Making India Literate This year, thanks to some meticulous and smart planning, Rotary’s work in the field of literacy caught media attention like never before, says RILM Chair Shekhar Mehta.

We’ve never seen corporates chase Rotary but for the first time they are doing that… to work with us on literacy through the TEACH programme. They can see the difference it will make to India and its future. They are particularly interested in supporting Happy Schools and E-learning.”

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Past RI Director and Rotary India Literacy Mission Chair Shekhar Mehta is all excitement as he shares details of the huge impact Rotary made on the media — both traditional as well as social — this year, while celebrating the World Literacy Day on September 8.

Asked to comment on the record media coverage that Rotary’s celebration of the World Literacy Day got this year, Mehta says, “I don’t like to make such statements but very frankly in so many years I haven’t seen anything like this. Interestingly, this ‘newspaper challenge’ began at the last RILM Executive meet.”

We Rotarians are very good at speaking to ourselves, but we need to speak to the outside world and it needs to know what we are doing.

He was sharing with one of the RNT Trustees the Literacy core group’s plans to reach out to the media on Literacy Day. “He said we won’t get media coverage for Rotary. I said I promise you we’ll get at least 100 reports in newspapers.”

A Rotarian teaches children in a West Bengal village.
A Rotarian teaches children in a West Bengal village.

Having taken on the challenge, he had to live up to it. “Of course I had no control because it would be the Rotary clubs who would have to do it.” But the core RILM team rose to the occasion and the result is that till September end, he had already received over 150 clippings from newspapers from all over India. “And there may be so many that I may not even be aware of. Not everybody sends/reports the outcome of our activities or programmes,” he says.

How the preparations began

Mehta says about three years ago Rotary had decided that “we need to be one of the major players in India as far as literacy is concerned. Now UNESCO has declared September 8 as International Literacy Day, and this being the 50th year, we needed to make some noise. I always find individuals, politicians, etc trending on social media, so I said let Rotary trend on that day!”

There is an understanding with the Kailash Satyarthi Foundation under which in the next 3 years Rotary will send 3 lakh children back to school.

This objective was discussed at various levels; from the national committee to the zonal literacy coordinators. The team realised that to catch the media’s eye and to trend on social media that day, they would have to be creative and innovative in their approach. “Now if we conduct a walkathon everywhere, then it is hardly likely to have the desirable impact.” So it was decided to let everybody do what they wanted, but within the parameters of TEACH (Teachers Training, E-learning, Adult Literacy, Child Development, Happy Schools). “We said you may do, you may launch, you may commit any of these elements. You have the freedom to do what you want, but please report to us. We got the Inner Wheel also involved in the programme. Inner Wheel is very regimented, so if the order goes from the top, they follow it to a T, and they have done some amazing work this year,” says Mehta.

RILM Chair Shekhar Mehta explains details of TEACH to a visitor at the HoF booth at the Seoul Rotary Convention 2016.
RILM Chair Shekhar Mehta explains details of TEACH to a visitor at the HoF booth at the Seoul Rotary Convention 2016.

Of course, he adds, Rotarians “have also done outstanding work”. One member of the RILM team, who is social media savvy, was put in charge of this mega event. The agency which does the RILM creatives, was also roped in to do some striking promos for the day. The main challenge was “to get the public… the larger community… involved. We Rotarians are very good at speaking to ourselves, but we need to speak to the outside world and it needs to know what we are doing,” he says.

To enlarge RILM’s presence on social media, he gave a target to the staff — the 6,000 ‘likes’ on its FB page would have to cross the 10,000 mark and they would get a treat. Mehta had to keep his word!

Hum jaha jaha jaatey hei, waha waha E-learning schools mey admission ke liye bheed lagi hei. In the villages, they are really interested in E-learning.
– D 3250 PDG Bindu Singh

Next, to engage a larger audience, they had a photography competition, and got senior leaders such as TRF Chair Kalyan Banerjee, PRIP Rajendra K Saboo, RID Manoj Desai and celebrities such as M S Dhoni, Sonakshi Sinha, Kabir Bedi etc, to give out messages on “What are YOU doing on September 8”. With senior leaders spelling out what they and their clubs were doing for the cause of literacy, a cascading effect was created, and the media picked up the frenetic activity. What also helped was the involvement of the Government. Union HRD Minister Prakash Javadekar came and on that occasion the 5,000 libraries project of RILM was launched. Six other Education Ministers from different States were also involved.

