The crusade for literacy

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What this event has lined up for you is nothing short of amazing. We have (K R) Ravindran, incoming RI President, from the first fully literate country in South Asia, who has himself volunteered to come, inspire and urge us on. Trustee Chair from Chicago John Kenny is here. Raja (Saboo), our own patron, whose engagement with functional literacy goes back to 1992, is here. RILM Chair Shekhar (Mehta) and TRF Trustee and WinS (WASH in Schools) National Chair Sushil (Gupta) are all present.

But above all, we have all of you, the movers, the shakers, the doers, who will take it all home, far and wide, into each club, community, village, each nukkad, through your teams and drive on and on and on till we reach our destination.”

With these words the architect of the literacy programme in India, and rest of South Asia, PRIP Kalyan ­Banerjee, spurred the gathering of 1,250 delegates from all over South Asia to go ahead and realise the dream of making India, and rest of South Asia, totally literate by 2017. Later he clarified that he had chosen 2017 as the landmark “because it is the 100th year of TRF.”

Rotary clubs in the region had been engaged in literacy for ­decades; they have collected thousands and thousands of books and built libraries, built, repaired, renovated and furnished classrooms, “whether 5,000 ft high up in the Himalayas or in the brick kilns of Munger in Bihar or deep in the tribal forests of Odisha. You have worked with the children of prisoners in the slums in Mumbai. You Rotarians run engineering and management colleges in thousands and thousands; you honour teachers, hold special classes for women and adults in after-hours. You survey, you fill in the gaps; you find solutions.”

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This was the time to take stock, join their hands firmly with the ­government to achieve a 90-plus literacy goal in the time frame — 2017 — “and not stop until it is done.”

Apart from lining up impressive brand ambassadors for literacy — from Amitabh Bachchan and Mary Kom to Juhi Chawla, signing an MoU with the GoI on Swachh Bharat and ­finalising ambitious plans with the Central Government on WinS, to setting up e-learning centres in ­Maharashtra, Rotarians were doing it all. “And when we’re done, this will be the first ­computer-literate State in India.”

But coming to “brass tacks, or nuts and bolts of one of my favourite subjects,” Banerjee said that a major shortfall in schools, particularly ­government ones, was the lack of good, qualified and interested ­teachers. He recalled seeing in one primary school with 137 students in ­Gujarat just one solitary woman teacher. “Managing all the students in all the classes she was thoroughly exhausted, exasperated, dispirited and was seeking a transfer to a school nearer her home somewhere in South Gujarat, about 600 miles away.”

In Uttarakhand, they had found qualified teachers with high grade salaries subletting their jobs to unemployed and unqualified persons at a fraction of their salaries “obviously making a terrible mess of the whole thing and jeopardising the children’s future too. The original teacher was either doing some other job or giving private tuition to make more money.”

Of course not all teachers were so callous; there were, in equal measure, dedicated and committed men and women fully engaged in teaching.

 Teacher training

Banerjee appealed to all State ­governments — education is a State’s subject — to adopt a flexible approach and allow the services of part-timers, housewives, retired personnel and student volunteers, perhaps only on Saturdays, to take classes on a regular basis, for a small stipend.

They could be given a 4–6 week refresher course before starting. “In my experience, the biggest roadblock in our education endeavours today is not books, not classrooms, not toilets or computers, it is something more basic. It is the non-availability of ­competent, interested teachers. And that is something we need to address.”

Banerjee added that sometimes he heard murmurs that we’ve taken on too much in Rotary, and isn’t education the government’s job? What difference will we make finally? Chances are that we’ll mess it all up. “Well, if that’s what they had said when Rotary had first taken up polio eradication too, could India have become polio-free? Of course we’re not done yet, but perhaps in the next one year even Pakistan would be polio-free and then the job would have been done.”

So was true of literacy in India. “Surely we will get it done sooner than later,” he said, adding that Abraham Lincoln had once said if you have three hours to cut down a tree, use the first one to sharpen your axe. “That is what we did in PolioPlus, which sharpened us and has given us the confidence, experience and the faith to stick to a tough job … to try harder and never, never loosen the grip till the job is done. Together we can do it.…”

With these words, Banerjee urged the assembled Rotarians to “return home, involve our ladies in the Inner Wheel, our youth, our Rotaractors, Interactors and guide them in this ­crusade for literacy.”

Pictures by Rasheeda Bhagat

 

Can India be a pioneer?

The power-packed presentation by Prof Sugata Mitra from Newcastle University expressing his frustration that he had tried in vain with various governments to usher in a system where the Internet was allowed into the exam hall, but failed miserably, triggered an idea in the mind of PRIP Kalyan Banerjee. “I know how interested in literacy and how tech-savvy our Prime Minister (Narendra Modi) is. I was telling Shekhar (Mehta) that let us talk to the PM himself; let us take Prof Sugata Mitra with us and let India become the first country in the world to use the Internet for literacy and education as no other country has done before,” said Banerjee to a thunderous applause.

But before that, a think tank has to be in place — with both Rotarians and non-Rotarians. “They can be brought to events like this to share their experience, give their inputs.” Congratulating Mehta for the mega event, he added, “If we can make India literate … my god, just think about what we would have done! And the Government is ready for it. When, in this country, have you seen a government as ready to join hands with Rotary in literacy or building toilets? What a tremendous opportunity we have and it is up to us to make the best of this opportunity.”

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