All of us reading this article can thank our teachers. But more than one-third of the people in this country can’t read this paper or anything else in any other language. India has the largest number of illiterates — about 35% of its 1.1 billion people, says the United Nations. By 2020, this number would shoot up to 50 per cent of a still larger population.
The country's fight against illiteracy began in earnest about a year ago. In its 60th year as a republic, India signed the Right of Children to Free and Compulsory Education Act. And with that, it became one among 130 nations that legally protect the right of children to basic education.
A decade ago, spurred on by the Millennium Development Goals, India launched the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) in 21 states to ensure eight years of elementary schooling for 192 million children by 2010.
SSA has been successful in terms of access, says a senior official in the human resources development ministry. "In 98 per cent of habitations, kids have access to a primary school within one km and in 92 per cent habitation, there's access to upper primary school every three km," he says, asking not to be identified. "The challenge is to now ensure regular attendance."
To make that possible, the ministry has aligned SSA with the Right to Education Act, or RTE. But it's still a long hop to providing basic education to all. A survey done in September by Bachpan Bachao Andolan, a non-profit body, in nine states shows that one in six Indians is still unaware of his or her right to education. Only one in three children gets free education. The dropout rate in primary school was as high as 24 per cent in 2007-08.
Thankfully, the government is not alone in its efforts. To plug the gaps in providing free and compulsory education and, in some cases, to supplement the government's programmes, several private or even individual initiatives have come up. Here, we look at a few:
Bookmaking with a difference
Endeavour: Room To Read (RTR) was launched globally in 2000 by John Wood, who after trekking through schools in Nepal was shocked by their lack of resources and inspired enough to quit as Microsoft Corp’s director of business development for China to begin his non-profit venture.
RTR came to India in 2003, making the country its fourth home after Nepal, Vietnam and Cambodia. It aimed to partner with local communities and foster reading as a habit, especially where government efforts were inadequate.
Today, RTR India's interventions have reached at least 3,500 schools.
"The Right To Education, in laying out basic parameters, said that schools must have libraries. So we began with giving books to schools and training teachers for day-to-day transactions," said Sunisha Ahuja, RTR's India country director.
"In 2006, Pratham's Aser (annual state of education report) confirmed that children (53 per cent of those surveyed) didn't have basic reading skills. So in 2007, we started developing textbook for teachers to train children. There were picture cards, word cards, local rhymes… the idea was to develop a reading habit so that they become independent readers."
Reading, says RTR India's global chief officer Dhir Jhingan, is a foundation skill. "It helps other skills."
Achievement: RTR expects to establish 4,000 libraries in India by the end of 2010 and add another 850 by the end of next year. Worldwide, it says at least four million children have benefited from its programmes, and in India, about 825,000.
From teaching to creating history
Endeavour: Professor Zahoor Siddiqi is the quintessential history teacher. He has a hand-written background note ready as we drive 72 km from Delhi to the mango belt in Uttar Pradesh’s Baghpat district, where he founded a school 17 years ago.
This erstwhile reader of history at Delhi University’s School of Correspondence converted his ancestral mansion in Rataul village into a primary school. Siddiqi says he was inspired by former prime minister VP Singh who, during a meeting at his home, spoke about the common man’s need for education.
"Before 1947 and even after, rural India was the worst sufferer as far as primary education was concerned," says Siddiqi.
His wife Nishat Saiyada, a trained teacher, gave up her government job to join him at the school. They sold their house in Delhi and invested their savings into constructing classrooms and employing basic staff.
When the school was finally ready, Siddiqi says some relatives insisted the teachings of the Quran be included as a subject. "It wasn't just Muslims living in the village, there were Hindus, Christians, too. So I told them that if religious education is so important, then they should finance one religious teacher for each section of the students. No one said anything after that," he smiles.
Salma Public School, named after his grandmother who rebelled against her family's opposition to education, was recognised by the government in 2000.
Achievement: Salma Public School began with 30 students and two teachers in 1993. It now has 487 students and 14 teachers. Of the students, 204 are girls, significant in a conservative Muslim village.
Piping lectures with YouTube
Endeavour: Salman Khan's labelled as Bill Gates' favourite teacher in a recent article by Fortune magazine. This Khan is not the Hindi movie actor. He's an Indian-American Harvard-Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) graduate who quit his job as a hedge fund manager with Wohl Capital Management to found a non-profit education initiative in 2009.
