By – A.Vasantha , 5 Sep :Every year on 8th September, on World Literacy Day, the UNESCO reminds the international community of the status of literacy globally. India too venerates literacy by celebrating the day to create awareness among the masses the importance of literacy in one’s life.It is also the day to reflect on the status of literacy in the country.
Six decades back a resurgent India embarked on a programme of national development with great enthusiasm. Realizing that literacy is a powerful tool of development and a lever of change to achieve social progress the government resolved to make India fully literate within a decade when it became a republic nation in 1950.It made a promise to its citizens by a declaration under article 45 of the constitution that The State shall endeavour to provide over a period of ten years of the commencement of the constitution free and compulsory education for all children until they complete the age of fourteen years. Since then determined efforts are being made towards the achievement of the Directive Principle – new schools were opened and a massive enrolment programme was undertaken to bring children to school.
Literacy at this time meant the same as the first internationally agreed upon definition given by the UNESCO Recommendation of 1958. It observed that “a literate person is one who can, with understanding, both read and write a short simple statement on his or her every day life’. This definition also includes arithmetic skills(numeracy). Hence for all practical purposes education for most meant attaining the three R’s-reading, writing and arithmetic-skills.
Education till 1976 had been essentially the responsibility of the States. This meant the availability of facilities and resources for education was dependent not on the commitment of the nation as a whole but upon the vicissitudes of the resources allotted by States for education. Though the States showed all round increment in enrolment, they presented a scenario that had wide disparities among the sexes, sections and states. The performance across different levels of education in the various States and Union Territories was also not uniform. What was more worrying was that growth rate in elementary education after an initial spurt, started a tendency to taper off. The drop out rate in schools became high and the drop outs lapsed into illiteracy adding to the mass of illiterates in the country.
While this was the state of affairs within the organized school system those who had entered the work force particularly in the productive age group 15-35 had no chance of becoming literate as there was no non-formal or adult education available. This general apathy towards education, irrelevance of educational content to the needs of the learner, and lack of resources set the government thinking for newer approach to education in general and literacy in particular.
In the mean time the World Conference of Education Ministers on the eradication of illiteracy organized by the UNESCO at Tehran (1965) concluded that rather than end in itself literacy should be regarded as a way of preparing man for a social, civic and economic role that goes beyond the rudimentary literacy training consisting merely in the teaching of reading and writing.
Agreeing totally with this definition the Education Commission(1964-1966)appointed under the Chairmanship of D.S.Kothari observed “ we do not equate literacy with mere ability to read and write” literacy if it is to be worthwhile must be functional. A functionally literate person would be one having acquired sufficient mastery over the tools of literacy and would acquire relevant knowledge which will enable him to pursue his own ends. Elaborating further it defined the scope of literacy programmes which would have three essential ingredients to enable one (i) to perform his work role i.e. it must be work based and aim at creating attitudes and interests and imparting skills and information which will help a person to do efficiently whatever work he is engaged in; (ii) to perform his or her role as a citizen i.e. it must enable an individual to understand the vital national problems and participate effectively in the social and political life of the nation and (iii) to enable one to enhance his skills and education either on his own or through other available avenues of informal education.
The Commission also noted that for a country aspiring to change from a traditional to modern society science should form the basic component of education and culture. Hence purposeful education should consist of four basic elements viz. literacy, numeracy ( a study of mathematics and natural sciences), work experience and social service.
The Government accepted most of the recommendations of the Education Commission and a National Policy on Education came into being in 1968. Accordingly in the school curricula in addition to laying down a common scheme of studies for boys and girls, science and math were incorporated as compulsory subjects and work experience was assigned a place of importance.
The main objective of scientific literacy was to enable the pupils to discover the relationship of science with health, agriculture, industry and other aspects of daily life. It was to develop in the child well defined abilities and values such as the spirit of inquiry, creativity, objectivity, the courage to question and an aesthetic sensibility. In short scientific literacy was to inculcate scientific temper in the individual.
However the general formulations in the 1968 policy did not get translated into a detailed strategy of implementation for various reasons. As a result the earlier mentioned problems of wastage, stagnation, access, quality, and finance accumulated over the years assumed such massive proportions that they had to be tackled with utmost urgency. Accordingly a new policy on education was enunciated in 1986 where in the emphasis shifted from enrolment per se to enrolment as well as retention.
For those outside the school system The National Literacy Mission (NLM) was launched as a societal and technological mission on 5th May 1988, with the object of imparting functional literacy to 80 million illiterate adults-by 1995.The NLM defined functional literacy as acquiring the skills of three R’s and the ability to apply them to daily life. Functional literacy would include imbibing the values of national integration, conservation of environment, women’s equality and small family norms etc. Thus literacy as enunciated in the NLM is not an end in itself but has to be an active and potent instrument of change ensuring achievement of these social objectives and creation of a learning society. The NLM believes that functional literacy would result in empowerment and a definite improvement in quality of life of an individual.
The efforts of the NLM are laudable indeed. By 2000, it had covered 152 million people spread over 559 districts of the country to impart to them the basic skills. The NLM also won the UNESCO-NOMA award in 1999 for its magnificent work.
Towards the turn of the last century we had ushered in the era of liberalisation and globalisation. New technologies like information technology, bio technology and nano technology have entered India in a big way in government banking industry, trade and commerce. The entire work environment is changing fast The requirements of the knowledge society that is emerging calls for a wider dimension of literacy. Information literacy and skill literacy are the demands of the day, which can enhance the capabilities of our human resources. Secondly, we need to address on priority basis the needs of those who do not already possess basic literacy skills, for them to take advantage of information literacy, otherwise equality of opportunities and social justice will remain simply slogans.
*(Retired )Professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New- Delhi