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Was literacy a 'lollipop'?

Print edition : Aug 05, 2000 T+T-
VASANTHA SURYA

"PLEASE imagine what would happen if all the children in the country between six and fourteen years of age came to school? The entire school system would utterly collapse, because it has never been made ready for such an influx! Now imagine this: supposi ng all these children remain out of school for the next two to three years? They will then form part of the vast army of child workers, and will in time grow into the new century's first crop of adult illiterates. And will we launch another Literacy Miss ion for them, then?"

To those who, like this reviewer, took part in the work of the National Literacy Mission in the early years of the globalisation process, Anil Sadgopal's scathing indictment of what we liked to call "the second freedom movement" will cause a pang. He arg ues that the government, the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti and other non-governmental organisations, as well as the media played into the hands of the manipulators of the so-called global open market. Inflated hopes were raised about how literacy campaigns a nd non-formal education programmes were going to make "human resources" fit for the "level playing field".

According to Sadgopal, the logic was to keep India's labour "competitive", without raising the educational level so as to make for real improvement in productive skills. It meant forgoing an expense of Rs.400 crores on equipping government schools under "Operation Blackboard" in order to spend Rs.600 crores under the Seventh Plan on the district literacy campaigns. With Sam Pitroda, Chairman of the Telecom Commission, and Anil Bordia, Education Secretary in the Rajiv Gandhi government, promising to make India substantially, if not totally, literate by 1998, the Eighth Plan allocation for the National Literacy Mission (NLM) went up to more than Rs.1000 crores. The present demand by the NLM under the Ninth Plan is a whopping Rs.2000 crores. This demand i s being made in spite of the collapse of the literacy bubble following the Arun Ghosh Committee's rejection of the NLM's claims of having achieved "total literacy" as false and unreliable.

Enthusiasts have rationalised the quick slide-back into illiteracy of thousands of learners by saying that one should not be literal about literacy; it is "awareness" that matters. Some of us who were part of the dying literacy movement had hoped that th e neo-literates would raise an effective demand for more and better schools from State governments, that they would not only enrol their children but see to it that they completed school. Even this hope has been belied. The hugely popular campaigns, espe cially in Tamil Nadu's first three literacy districts, proved that far from being apathetic about education, people had a great zest for it, almost a hunger. But the schools are simply not good enough to prevent children from dropping out. Sadgopal has a lways maintained that literacy campaigns could never meet this hunger, and has called the whole exercise nothing but a "lollipop" and a "bhool bhulaiyyaan" (after the famous maze in Lucknow, where one 'forgets' one's way).

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