In a short period of five to six years since Rotarians took on the mission to make India literate, “amazing progress” has been made. “We have trained over 47,000 teachers and this has impacted over seven million students. Realising that e-learning is the engine driver of the whole programme, we have used technology to change the methodology of teaching in our schools; e-learning has been introduced in 15,000 schools and we want to increase this number in the next three years to 100,000 schools,” PRID Shekhar Mehta, who is the Chairman of the Rotary India Literacy Mission, told at a breakaway session at the Hamburg Convention.
Giving a background of the Literacy programme, he said that when Kalyan Banerjee was RI President and “I was on the Board of Directors, we took up a mission for total literacy in South Asia and first did a proper needs assessment.” India’s literacy rate was 74 per cent, there was a lack of trained teachers in schools, poor retention and large number of dropouts from schools due to lack of proper teaching and a huge number of adult illiterates, many of them women.
Enumerating the huge advantages of making a country literate, Mehta said, “Literacy, as we all understand, leads to lesser conflict, reduces crime, spreads peace, eradicates poverty, promotes better hygiene and sanitation, and enhances cultural diversity. It promotes democracy and increases self-esteem. After a thorough needs assessment, we met politicians, bureaucrats, people engaged with right to education NGOs and others working at the grassroots.”
There is an old saying that the best ornament for a girl is not a necklace or a gold earring but good education.
– RI Director Bharat Pandya
After meeting several stakeholders and identifying the shortfalls, which also included dilapidated school buildings, poor toilet facilities and lack of infrastructure such as benches and desks and learning material, “we decided that our schools would have to be made healthy places for both teaching and learning, there should be a holistic programme for literacy which took care of the child, teacher and the environment which was the school itself, and hence the concept of Happy Schools, and the acronym TEACH were born,” he said.
It was decided to recognise and reward good teachers through a programme called the Nation Builder Award, and under this over 20,000 teachers have been recognised. Several State governments had requested partnerships and said that henceforth the certificates should also include the government logo.
The e-learning programme had been taken up on a large scale and this had caught the imagination of both the Central Education Ministry and several governments who had asked for partnerships and these have been formed with the governments of Maharashtra, Gujarat, Punjab, etc. “Both the ministers and the bureaucrats are on board and together we want to work to ensure that every school in India has an e-learning facility in the next five years.”
While the adult literacy component of TEACH was being taken care of, where again governments were partnering with Rotary, the biggest problem was sending back to school children of beggars, school workers and children who had no homes and hence lived on streets. “Sending such children back to school is a herculean task. Because of the efforts of Rotarians and our partners, we’ve sent more than 35,000 such children back to school.”
Literacy, as we all understand, leads to lesser conflict, reduces crime, spreads peace, eradicates poverty, promotes better hygiene and sanitation and enhances cultural diversity.
– PRID Shekhar Mehta
Also, added Mehta, converting a school into a Happy School is “an amazing experience. Where toilets are inadequate or lacking, we build them, where children are sitting on floors, we give them benches, and provide libraries where there are none. We’ve managed to do over 2,500 Happy Schools costing $6 million and impacting over 400,000 children. Now the programme has become so big that governments, NGOs and corporates are willing to partner with us. Thanks to our success in polio, corporates are also ready to fund us,” he added.
Importance of educating girls
Addressing the session, RI Director Bharat Pandya, who has been involved in the Literacy project as the Chief Trainer, said Rotarians associated with this project were disturbed when they saw such a huge gap in literacy levels in men and women. “This gap was truly huge and alarming. There is an old saying that the best ornament for a girl is not a necklace or a gold earring but good education. That inspired us to take up this programme and ensure a girl has as much opportunity for an education as a male child.”
Quoting another saying he said “when spider webs unite, they can stop a lion. These words bring into sharp focus the importance of working together. By forging partnerships, Rotary can do better, more impactful work, reaching a wider audience.”
The perfect example of this was Rotary’s polio work in partnership with various agencies. Governments of the world or WHO could not have come so close to eradicating polio if they had worked by themselves. “Similarly, Rotary and Rotarians couldn’t have done it by ourselves… but by working together we are this close to eradicating polio. That is the power and impact of partnerships.”
