunities for life-long learning to neo-literates and imparting vocational training to neo-literates through Jan Shikshan Sansthas.

Karnal is the third district in the State, after Kurukshetra and Panchkula, to be in the Continuing Education Phase. But more than the numerical decline of illiteracy, it is the element of social change that has come up significantly. For those whom it matters, it is a big intervention.

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