Sudhadevi, a resident of Gubar village in Uttar Pradesh's Kanpur-Dehat district, will always remember the year 2006 with pride. It is, after all, the year in which she learned to read and write. From being illiterate, to one who can now put pen to paper, Sudhadevi has come a long way. Literacy has accorded her societal recognition and enhanced self-esteem. "I am no longer an angutha chhaap (illiterate - someone who inks a thumb impression in place of a signature)," she says with pride, to the Utthan team that has helped her through the literacy primers.

Established by the New Public School Samiti (NPSS), Lucknow, and its partners - Samarpan Jan Kalyan Samiti; Jan Kalyan Maha Samiti; Dehati Gramothan Vikas Samiti; and Zilla Yuva Kalyan Samiti - Utthan was launched under the Poorest Areas Civil Society Programme, a non-government effort to empower millions in 108 of India's poorest districts. Utthan focuses on imparting literacy to women in the ravine region of Bundelkhand. This semi-arid plateau of central India with its rugged topography has long been a favoured hideout for dacoits and mafia gangs. High winds that carve out the ravines, erratic rainfall and soil erosion are just some of the other strains on local livelihoods. In an effort to make ends meet, villagers rely on small-scale dryland farming and livestock. A high infant mortality rate and low literacy levels among women have been a cause for concern.

Around 5,000 women were targeted in the districts of Jalaun, Fatehpur, Hamirpur, Banda and Kanpur-Dehat. Civil society workers believed that the success of any development programme in the ravine region would depend on women's literacy, which in turn would have spin-off benefits. For instance, being able to read and write would help women understand how to apply for a loan and thus impact the household in the long run. They also made an important observation - that panchayat proceedings were invariably dominated by those who could read and write; literacy would therefore open the door to participating in this arena too.

"The secret is to deliver the inputs of education and development in a manner in which people can assimilate skills without feeling that education is a burden or irrelevant."

But imparting literacy is easier said than done, as can be gauged from the initial response that Utthan workers encountered: Ka zaroorat hai likhne padne ki? (What is the need to learn to read and write?). Fortunately, the NPSS put its over two decades of experience in implementing literacy, education and livelihood promotion programmes to creative use. NPSS introduced customised literacy primers or textbooks - also known as Praveshika. S P Pandey of the NPSS elaborates, "The secret is to deliver the inputs of education and development in a manner in which people can assimilate skills without feeling that education is a burden or irrelevant. We want the literacy courses to be interesting and relevant."

The primers were designed with the following objectives:

  • To enable and empower some 5,000 women in 75 villages to demand their rights in the family, and from society, self-help groups and the government;

  • To enable women to become conversant with concepts of saving and so become self-employed entrepreneurs;

  • To enable them to access banks, government departments and the panchayat schemes; and

  • To enable women to come together and demand a development package for the ravine-affected poor at district and state levels.

The primers focus on issues of rural relevance, through local vocabulary, idiom and imagery. Saksharta sakhis (female literacy animators) lead the women through the 15 lessons of the primer. Each lesson focuses on only five alphabets. Women who successfully complete the 15-lesson primer, conducted through two-hourly classes, and who clear a small test are considered literate. But the education continues well beyond this - to functional literacy, that allows these women to puruse a number of activities on their own. It is estimated that 200 hours - about four months of learning through the primer - will ensure functional literacy. A database is maintained for each of the Utthan project villages. Monthly records keep a track of the number of classes and pass-outs, and names of students, with their photographs.

The saksharta Sakhis are also part of the administrative chain of the project. In each district, a district coordinator is at the helm of affairs and has three field workers for assistance. Each field worker has five villages to monitor, with one saksharta sakhi employed per village. The last links in the chain are the young volunteers who spread the message of literacy.

Sucheta Devi, a saksharta sakhi in Gubar, says that irregular attendance is often a problem but a sympathetic attitude and repeatedly urging the women to continue with the flexi-time classes helps. Interestingly, a concise version of the main primer has also been designed; women carry this smaller primer to the fields to browse through at leisure. The saksharta sakhi also distributes booklets to the literate women, providing information on dry farming, animal husbandry, the functioning of panchayati raj (local self-governance), the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act, and the development package for ravine stabilisation.

Newfound functional literacy has so far impacted the lives of approximately 2000 women. Several have become entrepreneurs and now contribute to their household incomes. While there have been some dropouts, largely in the case of women marrying and moving away, the successes remain an inspiration to many others. A number of everyday activities that previously required the assistance of others are now routinely possible, with the women being functionally literate themselves.

  • Kalandevi of Indrapura village can now tabulate the measures and weights used when selling milk.

  • Her neighbour, Radheshri, can read bus signboards, and no longer relies on others to tell her where the bus she is boarding is headed.

  • Premlata of Gubar village is happy that she can supervise her children's homework.

Inevitably, these first steps also lead to even higher dreams. Shrimati Pankumar, who heads the Durga Mahila Swyamsevak Sangh, plans to approach the banks for a loan. She dreams of starting her own development programmes in buffalo rearing and candle-making. (Women's Feature Service)