A Letter From Grandpa
By Niranjan Shah
My dear Nikita and Sanjna:
Literacy in India has a history stretching back to the ancient urban centers of learning at Takshashila and Nalanda. Everybody in the villages had a basic knowledge of reading, writing and arthmatic. Percentage of literacy was very high until Islamic invasions in eighth century. From about 80 percent of literacy rate in ancient India, by the time Britishers came it had declined to 6 percent. Western education became ingrained into Indian society with the establishment of the British Raj. The various articles of the Indian constitution provide for literacy as a fundamental right. India has made a huge progress in terms of increasing primary education attendance rate and expanding literacy to approximately two thirds of the population. India’s improved education system is often cited as one of the main contributors to the economic rise of India.
Literacy in British India in 1911 was only 6 percent, in 1931 it was 8 percent, and by 1947 it had crawled to 11 percent! That fifty years of freedom had allowed the nation to quintuple its literacy rate was something that almost seemed unfathomable to them. Perhaps – the British had concentrated on higher education? But in 1935, only 4 in 10,000 were enrolled in universities or higher educational institutes. In a nation of then over 350 million people only 16,000 books (no circulation figures) were published in that year (i.e. 1 per 20,000).
Literacy in India is key for socio-economic progress. The Indian literacy rate grew to 66 percent in 2007 from 12 percent at the end of British rule in 1947. Although this was a greater than fivefold improvement, the level is well below the world average literacy rate of 84 percent, and India currently has the largest illiterate population of any nation on earth. Despite government programs, India’s literacy rate increased only “sluggishly,” and a 1990 study estimated that it would take until 2060 for India to achieve universal literacy at then-current rate of progress.
The United Nations Educa-tional, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has drafted a definition of literacy as the “ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use 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.”
The National Literacy Mission defines literacy as acquiring the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic and the ability to apply them to one’s day-to-day life. The achievement of functional literacy implies (i) self-reliance in 3 R’s, (ii) awareness of the causes of deprivation and the ability to move towards amelioration of their condition by participating in the process of development, (iii) acquiring skills to improve economic status and general well being, and (iv) imbibing values such as national integration, conservation of environment, women’s equality, observance of small family norms.
The working definition of literacy in the Indian census since 1991 is as follows: Literacy rate: The total percentage of the population of an area at a particular time aged seven years or above who can read and write with understanding. Here the denominator is the population aged seven years or more.
The bulk of Indian illiterates live in the country’s rural areas, where social and economic barriers play an important role in keeping the lowest strata of society illiterate. Government programs alone, however well intentioned, may not be able to dismantle barriers built over centuries. Major social reformation efforts are sometimes required to bring about a change in the rural scenario.
Swami Vivekananda said: “If the poor boy cannot come to education, education must go to him.” Following this commandment, Ekal Vidyalaya Foundation, a charitable trust innitiates, supports and runs non-formal, one teacher schools all over the country. With the participation of numerous non-profit trusts and organizations, this trust has now become the greatest non-governmental education movement in the country.
— Grandpa’s blessings
Niranjan Shah, a civil engineer, who pioneered famous high-rise buildings in Baroda, is a broadcaster in India and the USA and a prolific writer. Under “A Letter from Grandpa.” he has been writing since 2002 on India’s historical, philosophical, and literary heritage. He can be reached at email@example.com