Literacy and Empowerment

AUTHOR:- Shanmuga Subramaniam


So runs one of the popular songs of the Pudukkottai Mass Literacy Campaign. The Mass Literacy Campaigns stand tall and unique as a response to the horrendous literacy situation in India. This book – Literacy and Empowerment – is a reflective outcome of the 1992 campaign in the Pudukkottai district of Tamil Nadu, written by the very people who were at the helm of the campaign – Dr.Venkatesh B Athreya, Head of the Department of Economics at Bharathidasan University and the State Coordinator of Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti and Ms.Sheela Rani Chunkath, Pudukkottai District Collector and the Chairperson of the District Literacy Society, which ran the campaign. Together, they have written a book of immense value both as an inspiring piece of work and an academically rigorous documentation of a campaign which made 208,000 people between ages 9 and 45 literate in a mere ten months.

The Mass Literacy Campaigns (MLCs) or Arivoli Iyakkam ( In Tamil, ‘Arivoli’ means Light of Knowledge and ‘Iyakkam’ means Movement), based on “voluntary activity on a scale without parallel anywhere in the world under non-revolutionary conditions, cutting across linguistic, caste, religious and other sectarian barriers” where conducted under the aegis of the National Literacy Mission(NLM). The NLM was one of the four technology missions conceived by Mr.Sam Pitroda, Advisor to the then Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi. Fortunately, the initial tendency to highlight the technology of mass communication gave way to a more time-bound, volunteer-based, cost-effective, outcome-oriented people’s movement, owing primarily due to pioneering work by Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishat(KSSP) in making Ernakulam district a fully literate district by December 1989. Following this was launched ‘Akshara Keralam’ which made Kerala the first fully literate state in the country by April 1991. While Akshara Keralam was underway, as part of NLM’s nationwide thrust in 50 districts, several Arivoli district projects where launched in Tamil Nadu including that of Pudukkottai.

Arivoli enjoyed spectacular success in Pudukkottai, Pasumpon, Kamarajar, Kanyakumari, Ramanathapuram, Tirunelveli, Madurai and North Arcot districts most of these achieving ‘total literacy'( greater than 88%, as defined by UNESCO; the campaigns are also known as TLCs – total literacy campaigns) .Working with one-third State and two-thirds Central funding, the Pudukkottai TLC kept the cost per learner to a commendable low of Rs.65.20! It identified learners and volunteers, produced field-tested primers, training and motivational materials including periodic newsletters, trained full-time workers and part-time volunteers, arranged and monitored classes, and administered tests. The classes were held within two hundred yards of every registered learner in every town, village and hamlet. Volunteers taught between 10 to 15 learners for one and a half hours, usually at night, five or six times a week, in homes, temple courtyards, mosques, cowsheds, under street lamps, and in maidans huddling around kerosene wick bottles. Since the literacy and numeracy skills thus acquired were undoubtedly fragile and needed reinforcement, Arivoli was conceived from the very beginning as a ‘consciousness-raising’ process. In the words of Vasantha, a construction worker, I have become a compulsive reader now. I pick up all written material and try to read it, including the paper in which my provisions are packed.

The tightly wound spiral of plans and strategies in Pudukkottai Arivoli uncoils in a burst of narrative energy, with the separate and yet connected stories of the many who took part as organizers, volunteer teachers and learners. Entire villages had come forward to support Arivoli activities. Songs, poems and impromptu speeches bubbled up from people who had thought of themselves as ignorant. Everything to do with Arivoli was infused with a sense of festive urgency, starting from the motivationalkalajathas to the declaration of total literacy from the village to the block and finally of the entire district.

The book though does not jump into Pudukkottai Arivoli directly, but takes its time to build the excitement. The first few chapters give a historical perspective on the coming and going of various action plans and programs on the national adult education scene, like NAEP (National Adult Education Programme), NPAE (National Programme of Adult Education) and PAE (Programme of Adult Education) over the past five decades and how they eventually led to the emergence of NLM. The detailed statistics of the literacy situation in India, the literacy scenario in Tamil Nadu and the Pudukkottai District Literacy Profile and their lucid analysis presented in the book make it a valuable reference. The story of the successful campaign thus begins with the process of motivation and mobilization, presenting the reader with the necessary background.

Kalajatha, an unique form of street theatre featuring songs and dances on literacy, was the primary instrument of initial motivation. One cannot but be moved by jathastories like Kaditham(Letter), a story of a poor peasant, Rajamanickam, who was unable to read the letter bearing tidings regarding the death in combat of his son in the army. If Rajamanickam wept his heart out when, at last, the village landlord read the news out to him (but not before he had made him do all the chores at home), many in the audience wept along with him. Saraswathi, a popular play of a young girl who dares to step out of her house to study and to learn, received loud nods of approval from the women. Following the performance, the artistes were treated warmly to a dinner hosted by the local people. The visit by the jatha troupe generated the nucleus of village-level committee, which would soon shoulder the responsibility of the yearlong campaign.