Khan become an online sensation after his virtual school khanacademy.org — a collection of free self-narrated video-lectures on YouTube —caught on.
Khan got the idea in 2004 when he helped a cousin with a math problem over the telephone while using Yahoo Doodle as a virtual, real-time notepad.
He says he has at least 300,000 followers a month for his mini-lectures, including Gates' children. The aim is to "provide education to anyone, anywhere," including children who have to work for a living.
The 33-year-old teacher plans to take his tutorials to iTunes as well. "Also, over the next two years, the tutorials will be translated into Hindi, Urdu and Bengali," says Khan, whose mother hails from Kolkata and father from Bangladesh. "It's motivating for me when people tell me they didn't fail after using these tutorials."
Achievement: Khan's 1,800+ tutorials on YouTube are viewed about 100,000 times a day on an average. He says his virtual academy, being developed as an open source project, reaches at least 300,000 students a month in the US, Canada, Australia and India. "Over 10% of our viewers are from India," he says.
Books, Facebook and a library
Endeavour: It began as a party debate for this Delhi-based trio — journalists Praveen Swami, Nilanjana Roy and lawyer-activist Mihira Sood — until it graduated into an idea to build a library for a government-run school in the city.
"I find it strange that people like us sit around talking about causes and always counting on someone else to do it. So when a bunch of us who love books... started chatting, it seemed like an achievable idea," says Swami.
The three short-listed three schools and put up a Facebook group inviting ideas and discussions on book lists. The word spread like a viral on the social networking site and soon people from across the country were writing in.
"The response was overwhelming. We needed just 10 people to donate R5,000 each but we got 10 times the response in terms of volunteering and commitments for funds," says Swami, who along with Roy and Sood is registering a trust to accept the donations. "We saw Facebook becoming a meeting point for people who didn’t know each other, yet converging on the same cause."
Target: Raise R50,000 to build a library of 100 quality books for one government school. If it works, replicate the model for other schools and encourage people to take up similar initiatives in their neighbourhoods.
Read, India, Read
Endeavour: Pratham, one of the largest non-profit organisations in the country, was established in 1994 in five Mumbai slums. It aimed to identify gaps in education in terms of dropouts and teaching techniques.
Its annual status of education report, or Aser, is the largest household survey on elementary education in India. The survey was first carried out in 2005 and is used in policy formulation by the Union and state governments, including for SSA.
Pratham launched its flagship programme — Read India (RI) — in 2007. The idea was to improve reading, writing and basic arithmetic in children aged 6-14.
Today, taxpayers pay an additional two per cent education cess to support elementary education and at least 90 per cent of all children in the 6-14 age group are enrolled in schools, according to the Aser report. Still, by many counts, basic learning levels are far from satisfactory.
"SSA's projected impact by 2010 hasn't taken place as expected but somehow the new RTE Act will help fill this gap," says Himanshu Giri, chief operating officer of Pratham Books, the publishing arm of the non-profit body.
Achievement: In 2008-09, RI reached 33 million children in 19 states; 400,529 books were read by children and 600,000 teachers and govt workers were trained under RI.
It's arty time
Endeavour: Pankhuri Singh, 26, can't get over the fact that a group of children in a Nagaland village mistook the crayons she gave them for chocolates. "Those kids have never seen crayons or sketch pens in their life," says the environmentalist, who over the past year has been promoting creative expression in Delhi University, Aligarh Muslim University and Teen Murti Bhavan through T-shirt painting.
"Clothing as a medium works as a canvas of expression and it's a silent mode of communication," she says.
Singh travels across the country holding workshops for school and college students to explore issues such as protection of tigers and global warming. And she's clear she wants to do it on her own because otherwise "you can't connect with people the way you want to."
Singh has spread her word on her social network, asking friends and others to forgo a cup of coffee or a day at the movies and instead contribute to her cause.
"Children in villages don't get opportunities to express themselves through art. I want to give them the free space to do whatever they like, without any conventions," she says.
Target: Pankhuri Singh has raised R47,000-R2,000 more than she needed-to fund a two-week long T-shirt painting workshop for 140 children in Leh-Ladakh's relief camps and remote villages.
Re-Imagining India is a joint initiative of Hindustan Times and Mint to track and understand policy reforms that could, if successful, transform India's efforts at inclusive growth.
Read previous stories at www.hindustantimes.com/reimaginingindia