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Despite advances, India tops the world in illiteracy

Both Church and state need a re-think

  • Ivan Fernandes, Hyderabad
  • India
  • February 11, 2014
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On my way home from a recent trip abroad I was standing at an airport counter filling out my immigration arrival form when a young Indian came up to me and asked in little more than a whisper if I could write out his. I thought I heard wrong and offered him my cheap throwaway pen when he sheepishly said he couldn’t read or write.

Shocking because this was not in some city slum, or an impoverished village where one wouldn’t be surprised to encounter the unlettered.

But that is the ground reality in India. About 287 million or 37 percent of all illiterate adults in the world are Indian, says UNESCO’s recently published 2013/14 Education for All Global Monitoring report. Ten countries, with India at the top, account for 557 million or 72 percent of illiterate adults worldwide.

Education accounts for 3.3 percent of the gross national product, which is below the 6 percent target called for by the UNESCO report. This shortfall will be jeopardizing the rapid progress India has made in getting more children into school and its prospects for improving its poor quality of education, the report said.

Last week the nonprofit Pratham Education Foundation published its Annual Status of Education report pointing to some very startling facts about education in rural India where about 70 percent of India’s 1.2 billion people live.

It said that despite having new schools, reading, writing and simple arithmetic skills have actually deteriorated among six- to 14-year-old children. 

This distinction of being the first among illiterates or the dismal state of affairs vis-a-vis education is unfortunate. As a nation India has some remarkable achievements. It has launched a maiden Mars Orbiter Mission, has some of the best institutes of higher scientific and technical learning. In fact, it has the second largest pool of scientists and engineers in the world.

In India, the government and the Church are the two main players in the field of education. The government has the largest number of educational facilities, the Church the second highest. Both have excellent vision, motivation, infrastructure and goodwill.

Yet the fact that India has 37 percent of the world’s illiterate adults shows that something is not right with its praxis.

Let’s start with the government. India has recently enacted a law making free education between the ages of six and 14 a fundamental right. But as the UNESCO report points out, education is still not a priority because India needs to take it up to 6 percent of the gross national product to begin making a difference to its literacy initiatives.

As someone who has been associated with teaching for more than a decade and has been vice principal of a school, I think the answer lies not so much in the lack of laws, goodwill or commitment but in a structural flaw in which India has carried out its planning.

Too much emphasis has been put on the quality of the tertiary segment of education rather than the primary. While primary school enrollments might have increased, the quality as we have seen, is far from adequate.

A few days ago Prime Minister Manmohan Singh rolled out his ambitious vision for India as a global research and development leader in higher learning and cited how over the past 10 years the country has established eight new Indian Institutes of Technology -- the premier tertiary sector science and technology schools. Needless to say there was no such boost for the primary sector.

India’s dismal illiteracy rating is especially galling for Catholics. For one, the education ministry is an integral part of expressing our faith. The Catholic Bishops’ Conference of India makes it a point to say that the Church’s intense and extensive apostolate of education continues Jesus’ mission of liberation and of imparting fullness of life.

Yet despite its approximately 13,000 primary and secondary schools, 243 special types of schools, close to 500 colleges and a little more of that number of technical institutions, more than a third of the world’s illiterate adults live in India.

Church-run schools, colleges and educational facilities even with the best of intentions fall prey to what can be called a 'structural malice of institutionalization.' This means that people who run them look to the primary good of their institution rather than those in them.

Church-run schools, because they often run on their own investments and unaided by government grants, will strive to be the best in the field. While this may seem to be a good thing, they tend to choose as applicants only the best and brightest of students.

Economic and social facets aside, I have yet to see a school or college that will deliberately as a policy take only the dullest of students out of choice. That is why Church schools and colleges are so sought after -- because of their reputation for churning out the brightest. Quite contrary I would think to Jesus’ words in another context about not those who are healthy needing a physician but those who are sick.

Ivan Fernandes is a journalist and commentator based in Hyderabad. 

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