After the Godhra tragedy and the riots that followed in Gujarat in 2002, I went to Ahmedabad as a journalist to report on the ground situation. Seventeen years have gone by, but I vividly remember, as though it had been told to me yesterday, the reply I got to my question on the future of Muslims in Gujarat after these events. The question was posed to a Muslim corporator from the city. He paused for some 30 seconds and said: “Jo soch saktey hei, unka kuch bhi nahi. Jo nahi soch saktey, unka toh waise bhi nahi (There is no future for those Muslims here who can think. Those who can’t, anyway, never had a future).”
The full impact of that statement has haunted me for years, and its wisdom can be applied to any uneducated or non-thinking person anywhere in the world. Thinking, wisdom and knowledge come from extensive reading, and that too with quality education. But though we, the privileged classes, might aspire for the best quality of education that we can get for our children, there are millions of Indians for whom any education, even literacy, remains a dream beyond their reach.
This fact, and the Ahmedabad corporator’s words, were reinforced for me when I first read Bill Gates’ account of what it is like to live at less than two dollars a day, which we have featured in this issue. Of the six such persons Gates has interacted with and quoted, three have stated their strong desire to save money for their children’s education, and of these, I am not surprised, two are from India!
One of them is Lal Mohammed, who has been working as a rickshaw puller in Kolkata for 15 years. “He supports his wife and three children with his small income (less than $2 a day). But he and his wife have big dreams for their children, hoping that they will grow up and get an education and a higher paying job than he has,” says Gates.
Devli Bai is a day labourer in Rajasthan, who works at construction sites. Divorced from her husband, she takes care of her daughter (10) and son (6). Her dream is to invest in her children’s education! Same is the aspiration of Awoke Mose, a smallholder farmer in Ethiopia. He has five children; his dream… you guessed it right… is to save “whatever money he can for his children’s education. His oldest daughter recently graduated from college.
When education is such a huge aspiration among the poor masses in India — in so many small Indian towns and villages I have seen people cutting down on their food to send their children to private schools — it should be a heavy burden on our collective conscience that India’s literacy rate is stuck at a dismal 74 per cent. That is why, when at any Rotary conference I hear a senior leader express his dream of making India totally literate, by 2020 a few years ago, and now 2025, it gives me goosebumps. Just imagine the headline: “Rotary helps bring total literacy to India”. Wouldn’t that be an even greater achievement than making India Polio-free?
While one gives physical dignity and the power of mobility, the other sets your mind free and fills it with all kinds of achievable dreams and goals and gives you the most important weapon — the power of choice. Education empowers you and gives you the ability to take control of your life, your destiny. An educated woman can defy prejudices and roadblocks and stand up and say: My life, my rules, my choice.