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Broken letters
Kerala's neo-literates lapse into illiteracy
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Kerala, September 2002 - Even today, Chelakkodan Ayesha vividly remembers her moment of glory as she stood before a thumping crowd of one lakh reciting the Quranic verse.

Read!! In the name of thy Lord who createth;
Createth man from a clot
Read!! And thy Lord is the most bounteous,
Who teacheth by pen;
Teacheth man that which he knew not

Hundreds of loudspeakers carried her voice to nooks and corners of the sprawling Mananchira ground in Kozhikode. There was jubilation in the air as the state celebrated a unique feat -- achieving complete literacy. And it was her voice that announced the tour de force to the entire world 11 years ago (April 18, 1991). But today, the 68-year-old woman, grandmother of 18, has forgotten how to write her name. Ayesha, a Muslim woman from the remote Kavnnur village in Malappuram district, who became an instant celebrity 11 years ago as a neo-literate, now represents the nearly 12 lakh people who have lapsed back to illiteracy.

Two years ago, a survey by the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) had hinted at the possible reversal of Kerala's literacy rate. The NSSO placed Kerala's literacy fourth among the states and union territories, after Mizoram, the Andaman Islands and the Lakshadweep Islands. Now, the Kerala State Literacy Mission, the nodal agency for the famous literacy campaign, has come out with its own evaluation report which admits the relapse. "Many of the neo-literates may have lapsed into illiteracy. We have yet to crosscheck the findings. We have not given up," is what KSLM director Dr M G Sasibhusan has to say.

According to rough estimates by the Centre for Development Studies (CDS), Thiruvananthapuram, at least 12 lakh neo-literates spawned by the 1990 campaign have lost their ability to read and write. Kerala has at least 28 lakh illiterates now. That makes Kerala's literacy rate around 80 to 85 per cent instead of the 95 per cent achieved through the campaign, and claimed by the government. "Lakhs of neo-literates have lost their skills and rejoined the ranks of illiterates. A six-month gap between the first and second phases coinciding with a change of government in June 1991 has proved fatal. Lack of political will and non-availability of the Continuing Education Programme (CEP) are the other reasons," observes Dr Michael Tharakan of CDS.

Many find some substance in the allegation.The Karunakaran ministry, which assumed power immediately after the first phase of the campaign, had clearly indicated that it was not keen to continue with the programme. The government first ordered all the officials who were deputed to the campaign back to their parent departments. The reason was obvious: The officials were activists of the pro-left Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) and CPI(M)-affiliated teachers' unions. A six-month interval and a host of accusations later, a new set of project officers was brought in, apparently at the behest of the then Union Human Resources Minister Arjun Singh. But they were not so dedicated to the mission. The pro-Congress teachers on deputation were in reality enjoying a long holiday in remote villages and settlements. Karunakaran had his own reasons to term the movement a 'politically motivated Marxist hoax'. He said: "If Kerala indeed achieved total literacy, how is it that the percentage of invalid votes in the ensuing election was the highest ever?"

Whatever the reason, partisan politics was turning the clock back on what should have been Kerala's finest achievement. While the rest of the world was celebrating Kerala's illustrious accomplishment, the government had started a quiet, gradual burial of the movement. "The UDF government did not take any initiative to bring the 1.8 million neo-literates to a stage where they could do more than write their name and read the destination boards on buses," says Dr Tharakan. Over three lakh volunteers who were devoted to the mission were left in the lurch. They had become inactive by the time the second phase started after a six-month gap. The collapse had begun.


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But what a movement it had been! Remote and otherwise sleepy villages were lit with hundreds of Akshara Deepams (lamps of letters) every evening. More than 1.8 lakh literacy classes, involving over three lakh voluntary instructors, were conducted for a 14-month period during the campaign. Eighteen lakh illiterates learnt the art of reading and writing and the state's literacy rate surged to 95 per cent, even exceeding the literacy rate in the US. The tribal literacy rate went up from 57.22 per cent in 1990 to 80.71 per cent. In the Muslim heartland of Malappuram alone, 3.6 lakh people were made literate. The mammoth effort inspired Time magazine to write: "The most illustrious victory of participatory development, achieved by one of the smallest linguistic groups in India, makes a model to the entire Third World."

In no other state has any literacy mission met with such overwhelming success as the one in Kerala, initiated by the National Literacy Mission (NLM) after a successful experiment in Ernakulam district. The drive elicited much pasion and mass participation. Many youths, especially educated Muslim women, came forward to carry out the historic mission. Thirty-two-year-old Rabia who won the UNESCO award for social work is a typical example. This purdah-clad handicapped Muslim woman in Tirurangadi in Malappuram district had taught the basic alphabet to over 130 people including her mother and grandmother. "It was a great pleasure to see many people in their 60s and 70s coming to the class with slates and pencils. I was really thrilled when my grandma called me teacher," says Rabia. She adds with a tinge of regret: "But many of my students are illiterate now."

Over three lakh volunteers like Rabia, who implemented the first phase of the programme, are now a dejected lot. "A year after the campaign everything stopped. Now, most of them have forgotten everything," says Vasathi, a nursery teacher who made literate more than 60 adults including Chelakkodan Ayesha.

The second phase had been planned to enhance awareness and teach those who were left out in the first phase. But it meandered into nothingness. Many have debated why this happened, but the change of government seems to be the main reason. "We had chalked out a programme for comprehensive continuing education. With the arrival of a UDF government midway through the literacy drive, the campaign lost its spirit," says an office-bearer of the KSSP. The initial success of the literacy movement lay in its mass campaign and grassroot-level participation. But in the UDF's hands, the entire network collapsed and bureaucrats began to run the show, says Dr Tharakan.

The collapse of the programme has hit society's poorest sections hardest, especially tribals and fisherfolk. The tribal literacy rate has probably receded to the earlier 57.22 per cent. "We never got any material to sustain the literacy level. Nobody visited since the end of the first phase," testifies Pradeep, a tribal activist in Nilambur in Malappuram district.

The reversal was confirmed by a survey of the Kerala University Centre for Continuing Education. About 70 per cent of the panchayat-level literacy coordinators didn't organise the mandatory academic council which was supposed to start the continuing education programme for neo-literates. According to the project, 25,000 local literacy classes were to be set up as permanent institutional structures for the Continuing Education Programme, but simply weren't formed. "We are now implementing the CEP on central aid, and in accordance with their stipulations. It may not be enough for the relearning process," say Dr Sasibhusan. KSLM had submitted a Rs 36 crore Aksharasree project for the one-time neo-literates who have lapsed into illiteracy. But the project has been tangled in red tape for five years.

Now, after 11 years of inactivity, Kerala has forfeited its claim to fame. "My god, which is this letter?" asks Ayesha as she fumbles over the Malayalam 'Ra' of 'Kerala'. And all because of the most irrational politicking. (Quest Features and Footage)

M P Basheer
September 2002

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