Saturday, 13 January 2007

Politics of Literacy in India

Challenges of 21st Century

Learning to Learn: Squatters' children in Mumbai
 These children prove that learning begins at home! Learning is autonomous function of all the living beings, not only humans. It is bestowed by Mother Nature.

So simple! So unbelievable! You must be joking!

IN THE EARLY 1950s it could have been possible to achieve hundred per cent literacy in India in about five years. It was possible if some serious thought was given to the indigenous ways of learning of the people. We were forty crores then. At the turn of the 20th century about 40% i.e. about 40 crores persons are said to be illiterate. About 70% people live in villages. This is statistics of averages even if reliable. There are places where illiteracy is close to 100 percent; with perhaps a couple of percents are literate in the age group below ten years.

The statistics, however, do not show how many children attend, or do not attend, the schools regularly, and how many opt to dropout at various levels of schooling. Why do people keep away from the schooling even to this date when their survival is at stake? Yet the question remains how literacy is practiced/ utilised by all the sections of people – whether marginally literate or literate or educated – in the urban and rural areas? This leads to another question: how literacy becomes a crucial ‘need’, in what situations, for the illiterate?

By now we must be aware that mere election propaganda for the parliaments, assemblies, district or village panchayats, being connected to political power, is not an enough motivation to be literate. Even an annual Union Budget, being connected to economic power, is not a sufficient reason to be literate. To be MP or MLA, or even a Sarpanch of village panchayat, for an illiterate person is solely circumstantial. (We remember the late Phoolan Devi with reverence.)

Development begins with people, not PMs

‘BY BEING LITERATE, or rather educated, one gets a job, work, employment to earn livelihood’, is a bet often used by those who give, or sell, education, of course, is a white lie; people are sufficiently informed and disillusioned by now. Hence the crucial question of ‘need’ to motivate the illiterate is to know how literacy is applicable or useful in their ordinary living conditions.

In the industrialized societies the institutionalization works almost in every aspect of personal and the collective life. Even Gandhiji’s concept of ‘Buniyadi Shiksha’ – basic education – was institutionalized for a brief period. Inevitably it was discontinued. ‘Buniyadi shiksha’ is about ‘education’, not ‘literacy’. We are speaking here of ‘literacy’, that is ‘reading and writing the letters and numbers’, the script in any language – vernacular, regional or international.

‘India is a nation of villages and 70% people live in the villages’ is another often-repeated catch phrase that doesn’t go beyond lip service. There may be a genuine desire by the managers of the country’s affairs to take the nation to rank with the developed industrialized nations. And they seem to be in great hurry. Are they working for the 100 plus crore people or the ‘economy’?

Unfortunately for the last five decades the development or prosperity isn’t visible at the people’s level, whether it is literacy or poverty line, deaths by malnutrition or starvation or diseases by land-water-air pollution. They have been ceaselessly talking of percentages. It doesn’t elevate people to earn livelihood with dignity. The people, though helpless and silent, are intelligent to understand the ‘mid-day meal’ at school is a charity offered by the feudal masters, not a dignity.

Creativity: to create problems to create solutions to create…

WHY PEOPLE HAVE BEEN KEEPING AWAY from the institutionalized formal schooling even to this date? Without mincing words, it is because the prevalent education isn’t relevant and/or the system is not appropriate for their sustenance.

Homo sapiens have a powerful weapon of language over other hominids and species. As script and writing were discovered with rise of civilization, the powerful classes or castes monopolised them and kept ‘the other’ – their subjects away; perhaps they promised them the physical and spiritual protection in the return of the exploits.

Over the centuries this majority, which still persists and is increasing, had known that the scriptures and the script have not been essential for the survival in real life in real world. Perhaps that is why Gautama Buddha, the rebellion, speaks to people in Prakrit – vernacular!

Those who go through the British-made western-style education become alienated from the people and society, from real life, and embrace ‘virtual reality’ of market, money and media. The people inevitably turn into a mass society, and subsequently face identity crisis.

Fortunately none of the ethnic and tribal communities and their members suffers from identity crisis. They are acutely aware of its irrelevance in their real life, and therefore cannot afford it, and opt to drop out.

The identity of Britain and the British is “East India Company” – the international Baniya – the traders. The East India Company baptized the elite India with trade and replaced clergy by traders who are invisible rulers.

It is not a discovery that a language or a script is ‘virtual reality’. With the development of science and technology more and more languages and scripts are emerging, such as, binary. This pushes the society to further fragmentation and chaos, and the powerful move to further alienation. Thanks to the progress of Electronic Technology/ Information Technology in leaps and bounds that perhaps a million odd persons are now marginally computer-literates. The brighter ones end up in silicon valleys to slave for the likes of Gates.

An annual Union Budget, may use Hindi language, but even the educated may not be able to comprehend its means, meanings and ends, or how economic language changes political equations, or who shall hijack its benefits by hook or crook. Then they need the modern-day gurus to interpret the scriptures of the country’s budget. Such monopolisation of languages leads the experts to alienation from the real world, and pushes the ‘other’ members of the society to oblivion. Can anyone take a word of the rulers at its face value? The same could be said of all the fields of specialisation and expertise; they remain exclusive but not universal.