Next came the work of recruitment, training and organization of coordinators and volunteers at all levels. As the programme was implemented with the help of full-timers, volunteers and government officials, there was a constant need to sort out the differences and interpersonal tensions between the officials and activists. The activist sometimes has no respect for a bureaucrat, usually seen as devoid of independent will and creative energy. The bureaucrat on the other hand finds it difficult to tolerate someone who comes across as the ‘know-all’ deliverer, big or small. Nevertheless, a common goal kept the two united.

During the teaching-learning phase, whether it be the story of saving the life of Devi who wrote back home from Kuwait after being taken there as domestic servant, “I am being tortured…I will commit suicide if you do not rescue me” using her memory of just two months of Arivoli lessons or that of the love marriage of two block level coordinators, the authors’ sense of joy is contagious. These narrative gems stand testimony to their deep involvement in the entire process.

With three-fourths of the neo-literates being women, the Pudukkottai Arivoli was undoubtedly a women’s movement. An unique feature of Pudukkottai Arivoli, which catapulted the district to national eminence, was teaching women cycling. Mobility as being key to empowerment and self-reliance comes through as a clear message. District cycle jathas and cycle races were organized, catchy songs were “on everybody’s lips, and feet would pedal to the rhythm of the music.” Says one quarry worker, By learning to cycle, I have broken many barriers – the gender barrier, the age barrier, the caste barrier and the class barrier. It was unheard of for a women from a poor Scheduled Caste laborer’s family like mine to even touch a cycle, let alone ride one through the streets of our village. Now I can talk on equal terms with the contractors and even ride past them on my bicycle.

Arivoli served as a catalyst for women’s development schemes. With the district administration backing them every inch of the way, women quarry workers were able to use their newly acquired literacy to organize themselves for securing DWCRA(Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas) group leases from government quarries where they had been working as bonded laborers for contractors. How Alagamma, Anjali, Vasantha and Solai stood up to the rich and powerful uppercaste quarry contractors and took on group responsibilities is as fascinating a story as the Nellore anti-arrack movement in Andhra Pradesh, which was also a product of a literacy campaign. Although vested interests continuously attempted to thwart their efforts, an important legal precedent has been established by the five-year extension of the women quarry workers’ lease. Arivoli also enabled those who had traditionally been exploited as devadasis to emerge as skilled and self-employed gem-cutters.

“Even in a non-revolutionary social milieu, it is possible to initiate and carry out with some degree of success, a mass literacy campaign. There is a tremendous reserve of innate goodness and volunteer spirit among the people, which can be catalysed, despite an overwhelming ambience of cynicism, if a critical minimum core of committed activists and governmental support are present. Sustaining the process, however, is a far more difficult challenge.” This is the first of the seven carefully formulated theses put forward in the chapter ‘In lieu of a conclusion’. The importance of the political commitment of policy makers, involvement of the learners and the community at large, the spirit of voluntarism aided suitably by the state infrastructure, structural flexibility and tight calendar of the programs are summarized.

The broad issues brought forth in the last chapter ‘A Postscript’ deserve special attention. Following the initial wave of campaigns which got media publicity and air of prestige linked to them, there arose various unsavory developments. The indiscriminate expansion of the TLCs to 350 districts within five years, the ever-increasing centralization to ‘control’ the district collectors and the political pressures for false reporting so that the programs do not ‘fail’ in the later TLCs, are all sobering facts. Further, such empowerment brought a predictable backlash from the establishment, not to oppose the TLCs themselves, but to divest them of any messages of empowering or radical content. This was often done by bureaucratizing the campaign to ‘rein it in’ or by sidelining some radical thinking activists. For those of us working to build a new India, that is just, this illuminates a high truth: be it MLCs or PSMs or mobilization of women by forming microcredit groups, when it comes to questioning the unjust social order, each of these mass movements is individually opposed first, and when they cannot be struck down, a greater danger awaits them – that of selective and non-obtrusive assimilation into the system. What we need are waves and waves of such mass movements that relentlessly barrage the establishment such that it cannot but heed the call of the people.

The authors tell a good story, but more importantly perhaps, it is a story of the triumph of good, and the spirited convictions of a society to better itself. The inspirational recording of the success of the movement is enough reason to read it; that it is well-written is a delight.