A Nobel Laureate’s endorsement

The RILM chief is happy that fortunately, when it comes to literacy, “the outside world is hearing us”. It got a shot in the arm when earlier this year, at the Presidential Literacy Conference in Kolkata, Nobel Peace laureate Kailash Satyarthi’s Foundation joined them. “We were only two years old then, and here was a Nobel laureate joining us. Why did he do it? Because he appreciated the process we had initiated to rid India of illiteracy.”

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The other strength of this endeavour, explains Mehta, is the support staff that RILM has, “which is so essential for a sustained programme. Rotarians can do things in bits and pieces, but somebody has to be there to stitch things together, collate things, motivate them and provide a direction and support on launching and sustaining programmes.”

The programme tries different approaches to ensure that each of the five elements of TEACH are taken care of. For instance, for Adult Literacy, a set of three books is given to children with the direction to go and find an illiterate in her locality and teach him/her to read and write. The task has to be completed in 45 days. “First we tested it in Kolkata and it worked. Then we went to 10 States in India and reached 65,000 people!”

I didn’t reinvent the wheel. Polio and TRF frameworks were already there; we just took those two and merged them together and got the RILM structure.

Similarly, Asha Kiran, where individuals and clubs pledge to send children back to school, was first launched in Kolkata, and following its success, it was launched in 12 States and as a result 34,000 children are in the process of going back to school. “I keep telling Rotarians and their clubs that the next time you are in a car and a child knocks on your window, try and send that child back to school and you’ll understand how difficult it is to do so.”

RILM Vice Chair Kamal Sanghvi (extreme right) participating in a Literacy event.
RILM Vice Chair Kamal Sanghvi (extreme right) participating in a Literacy event.

Today, there are over 800 teachers at 400 centres teaching children who are either dropouts, or have never ever gone to a school or are laggards, in that a student may be 12, but he is not able to read books even of Class 2. The last is a big challenge.

Mehta says that according to the latest ASER (Annual Status of Education Report) statistics, 50 per cent of children at Class 5 level, could not read the text of Class 2. “These children will ultimately become dropouts as they cannot appear for exam,” and need to be brought on par.

RILM’s structure

A structure was required to stitch up the different TEACH components for which “I didn’t reinvent the wheel. Polio and TRF frameworks were already there; we just took those two and merged them together and got the RILM structure.” So just as there are national committees for polio, similar committees are there for the RILM; the members are called Zonal Literacy Coordinators. Under each component of TEACH, there are different committees with five members for each, usually a PDG with seven districts under his charge.

The next time you are in a car and a child knocks on your window, try and send that child back to school and you’ll understand how difficult it is to do so.

On the commitments made by Rotarians on the various aspects of TEACH, he says the national target this year for training teachers was 5,000, “but one district alone — 3131 has signed an MoU on September 8 to train 10,000 teachers.” Vaishali Bhagwat from Pune did this and they have already completed training 4,000 teachers.

“Till the beginning of this year Teacher Training was our neglected child. Now it is absolutely at the front.” Apart from training them on subjects, Teacher Training also focuses on class management, setting curriculum, finishing it in the prescribed time, how to manage children of different ages in their classroom and how not to give corporal punishment.

A nation builder award has been launched for the best teachers and evaluation of teachers, both by the children and the Principal, has been put in place, with the Principal’s rating getting five times the weightage. All the data is being collated online, “our interest is not only to identify the top five per cent but also the bottom five per cent so that they can be given extra attention,” he says. Over 3,000 teachers have been already evaluated.

An adult literacy session conducted by RC Bokaro Steel City, D 3250.
An adult literacy session conducted by RC Bokaro Steel City, D 3250.

Major partnerships

RILM has been stitching up some crucial partnerships. “The jewel in the crown is of course the Satyarthi Foundation. For the Asha Kiran programme we have about 28 partners and soon 12 more will get added.” These are NGOs who are working on sending children back to school. “Rotarians cannot go every day to the field and teach children. These people do that at the field level on a daily basis; and we support them.”

The best part, points out Mehta, is that under Asha Kiran, it costs Rs 2,100 to send a child back to school. “In my own club, I pay Rs 7,000–8,000 for a child for one year. Whereas this is a onetime fee of Rs 2,000. We’ve been able to do it because of the scales and while those are private schools, these are government ones,” adds Mehta.

Their other partners are the British Council, Macmillan, the Maharashtra Knowledge Corporation, Wizdoms Libraries, etc.

Just like that, for literacy, women won’t come. So, along with culinary training by hotel management people, literacy was also roped in.
– PDG Bindu Singh

Next year the plan is to celebrate International Literacy Day in at least five countries — India, Pakistan, Nepal, Bangladesh, and probably Myanmar. He also wants to reach out to at least three African countries which had shown great interest in the RILM projects at its booth at the Seoul Convention.

