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Panchayat Participation in Adult Literacy Programmes

The Saakshar Bharat Mission aims at 80% adult literacy and is to be implemented by gram panchayats. However, not only are these local bodies already heavily burdened with a multitude of roles and responsibilities, it is also a fallacy to presume that their members are adult literacy experts. While adult literacy is a non-formal exercise, the members of the committees to be constituted under this mission are to be drawn from the formal education system. These factors are bound to affect the functioning of this much needed scheme.

COMMENTARY

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Panchayat Participation in Adult Literacy Programmes

Tanu Shikha Arya

by the centre through different agencies at the district level. At the same meeting in 2009, Kapil Sibal said: “We are structurally changing the mission and adopting new strategies. We have decided to implement the new scheme with the help of panchayati raj institutions.” In compliance with

The Saakshar Bharat Mission aims at 80% adult literacy and is to be implemented by gram panchayats. However, not only are these local bodies already heavily burdened with a multitude of roles and responsibilities, it is also a fallacy to presume that their members are adult literacy experts. While adult literacy is a non-formal exercise, the members of the committees to be constituted under this mission are to be drawn from the formal education system. These factors are bound to affect the functioning of this much needed scheme.

Tanu Shikha Arya (tanu_arya@yahoo.com) is with the Asian Development Research Institute, Ranchi, Jharkhand.

O
n International Literacy Day, 8 September 2009, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh launched the Saakshar Bharat scheme of the National Literacy Mission Authority (NLMA). The Saakshar Bharat Mission (SBM) aims at 80% literacy1 and reduction of regional, social and gender disparities in literacy rates by extending the coverage of the programme to the 15+ age group. The Human Resource Development (HRD) minister K apil Sibal announced in 2009 that “We aim to bring the country’s literacy level to 80% by 2017”.2 The underlying assumption is that only the achievement of adult literacy can help India to meet the Education For All (EFA) goals within the next five-year plan. The Saakshar Bharat scheme attempts to cover seven crore nonliterate adults, of whom six crore are women. Since illiteracy is far more widespread in the rural areas, the programme will concentrate on these areas, especially on the districts having low (i e, 50% and below) female literacy rates. “Literate India” is the new slogan of the programme which envisages fund flows of Rs 6,000 crore in 365 low literacy districts located in 28 states/union territories of the country. The broader objective of this refurbished adult literacy programme is to create a “knowledge society”.

The programme will run in active participation with the state governments u nlike in the past when it was run directly

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the 73rd Constitutional Amendment, panchayati raj institutions (PRIs) will be the fulcrum of adult literacy and skill development programmes as documented in the guidebook for gram panchayats.3 Therefore, the implementation of this programme has been entrusted to gram p anchayats at the grass roots level and other PRIs at the district and sub-district levels. Nearly 1,70,000 gram panchayats in about 365 districts will be covered in a phased manner. Each gram panchayat will constitute a panchayat lok shiksha samiti (people’s education committee) and similar types of samitis will be formed at the block and district levels to implement the programme.

The samiti will consist of 17-20 members from various strata of the community. It will include the chairperson (head of the panchayat), vice-chairperson (to be selected from among the members; 50% of them have to be women), all members of the shiksha samiti of the gram panchayat, women elected representatives of the panchayat, head master/teacher from the l ocal school chosen by the panchayat, representatives of the community (with proportionate representation from the scheduled castes (SCs)/scheduled tribes (STs)/minorities), mahila mandal/selfhelp group (SHG) members, social activists, opinion-makers (government employees/doctors, etc), a member secretary and secretariat (two full time contractual employees, i e, senior prerak and prerak).

COMMENTARY

This core group of “active persons” will be responsible for all the activities enumerated in the SBM document prepared by the NLMA.

The proposed samitis are supposed to initiate activities like the formulation of project proposals for the establishment of lok shiksha kendras (literacy centres) f ollowed by their management and the

o rganisation and documentation of the activities at this literacy centre along with environment building tasks of adult literacy programmes. Their micro level tasks i nclude the identification of non-literates, selection and training of literacy educators, sourcing and supply of teaching-learning materials, supervision of literacy classes, evaluation, etc. In carrying out these tasks they will get support from the block lok shiksha samitis/zillalok shiksha samitis and also from the resource support groups and the state resource centres (SRCs) for adult and continuing education. These together have to guarantee a smooth functioning of the adult literacy programmes at the grass roots level. In sum, basically the SBM document recommends putting the gram panchayat institutions in charge of “literacy” along with “education” (under the Sarva Shiksha A bhiyan, or the SSA) to achieve EFA in the country. If the above-mentioned recommendations are implemented in toto, it is expected that India would achieve the EFA goal before the scheduled time. There are however, some glaring lacunas in the r ecommendations that need to be discussed and highlighted once the programme starts from January 2010 in its revamped form.

