On International Literacy Day, Mint takes a look at some of the more innovative and effective projects that are currently being undertaken to raise literacy levels in India.

Khabar Lahariya – Nirantar

Khabar Lahariya is a weekly Bundeli language newspaper that is written, edited, illustrated, produced and marketed entirely by women in the rural Chritrakoot and Banda districts of Uttar Pradesh–most of whom are newly literate and/or from marginalized communities. The paper has a print run of around 4000 copies, and a readership of over 25,000. It is sold for Rs.2 a copy in over 400 villages in both districts.

Image courtesy of Nirantar

Khabar Lahariya offers a mix of local news and entertainment--covering topics like the functioning of panchayats, local politics, community schools and hospitals. It also aims to highlight instances of violence against women, political apathy and bureaucratic corruption. Delhi based gender and education NGO Nirantar, which started Khabar Lahariya, has worked to train the paper’s staffers--helping them develop their writing, editing and reporting skills, their understanding of politics, and their ability to interact with officials in the public sphere.

Click here for a slideshow depicting how Khabar Lahariya operates

News in rural areas is traditionally a male dominated space, and Khabar Lahariya has been hailed as a progressive effort. On International Literacy Day, the newspaper is being awarded UNESCO’s $20,000 King Sejong Literacy Prize, which rewards NGOs and government agencies that have displayed effective results in combating illiteracy.

Same Language Subtitling – PlanetRead

Nonprofit PlanetRead has a karaoke approach to combating illiteracy. Aiming to capitalize on the Indian public’s penchant for Bollywood, Planet Read has created a program that runs same language subtitles on film songs as a way to teach viewers how to read.

PlanetRead’s CEO, Nirav Shah, tells Mint that the SLS program reaches about 200 million plus viewers, and is currently operative across 8 different song programs in 8 different languages. Rangoli, Doordarshan’s most popular song based program, which broadcasts nationally on Sunday mornings from 8-9AM, is one of the programmes offering the subtitles.

First conceived of 13 years ago at the Indian Institute of Management in Ahmedabad, the program was tested in 2002, by implementing the subtitles on two nationally televised TV programs of Hindi film song programs, Chirahaar and Rangoli. An impact study examined about13,000 illiterates and semi-literates (judged based on their ability to read a simple paragraph of Hindi text, at Grade 2 level) randomly drawn from five states in order to get a snap-shot of their reading skills at the baseline before the SLS intervention in 2002, a year later in 2003, and then again in 2007. In other words, the same individuals were revisited and administered the same test (subjects were asked to read 40 unique syllables in text) after a period of exposure to SLS.

The data was collected and analyzed by independent bodies, and included studies of both children and adults. It was found that the minimum average improvement for the high SLS group was 6.2 syllables, as compared to 2.7 for the group that had not been exposed to SLS.

Activity-based learning and multilingual education—Unicef

Unicef India is supporting a variety of governmental and non-governmental educational initiatives across various states. In an interview with Mint, Sara Poehlman, UNICEF’s head of education in India, highlighted the need for better teacher training and a curriculum that is far more child friendly.

She described how various states, like Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Jharkand and Rajasthan, are starting to move from traditional one-dimensional methods of rote learning to more interactive, activity-based, child friendly methods.

Click here for a slideshow depicting Unicef’s child-friendly learning initiatives across the country

UNICEF is also partnering with Jawarhlal Nehru University in New Delhi to develop a national multilingual education resource center. “The issue is not really about language, it’s about learning," explains Poehlman. “Imagine for the first time you’re trying to learn mathematics, you’re trying to near how read and write, and at the same time you’re trying to learn a foreign language. The Right to Compulsory Education act says that as much as possible, children should be instructed in their mother tongues – they master the information much, much faster."

Sara Poehlman talks about child literacy levels in India, UNICEF’s literacy programmes and why different states must have different approaches to education. .Download here

Poehlman also touched upon programmes that are attempting to address the particular issue of education for girls. UNICEF supports endeavours like girls’ clubs in Asssam, which have taken on the role of addressing issues faced by girls in tea plantation communities – such as early marriages, or not being allowed to attend school.

Bihar, Jharkand and Rajasthan are among the states that have the highest gender gap in terms of school enrollment. Poehlman highlights the fact that different states must have different approaches to the issue of gender and education, taking into account the region’s own particular social context.

Sara Poehlman talks about gender and literacy in India, and what UNICEF and various state governments are doing to address the gender inequity. Download here.

Computer Based Literacy Program – Tata Consultancy

Tata Consultancy Services has designed what it calls a 40-hour solution to illiteracy: a computer based functional literacy program. The program is implemented using computers, which deliver the lessons via puppet shows in multimedia form. These are then supplemented by textbooks from the National Literacy Mission and State Resource Centers.

The company explains that the solution does not require trained teachers and has a much lower drop out rate than that of conventional learning methods. The software is currently available in 9 Indian languages and Tata Consultancy Services claims that over 100,000 people have been made literate with its help.

Like many seemingly easy solutions to tough problems however, Tata’s leaves many important questions hanging in the balance. As Madhav Chavan, head of education NGO Pratham points out, if the program is in fact so effective and easy to implement -- it claims “the CBFL project can make 90% of India functionally literate in three to five years" -- why has it not scaled up. Why are India’s illiteracy levels still so high?

In an email interview, Tata’s representatives omitted to respond to this, along with several other questions – such as what Tata’s definition of literacy is, how people become literate 40 hours, and how exactly the solution is implemented across India.

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