Mumbai: Siraj Ahmed Idrisi stares at the computer monitor as a trail of letters drop down like puppets on strings and come together to form a word—makaan (house in Hindi). Pictures and a voice accompany, saying in Hindi: “Just as a house is built with bricks, words are made of letters.”
Idrisi has never been to school. He ran away from home when he was nine and has lived on the streets of Mumbai for more than a decade. But at the young age of 19, the scars on his face, deep-set eyes and an emaciated frame show that he has already learnt some of life’s toughest lessons.
Now he is looking to technology and education to help him reverse courseand fortune.
Classified as illiterate a few months ago, Idrisi is using a computer-based functional literacy programme developed by Tata Consultancy Services Ltd (TCS), the country’s largest information technology company, that promises users the ability to be “functionally literate” in about 40 hours.
After successful application in a half-dozen states, the technology is being considered for the 11th Plan, the blueprint the government lays out every five years. In an effort to widen access, TCS also is experimenting to make the programme available on mobile phones.
After successful completion, users should be able to recognize about 500 commonly used words, read a newspaper and possibly even certain documents.
“It is quite a revolutionary product. We have watched illiterate youth transform right before our eyes,” says Andy Cheng, project leader, vocational training, Oasis India, where Idrisi is currently being trained. The non-profit organization has also deployedthe programme in educating women in urban slums as well as in the rehabilitation of commercial sex workers and their agents.
Saraswathi Sonar, an 18-year-old school dropout from a slum on the outskirts of Mumbai who is also being trained at Oasis, says she has become more confident since she started learning to read.
People such as Idrisi and Sonar are the target of TCS’ plans to develop a product to tackle illiteracy. In 1999, the company set up a task force, led by its then deputy chairman Faqir Chand Kohli, to devise a programme to make adults literate quickly.
In less than a year, a product was ready and since the software was launched in 2000, more than 110,000 people across the country have become functionally literate in their own regional languages through programmes run by state governments or not-for-profit organizations, along with TCS.
“We took the programme to as many places as we could, we took it to districts, villages and even to jails,” says Kesav Nori, an executive vice-president at TCS and one of the key people behind the project. The TCS programme is one of the few non-government initiatives that has made some headway in addressing India’s stark illiteracy rates.
The 2001 census estimated that 35.2% of the country’s population could not read or write. Realizing the implications of this, the government established the National Literacy Mission in 1988.
The National Literacy Mission defines literacy as acquiring the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic and, the ability to apply them to one’s day-to-day life.
According to government data, the total number of people who cannot read has come down from 320 million in 1991 to 296 million in 2001, with Kerala performing the best of all states on this front (total literacy 90.9%) and Bihar doing the worst (47%).
A few years ago, the mission set itself an ambitious goal of total literacy levels of 75% by 2007.
Though current statistics are not available, it is widely accepted that this target has not been met. Progress has been slow as most adult literacy projects require trained teachers, classrooms, and anywhere between six months and two years to complete, thus, resulting in dropouts.
So, when TCS took the project up a few years ago, it used the material developed by the National Literacy Mission and focused on crunching the time to minimize dropout rates. The programme was first pilot-tested in Andhra Pradesh, where TCS says it was a success because of its ease of use.
One of the districts—Guntur—was highlighted by the government as an examplefor making the most progress in adult literacy.
The software is currently available in eight Indian languages and is being used in Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Uttarakhand. TCS chief executive officer S. Ramadorai says other states have been motivated by the success and are keen to implement the programme. Over the next few months, it will be rolled out in Orissa,Delhi and Karnataka.
“The National Literacy Mission has acknowledged the potential of the programme and we are hoping that it will find a place in the 11th Plan. This could give the programme the impetus it needs,” says Ramadorai.
A few months ago, Chennai-based non-profit MS Swaminathan Research Foundation embarked on installing the software in all 100,000 of its village knowledge centres to cover the entire country.
TCS is also working with the Nasscom Foundation, the arm of the trade body National Association of Software and Services Companies, to take the initiative forward.
In addition, TCS has commissioned the preparation of scripts in different dialects of a language so that the software can be propagated easier. It is also planning to introduce a number package and a writing package as supports so that full literacy can be attempted.
Another ambitious project in the pipeline would make the programme available on mobile phones. The programme is being pilot-tested right now and could be ready for launch in a few months.
Pankaj Baliga, vice-president, TCS, says that taking the programme to the mobile platform is likely to revolutionize adult literacy efforts. “We have a large and rapidly growing population of cellphone users. Even if we assume that only a fraction of them are illiterate, we are still looking at a sizeable reach,” says Baliga.
Idrisi, thankful for his participation, is putting his newly acquired reading ability to good use. “My life has changed completely,” Idrisi says, his soft voice and demeanour bereft of the brusqueness of the streets. Alongside reading, he is simultaneously learning tailoring skills.
As he deftly turns a piece of cloth into a garment, he discovers the joy of being ableto measure and understand written instructions. He now dreams of becoming a fashion designer.