Can India 'Spell' Success?

At a time when India is being felicitated for its potential economic prowess, it is indeed sobering to look at the facts. But most jarringly, for a country that has been hailed and derided for its fecundity of engineers and doctors, is the fact that “about one-third of world’s illiterate population resides in India”. [ UNESCO, 2000]

If you dreg the bottom further, you will come to conclusion that even this figure is hopelessly inflated and a gross misstatement of the lack of real literacy that afflicts India.

India defines literacy as the ability to read and write for a person aged 7 or above, which is roughly equivalent to UNICEF’s definition. Census figures from 2001 put India’s literacy rate at 65.4% leaving over 250 million (counting only people above the age of 7) people are illiterate. The female literacy levels are even worse. “In 1991, less than 40 percent of the 330 million women aged 7 and over were literate, which means [then] there are over 200 million illiterate women in India.”

While these figures are bad enough, the picture gets worse when one counts the real literacy attainment of people considered literate.

“A recent study by ORG-CSR (2003) conducted in rural villages across five states—Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Gujarat—confirms the low skill attainment levels of many literates in India. To share some key findings on reading, print awareness, writing, and functional aspects of ability with the written word in Hindi: 68.2% perceived themselves to be literate.

1. Based on their reading of an extremely simple paragraph from textbooks at 2nd to 3rd grade level, the field surveyors classified the sample as: 12% who can read with ease, 36.3% who made mistakes or read with a range of reading difficulties, and 51.7% who could not read at all.

2. Faced with a square block of Hindi text printed centered on a square piece of paper with no other graphical indicators of beginning, ending, or page orientation, 37.4% could not hold the printed matter in the proper orientation for reading. After this was shown (or known), 42.5% could not point to the end of text. Half the sample could not move their finger to delineate the left to right direction of print and a nearly equal proportion could not move from the end of one line to the beginning
of the next line immediately below.

3. Only 37.5% could write their full name correctly, 15.1% could write it partially or with mistakes, and 47.4% could not write it at all.

4. Reading the bus board, one of the most common encounters with print in village life, was, by their own admission, not possible for 51.9%. Self-reports on other functional aspects inform us that 56% could not read a newspaper, 54.8% could not read letters, and 56.7% could not write a letter themselves. Research article by Brij Kothari and others

Buoyed by stellar economic performance over the past few years, the mood in the top echelon of the country is defiantly self-congratulatory. India almost wants to grow up overnight and shed all the baggage of the past. Powered by a press, that like everywhere else in the world, reports only from the booming city centers, India was seen as chugging ahead full-steam – a land of engineers and management graduates. The mood was best exemplified by BJP’s election year message of ‘India Shining’. Only India was not and it cost BJP the election. It wouldn’t be far fetched to say that India and the world manufactured a reality that suited their overwhelming expectations. Brij Kothari says as much -

“A nation’s literacy rate is determined, to a great degree, by the definition of literacy and the method used to measure it. Countries struggling to achieve higher rates often tend to lower definitional bars, which then makes progress that much easier. India is no exception, and this raises simple but unanswered questions. How many of India’s literate people—literate according to the Census—can read the headlines of a newspaper?

…If a demonstrated “ability to decode the simplest of passages were operationalized” as the definition of literacy, not necessarily with understanding, then only 10–15% would be fully literate.” Research article by Brij Kothari and others

By this definition, there are near half a billion people who cannot decode simple passages. Given the importance of literacy in improving health to access to jobs – it is critical that India invest more money in literacy programs. Brij Kothari of IIM Ahemdabad believes that the problem can be alleviated by providing Same Language Subtitling (SLS) with popular regional language programming like Chitramala etc.

“Same Language Subtitling (SLS) is the idea of subtitling the lyrics of song-based television programs (e.g., music videos), in the same language as the audio.”

Google Foundation is currently funding the project, PlanetRead, to provide SLS for popular programs on television. The novel approach to increasing literacy leverages the fact that a lot of Indians have access to television and can improve their literacy skills by reading the translation. Initial tests for SLS in Gujarat have proven to be largely successful.

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