Saturday, November 14, 2015


Recently the Hon. Odisha High Court upheld a lower court decision to the effect that if one does not know how to read and write in Odia, one cannot be the chairperson of a gram panchayat in Odisha. The one who had to resign her chairpersonship because of this judgement is said to have made spelling mistakes in writing and to have failed to read a passage from a minor class school text book with the expected fluency. She was of course literate, but there is no incongruity here because the definition of literacy that we have for the purposes of Census is generous: if one who is seven and above can read and write with understanding in any language, one is literate. Although not specifically mentioned, one would assume that “write” here means “writing without spelling and grammatical errors” and “read”, “read with the expected fluency”. In terms of this literal definition of literacy, one is literate if one can read and write his name and the names of his family members and read some headlines of a newspaper haltingly. One hopes that those who declare themselves literate to the Census volunteers are capable of a good deal more! The chairperson under reference is literate and at the same time didn’t have the language competence in Odia of a minor school student in order to remain in her position.

One is tempted to guess why India chose to have such a generous definition of literacy. When India became independent, the literacy figures of the country were very low - not unexpectedly though, for literacy for the colonized was not among the objectives of the colonial administration. A country can hardly be taken seriously by other countries if a very large number of its people are illiterate. But people cannot become literate overnight, let alone literate in a meaningful sense, especially in the case of a newly independent and a big country like India. At that time making people literate in the literal sense of the term might have appeared to be a manageable objective. The literacy figures soon started improving.  

Today when India feels mature and confident and aspires to play a significant role on the world stage, the country needs to rethink the idea of literacy. It must not feel satisfied with even hundred percent literacy when this term is defined in its literal sense. The Literacy programme of the country does have a reasonable notion of literacy in terms of three R’s, but one does not know the literacy rate of its citizens with respect to this notion of literacy. This is what the country needs to know. We need to be informed in every ten years about the percentage of literacy in this sense as well. Literacy need not be conceptualized so as to be associated with a certain stage of education: primary, upper primary, middle school, etc. A definition of literacy that is close to the UNESCO definition should suffice: the "ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society". We must not fail to note in this definition the point that there cannot be an unchanging notion of “functional” or what we prefer to call “empowering” literacy. It is not literal, technical literacy that will really help the citizen; it is empowering literacy that will. 

The implementation of this extremely important initiative will require strong social and political will. Literacy volunteers can successfully implement a technical literacy programme, but not a working or empowering literacy programme. For the latter to happen, every child has to attend school – school in the right sense of the term, where there are class rooms with roof and blackboards and there are teachers to teach. And school education has to go beyond “no failure” model – the unsaid thing is that not just pass-fail examinations have been dispensed with; along with that teaching has also been largely dispensed with. "Lunch with an egg” is fine but school has to become again the place where learning takes place.

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