Published: 08th September 2020
International Literacy Day: Why we need to look at literacy beyond the basic ability to read and write
Former IAS officer Swaran Singh explains why he believes that literacy is not an endpoint but a continuous process and has a definition that encompasses more than institutional learning
Literacy is a prerequisite to empower individuals across the globe. It not only enriches lives but also makes communities capable to access health, educational, economic, political, and cultural opportunities. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, recognised literacy as the basic human right and committed education for all.
India’s literacy rate has increased six times since Independence; however, it is still far from being all encompassing. While 22 per cent of Indians fall below the poverty line, it has been estimated that more than half of the nation’s population lacks even basic literacy skills. There exists a growing disparity in urban and rural literacy. As India develops into a 21st-century knowledge economy, the definition of education and literacy requires much-needed transformation.
It is important to focus on improving learning outcomes in the country and to look beyond the basic ability to read and write. Quality education infrastructure, availability of skilled teachers, proper curriculum with local flavour, financial incentives for teachers are some key factors that determine the quality of learning. While the country has made significant progress in improving literacy over the years, it continues to be home to 313 million illiterate people; 59 per cent of them are women. The Government of India has launched several programmes to improve the literacy level in the country. However, there has to be an emphasis on creating awareness amongst local communities about the importance of literacy as a basic need for their self-empowerment.
The education of approximately 1.37 billion individuals was disrupted globally over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic. The crisis not only shed light on the unpreparedness of educational infrastructures and systems but brought a risk to the continuity of teaching and learning. Though one thing stands clear, literacy cannot wait and must continue to grow.
Swaran Singh | (Pic: SST)
Individuals, regardless of their demographics, should have the opportunity to expand their literacy and reading skills to reach their full potential and succeed. Adults with little or no literacy skills stand to face multiple disadvantages. Time constraint, family resistance, economic pressure, unawareness of literacy programmes, distance from learning centres often deters adults from attending basic education opportunities.
As the Government works to empower urban and rural India with solutions for continuous and inclusive educational programmes, corporates entities play a significant role in providing impactful learning during this exceptionally trying time. One such example is by the social arm of a leading two-wheeler manufacturer, which has significantly turned around the lives of adults in Sundararaja Puram, a small village located in the Tuticorin district of Tamil Nadu by setting up active adult education centres.
Due to the lack of infrastructure and guidance in learning, residents were left with a drive to learn but no means to take their dream forward. The interested adults were taught over a period of four months, with a pedagogy focused on functional literacy skills such as reading and writing (in their mother tongue) as well as basic numerical. By learning such core foundational skills, these individuals gained more confidence and the motivation to strengthen their economic standing.
To achieve universal literacy by 2030, literacy campaigns and initiatives should be integrated with non-formal education programmes for older adults. “Literacy is a bridge from misery to hope,” once said former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan. It is a tool for daily life in modern society. The need of the hour is to focus on education quality, digital literacy, and skilling for all. More corporate organisations should come forward to join hands with education institutions to enhance the education ecosystem in India. Literacy programmes integrated with skill development, vocational training, and technology such as mobile-learning can bolster adult education in the country. Effectively boosting both youth and adult literacy can translate into global and national recovery and resilience.
Swaran Singh is a former IAS officer who served in various positions in the Tamil Nadu Government for three decades, He currently serves as the Chairman of the Srinivasan Services Trust, the social arm of the TVS Motor Company.
(Views expressed are the author's own)