The other India

Print edition : January 18, 2008

CHADDA CHELLAYYAMMA, A tribal woman from Nallagonda village of Koyyuru mandal in Visakhapatnam in Andhra Pradesh, who became functionally literate at the age of 85.-C.V. SUBRAHMANYAM

The EFA report 2008 of UNESCO, which paints a grim picture of the literacy situation in India, serves as an eye-opener for policymakers.

The Incredible India that the United Progressive Alliance government never tires of eulogising has over 35 per cent of the worlds total illiterate population. Simply said, India has the largest number of illiterate people in the world. For a country that has amended its Constitution to make education a fundamental right and which is in the process of enacting legislation to provide the right to education to all its citizens, this indeed is no good news.

There are over 774 million illiterate people in the world. Of them, three quarters live in 15 countries, including eight high-population countries, namely Bangladesh, Brazil, China, Egypt, India, Indonesia, Nigeria and Pakistan. Significantly, India has the largest number of illiterate people, a whopping 35 per cent of the total. The 2001 Census puts the figure at a staggering 296 million. Though Indias literacy rate has improved significantly from 44 per cent in 1981 to 65 per cent in 2001, a lot remains to be done. The Education for All (EFA) Global Monitoring Report 2008, released by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in New Delhi recently, serves as an eye-opener for policy planners in India.

Releasing the report, Koichiro Matsuura, Director-General of UNESCO, said: Bangladesh, Pakistan and India, three highly populated countries, continue to face major challenges, in terms of both the high number of illiterates and the deep disparities that exist between urban and rural areas. This poses a serious obstacle to national efforts to achieve Education for All and eradicate poverty. What is of greater concern to India is that its ranking has dipped by five since last year. It was ranked 100 out of 129 countries in the EFA 2007 report. The EFA 2008 report places India at 105 out of 127 countries. In all categories, whether it is enrolment at the primary level or gender parity or regional disparities, India finds itself at the bottom of the list, which mostly has countries from sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, India, along with Nigeria and Pakistan, accounts for 27 per cent of the worlds total out-of-school children. This translates to over 70 lakh children in India alone.

At the World Education Forum in 2000, attended by 164 governments, 35 international institutions and 127 non-governmental organisations (NGOs), UNESCO adopted the Dakar Framework for Action, promising to commit the necessary resources and efforts to achieve a comprehensive and inclusive system of quality education for all by 2015. The current EFA report marks the midway in the ambitious movement to expand learning opportunity to every child, youth and adult by 2015. In this context, the findings of the report cause concern for India because it has pledged to put all children in the 6-14 age group in school by that time and attain over 85 per cent literacy rate.

The UNESCO has defined six EFA goals:

1. Expanding and improving comprehensive childhood care and education, especially for the most vulnerable and disadvantaged children;

2. Ensuring that by 2015 all children, particularly girls, children in difficult circumstances and those belonging to ethnic minorities, have access to free and compulsory primary education of good quality;

3. Ensuring that the learning needs of all young people and adults are met through equitable access to appropriate learning and life skills programme;

4. Achieving a 50 per cent improvement in levels of adult literacy by 2015, especially for women, and equitable access to basic and continuing education for adults;

5. Eliminating gender disparities in primary and secondary education by 2005 and achieving gender equality in education by 2015; and

6. Improving all aspects of quality of education and ensuring excellence of all so that recognised and measurable learning outcomes are achieved by all, especially in literacy, numeracy and essential life skills.

On most of these counts, especially on universal primary education, gender parity and total literacy, India has already missed the bus. Efforts are on to improve the situation but they are too slow, says the UNESCO report.

The number of out-of-school children worldwide is 72 million. Though this is a significant drop from the 96 million in 1999, it is large enough to cause concern, especially for India, which accounts for a substantial proportion of out-of-school children. It is difficult to imagine a scenario where all children of school-going age in India could be put in schools by 2015 as Prime Minister Manmohan Singh promised during the release of the EFA report.

The EFA report says there has been an increase in the net enrolment rate of school-going children at the primary level, but the dropout rate is high. The report attributes it to a multiplicity of reasons, mainly personal, financial, family or employment problems. All these coincide with childrens lack of confidence in the schools ability to give them adequate support.

However, it is significant that UNESCO has commended Indias effort in bringing such children back into the sphere of education with parallel or non-formal systems of education. It has especially mentioned the Open School System, which, combined with other literacy programmes, has served as an important agent of change. The EFA also speaks highly of Indias revolution in distance education and programmes such as Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan and Mahila Samakhya, the latter with a special emphasis on girls. The report says Indias distance learning programme with EDUSAT, the worlds first dedicated satellite for education, revolutionised the concept of distance education and compensated for over 10,000 new schools by replacing them with virtual classrooms.