Literacy indigenous way

WHILE WRITING REQUIRES MOTOR ABILITY, reading is visual function of the brain, and language and script are cultural inventions. The scientists continue to read the human body. Describing our ability to read, Stanislas Dehaene, a cognitive neuroscientist, says that ‘the architecture of our brain is limited by strong genetic constraints though it retains fringe flexibility. … The primate visual system evolved to do a different job that was that was similar to allow it to be “recycled” into reading machine. … Even though we can’t possibly be born with specialised reading circuit, we all end up using exactly the same part of the brain.’

He speculates, ‘when we learn to read, we convert the network of neurons whose initial role was object recognition into specialized word-recognition system. The brain had neither the ability nor the need to create such a region from scratch. Our brain did not evolve reading. (See: Stanislas Dehaene, ‘Natural born readers’, New Scientist, July 5, 2003, pp 30-33). Many neuroscientists share the hope that the new understanding of brain will throw light on children’s educational difficulties, in maths as well as reading. They, however, must see before long that the advanced societies and the education progressively exist in ‘vertual reality’ divorced from nature.

To implement literacy all that a language needs is a script. Is it difficult to learn any script for persons who weave baskets or clothe, shape the pottery or build their own abode? Is it difficult to learn any script for a tribal woman who inscribes rangoli, alpana, kolam on a cow dung-washed floor, or paints fertility goddess on a mud wall? It is not that the illiterate have no language and no ‘script’; they do have them from the proto-historic times. Their language and script or signs are comprehensible to all the members of the community and are accepted means of communications.

Traditionally the people have been learning the life-supporting skills, crafts, and trades by sharing, experiencing and participatory process. This has been going on for thousands of years, even long before Homo sapiens domesticated plants and animals.

It is high time the ‘managers’ learn from the people rather than the West in the matters at home. There is a simple alternative to the ‘official’ system to implement literacy programme in India by indigenous way.

Ji-jutsu action is best weapon for the poor

BY THE SAME AGE-OLD INDIGENOUS WAY, any 3, 4 or 5 percent literate persons, kids or adults, from a village, or a neighbouring one, can teach the letters and numbers to entire village in five years. Children are the best teachers as they have better access to the woman folks and the aged. A thankless job!

Learning literacy, of course, should be in the people’s dialect or vernacular, the mother tongue. A language with script establishes its identity as well as that of its community, and self-respect. The language then comes out of obscurity. The learned and the educated then start respecting the language that has a script. It becomes a politically strategic action.

Not long ago there has been reconstitution of Indian states on the basis of language. Not long ago Konkani language received recognition from the Government. Its three dialects, Malvani, Gomantaki and Karvari followed Devanagari, Roman and Kannada scripts for number of years.

Indigenous way of learning literacy is bound to be different and away from the established ‘official’ ways of institutionalized schooling. The possible course may appear this way:

  • A language may adopt a script, preferably a regional one, as Indian scripts are phonetically compatible;
  • Ideally the language must be the mother tongue, people’s own dialect or vernacular language;
  • The words and sentences would follow their own practice and describe their habitat – names of plants, birds, and animals, things they do and appliances they use for food, work and leisure;
  • As it advances it should document their legends, myths, folklore, folk stories, folk songs, folk theater, plays and games, and their unwritten ancient laws;
  • As far as possible the learning should keep away from the textbooks prescribed in the mass schooling, most of which is alien. They should evolve their own curriculum;
  • They may start learning to write on earth, floor, use pigments or powders made from vegetables or soils… They also should not accept any conditional assistance from any person/s or governmental or nongovernmental organizations.

Routinely the bureaucrats, the experts, the educationist etc. will think of building schools, print books, decide curriculum, appoint teachers, prepare rolls of attendance, budgets, ‘Operation Black-Board’, talk big things in the parliament… They have no formula to reward such a programme of ‘literacy-indigenous-way’. If by any chance, some monetary incentive is provided, then a major part shall be sucked away by the channel itself – the intermediaries such as administration, establishments, and institutions on its way to the people. One should not be surprised if there happens a ‘slate-and-pencil’ scam like fodder scam and leather scam.
What then is their incentive? Modern theories of economics, leftist or rightist, have no formula to reward such a way of learning literacy. They cannot assess such work just as they have failed to assess value of farming and farm products as they do in case of industrial products, or the wealth of people’s knowledge. How could they, who look down upon them as second-class citizens, Dasyus, service class, ever even appreciate such concept or work?

PEOPLE’S RIGHT REWARD, perhaps, is that they can read and write their own language, and about their lives. It is larger than any award any establishment or the State can confer upon them. Their reward is they create a powerful political strategy in Ju-jitsu action. Is this why Kabir vehemently proclaims that he is illiterate?

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Remigius de Souza

(Published in Janata weekly, Mumbai)

1 comment:

  1. It is interesting what you write about create problems to create solutions to...such wondrous thoughts!