Government partnership

Mehta is most excited about RILM’s partnerships with the Central Government. “In TEACH, we already have a partnership for adult literacy; there is an understanding with the Kailash Satyarthi Foundtion under which in the next three years Rotary will send three lakh children back to school. For the Happy Schools programme there is already a partnership for WinS.”

And now that they are empanelled with the Government he and the RILM COO Aapga Singh are invited to every programme done by the National Literacy Mission Authority.

Rotary’s literacy news trending on print and social media.
Rotary’s literacy news trending on print and social media.

Asked to name the one big success of the TEACH programme in the coming years, the RILM Chair says, “It is going to be the E-learning programme, which will be the literacy engine driver. We already have an MoU with the Government of Gujarat for 23,000 schools and work has already started, with 10,000 plus being done already. Another amazing thing… we are signing an MoU with the Maharashtra Government for Rs 55 crore. They will put in Rs 33 crore and we will raise the rest. State Bank of India has already written to us and hopefully by the time this goes for print, our work with the SBI for 1,236 schools would have begun. That is a Rs 3 crore project.”

Even bigger things are in the offing. Mehta shares that the Deutch Bank “is ready to give us Rs 15 crore but right now we don’t have the wherewithal to take it; as it has to be 15 per cent of our turnover, which last year was only Rs 4 crore.” Next year the RILM turnover will top Rs 15–20 crore and the matter has gone up to the RI level to work out a methodology to take these funds.

The E-learning programme is going to be one big success in the coming years… we have an MoU with the Gujarat Government for 23,000 schools and with the Maharashtra Government for Rs 55 crore.

That RILM’s profile and activities are poised for a huge take off can be seen from the fact that only on January 1, 2017, it will complete three years, the period stipulated for getting CSR funds from corporates.

RID 3131 a shining beacon

District 3131 has plunged into TEACH with a lot of vigour. Vaishali Bhagwat, DLCC, points out that RID 3131 has completed training of 5,000 teachers in the first quarter (July-September), with the training conducted by expert trainers on classroom management; the 3M Concept — Teacher as a Mentor, Mediator, Motivator; Teaching Skills and Personality Development.

RILM Chair Shekhar Mehta at a Happy School.
RILM Chair Shekhar Mehta at a Happy School.

According to the MoU with Rotary, the Zilla Parishad makes available the venue and about 100 teachers attend one training programme, and a day’s training programme costs Rs 10,000, with Rs 7,000 being paid to the expert trainer and the rest used for the logistics and snacks. Under a Global Grant, a Teachers Training Programme is being conducted for 1,200 primary school teachers for mathematics using the Universal Active Maths — “Math Lab” concept. The total project outlay is Rs 44 lakh.

The main objective of the programme is to prevent or reduce dropout and make learning more interesting and purposeful by arming “teachers with advanced teaching skills using Universal Active Mathematics method and Math Lab kits to improve their teaching abilities,” she says, adding, “Fear of mathematics in students’ mind is known and this phobia has to be removed at an early age.”

RILM Vice Chair Kamal Sanghvi puts it succinctly when he says, “Understanding that literacy is the only constant in the world, Rotary has waged a war on illiteracy. Corporate India knows our strength and hence is joining hands with Rotary. First to do so is the Tata group, and together we will be setting up 1,000 E-learning centres.”

Combining literacy and cooking!

An adult literacy programme in progress.
An adult literacy programme in progress.

The impact of the work Shekhar Mehta and his team are doing can be gauged from this statement of District 3250 PDG Bindu Singh on the huge demand for E-learning: “Hum jaha jaha jaatey hei, waha waha E-learning schools mey admission ke liye bheed lagi hei. In the villages, they are really interested in E-learning.”

In Patna, she gave E-learning kits to five different schools and all the teachers “hamarey peeche lag gaye, humko aur bhi do. The attendance has increased, the children are coming regularly to school. We’ve given one kit per school, and it is shared in rotation by different classes, so now they are asking for more kits.”

For adult literacy she tried an innovative approach to get the women interested. “Just like that, for literacy, women won’t come. We all know that all women can cook; I engaged some hotel management people to come and fine tune or improve their cooking and presentation.” Along with culinary training, literacy was also roped in. Now the women have not only become literate but have all got a livelihood route, and have started their own catering services. “For our sawan milap event, we gave one of them an order. It wasn’t too great, but they will improve if we encourage them,” she adds.

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