But the U.N. body makes it clear that these efforts are not enough, mainly because of the sheer increase in absolute numbers. India has already missed the 2005 target of achieving gender parity and will also miss the 2015 target of attaining total literacy. Another problem, highlighted by the EFA report, is the persistence of regional or geographical disparities in India, with States such as Kerala with high literacy rates at one end of the spectrum and those like Bihar with very low literacy rates at the other end. While many countries have reduced this disparity substantially since 1999, there has been little change in the accessibility to schools in countries such as Benin, Bangladesh, Colombia, Ethiopia, Gambia, Kenya, Zambia, Zimbabwe and India.

Yet another highlight in the report is that disadvantaged sections of children, especially from rural areas and slums, continue to be deprived of education. This is worrisome for India, which has made universalisation of primary education one of its most ambitious goals; it is especially targeted at the disadvantaged sections of society.

The EFA report also points at the continuing gender disparity in access to education. The sheer number of illiterate women in India is a matter of concern, despite some commendable efforts by the government to improve womens literacy. Though the report speaks highly of women-oriented programmes such as Mahila Samakhya and Kasturba Balika Vidyalaya, it points out that while girls enrolment at the primary level might have increased in India, their rate of survival until the secondary stage has remained poor owing mainly to household responsibility, especially sibling care.

The report comes down heavily on the quality of education, too. It says there is a pressing need for significant improvement across the entire EFA spectrum. In a nutshell, India has to perk up its performance regarding all the six EFA goals if it has to come anywhere near its commitments.

Significantly, what the UNESCO report has pointed out in such unambiguous terms has been a matter of concern for educationists and social scientists in India for quite some time. They have been urging the government to take remedial steps, but to no avail. For instance, the National Knowledge Commission, headed by Sam Pitroda, has been writing consistently to the Prime Minister for steps that need to be taken to improve the quality of education, especially primary and secondary education. It has spelt out the dos for the government that can go a long way in improving the quality of education in India, especially in view of the fact that the government is in the process of enacting the Right to Education Bill.

A letter from Sam Pitroda to the Prime Minister on October 20, 2007, says that Central legislation, despite concerns about federalism, is the only way to improve the quality of education and make the right to education meaningful. This legislation, it says, must have clarity on the financial commitments, of which the bulk should be provided by the Central government. Educationists are unequivocal in asserting that resource allocation on education has not been up to the mark even during the UPA government, which has committed itself to making right to education a reality. According to the economist and social scientist Jayati Ghosh, the entire emphasis of the government has been on enrolment, which no doubt has shown impressive results (the UNESCO report corroborates this), but the survival rate and the quality of education, too, are important and the government has not paid enough attention to these aspects. Accessibility to school, especially to schools providing quality education, remains a major concern, she says.

One reason for the poor quality of education in government schools, she says, is extremely inadequate resources. India spends barely 4.1 per cent of its gross domestic product (GDP) on education, especially school education, which is extremely inadequate. Quality of education is directly linked to the resources available and the government has to improve resource allocation to bring about qualitative changes in the field of education.

Another matter of concern for educationists is that adult literacy programmes have fallen off the governments priority list. The National Knowledge Commission is in the process of finalising its recommendations on this as well. Based on a round of regional and national conferences, it has concluded that illiteracy remains a major problem and therefore literacy programmes cannot be ignored or given less importance. Expenditure on the National Literacy Mission (NLM) must be expanded rather than reduced and given a different focus. This note emphasises the importance of involving budgetary provisions instead of the NLMs present format of dependence on underpaid volunteer force. According to this note, better remuneration to literacy workers will help the move to a sustainable system of literacy generation from its present mission mode format.

College students in Bihar forming a human chain on World Literacy Day with children whom they teach during their spare time, on September 8, 2007.-RANJEET KUMAR

Since it is a fact that education, especially government-funded primary and secondary education, has remained neglected most of the time, is it asking too much of the UPA government? We certainly had more expectations from the UPA government because it was committed to the cause. But its performance so far leaves much to be desired, says Jayati Ghosh.

The government has to understand that even in this era of neoliberal economic policies and in the rush to involve private participation in all spheres of education, there is no way the state can ignore its own role and responsibilities. This was elucidated by the Nobel laureate Amartya Sen at a recent seminar in New Delhi when he said, No country in the world has been able to educate all its children without state intervention. Even if children went to terrible schools, it had an impact. He was responding to a suggestion from the corporate sector about increasing its own role in school education. It is high time the government heeded the advice from experts.

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