Pandya added that one of the major reasons for the success of the TEACH programme and the numbers that PRID Mehta had quoted was the partnerships it had struck with government, other NGOs, etc, with the “first partnership being of course with Rotarians and Rotary clubs, and putting Literacy officers at all levels — clubs, districts and zones.”
It’s hard to imagine that people in the US are creating Happy Schools halfway around the world. But education is the key to success and every child deserves a quality education.
– PDG Nancy Barbee
Early in the programme it was realised that a proper structured training programme was very essential and this was done again at the zones, district and club levels. The ultimate goal of the literacy project is to ensure that “every nook and corner of South Asia — India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Pakistan is made literate,” he added.
A precious partnership with an American district
PDG Nancy Barbee, from RID 7730, US, who is involved with the TEACH project, recalled how 20 years ago, when she travelled to India, she met RI Director Kamal Sanghvi from RC Dhanbad. “He and the other Rotarians took me to many projects they were doing such as polio corrective surgeries and skilling of women.” Hooked by the work these Rotarians were doing in India, she became a regular visitor and on one visit met Shekhar Mehta and since then “we have partnered in many global grants to improve the lives of those in need not only in India but also in the US. Shekhar knew that literacy was my passion and I soon got involved in setting up a library. It was heartwarming to see how much our efforts were appreciated by the community,” she said.
Soon her district governor got involved and “we pledged to convert 10 schools into Happy Schools. I am proud to announce that seven of those have now been completed! It’s hard to imagine that people in the US are creating Happy Schools halfway around the world. But education is the key to success and every child deserves a quality education and I believe peace is possible through education.”
Nancy added that since this year Rotary celebrates its 100th year in India, “we are committed to doing as many global grants as possible. India is in my heart and I believe the TEACH project is the answer to making India literate and it can be replicated in all South Asian countries. We want to replicate it in as many countries in Africa as possible.”
We have suffered a lot, particularly when it comes to education. Over two decades hundreds of schools were destroyed and over 600,000 children became school-less in the northern part of Pakistan.
– PDG Faiz Kidwai
Her district has already got a global grant for a TEACH project in Nairobi, she added.
Building a girls college in Pakistan
Complimenting PRIP Banerjee and PRID Mehta for including Pakistan in the Rotary South Asia Society for Cooperation and Development, PDG Faiz Kidwai, from RID 3271, Pakistan, said India being the bigger country had taken the lead, moved fast, and Mehta had taken the project to where it was today. “Rotarians from Pakistan, Bangladesh and Nepal were present in most think tank meetings where community needs assessment had shown the similarities between all the South Asian countries.”
He gave an account of the work done by the Pakistan Literacy Mission and said that in the last two decades Pakistan had faced “many challenges and we have suffered a lot, particularly when it comes to education. Hundreds of schools were destroyed and over 600,000 children became school-less in the northern part of Pakistan. Working with the government was another challenge. “But our Rotarians and Rotaractors converted these challenges into opportunities and the first ever girls college has been built by us in the North. We partnered with the local administration to fulfil the dreams of many girls who were forced to discontinue their education due to cultural barriers. Now there are 1,200 girls at this college.”
PDG Geeta Manek from RID 9212, Kenya, stressed the need for implementing the Literacy programme in African countries and said many a participant in the breakout session was interested in replicating this programme in his/her country. “We all know that education is an equaliser, brings peace and is crucial for Africa, and there is a huge need for literacy in sub-Saharan Africa.” Every African country has its own challenges, but through proper partnerships and hard work, these could be overcome. Digitisation of education and e-learning could bring a huge change in the African countries, she added.
In his introductory comments, RI Director Kamal Sanghvi said former UN Secretary General Kofi Annan once said literacy was “the road to human progress and the means through which every man, woman or child can realise his or her whole potential. And Noble Laureate Malala Yousafzai has said education is neither western nor eastern. Education is education.”
Picture by Rasheeda Bhagat