Concerns

The foremost factor which the programme has either ignored or neglected is that gram panchayats are already overburdened with a multitude of roles and res ponsibilities, ranging from preparation of budgets, activities related to agriculture, land supervision, irrigation, animal husbandry, dairy, poultry, forestry, c ottage industry, housing, employment, drinking water, roads, electricity, poverty alleviation, etc, which are entrusted to them. We will not discuss here whether they manage to carry out these tasks or not. Instead, the point of concern is that the gram panchayat is a self-governing body of local persons who might be experts in local l evel management of resources and community well-being but should not be mistaken to be managers of adult literacy programmes. I would suggest that each gram panchayat demand a full-time, qualified programme manager4 for “overseeing” the work of the education committees and literacy centres. The gram panchayat cannot be the sole implementing as well as monitoring agency for the adult literacy programme. Instead, it should demand that the adult education programme manager facilitate management of activities and dissemination of information to various functionaries and beneficiaries. This suggestion is not meant to question the competence and creditability of the gram panchayats but to point out the sea difference between “education” and “literacy” in India (since the SSA is parallel to adult e ducation). Constituent members of the panchayat lok shiksha samitis are members of the shiksha samiti (education committee) of the gram panchayat and also head masters/teachers of the local schools who cannot be asked for paradigmatic fluctuations in implementing learning programmes for both children and adults simultaneously. The structure and system of functioning of universal elementary education and non-formal adult literacy programmes is very different. Due to this fundamental difference between the formal school education system and the non- formal adult education system of learning one needs separate programme managers to realise the objective of the creation of a knowledge society.

Second, as mentioned above the principal target of the adult education programme is the “willing” non-literate adults in the age group of 15 years and beyond. The elementary education under SSA however “compulsorily” targets all children in the age group of 6 to 14 years. Once again I address the difference in the attitude and perception of the targeted beneficiaries of the programme. In the formal school system the beneficiaries of education (children) have little or no choice in deciding the structure and system of education. On the other hand, the non-formal system of education being imparted through the lok shiksha kendra is largely dictated by the perception and attitude of the recipients of adult literacy (adults). Therefore, one should not rule out the possibility of differences between one or all the members of the panchayat lok shiksha samitis and the target groups, i e, women/SC/ST/ minorities/adolescents. Thus acceptance of the managerial role of the panchayat lok shiksha samitis is risky in the present scenario where panchayat members are involved in a plethora of programmes and schemes.

The third and related lacuna in the programme is related to the intricacies of the functioning of these samitis in harmony with other support groups like the block and district lok shiksha samiti, and the State Resource Centre for Adult and Continuing Education. Will the support groups be at the beck and call of each and every panchayat samiti to provide the recommended support in planning, implementation, management, documentation and evaluation related activities?

Making PRI Members Literate

The objectives of the literacy programme acknowledge that the elected non-literate PRI representatives should be endowed with literacy skills so that the quality of governance at the grass roots level increases manifold along with a ddressing the literacy needs of the target group. Such focused approach towards the elected non-literate PRIs deserves a dmiration but also causes concern. The attempt to facilitate literacy among the PRI representatives is heartening but will they, the “managers”

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of the adult literacy programme, prefer to sit and participate in 300 hours of adult learning programmes along with other fellow illiterates? Again, what will be the difference between the “implementers” and “recipients” of the programme if both are sailing in the same boat of illiteracy in most of the cases? One cannot analyse the exact situation as data on the literacy level of the PRI functionaries is inadequate.

Moreover, one can ask: What comes first, the illiterate mass or the literacy of the PRI representatives? Let us consider both the options. The NLMA decides to f acilitate the acquiring of literacy skills by all the non-literate PRI representatives in order to set an example and as a part of environment building activity for community mobilisation. In this situation, what drives the non-literate PRI representatives to participate in literacy activities apart from shouldering a multitude of responsibilities? Scarcity of time will be the most plausible excuse to avoid literacy classes. Does our governance propose any mandate to have at least “literate” if not “educated” representatives in the gram panchayat? The present-day proposal of putting them in charge of the adult literacy programme does not include the condition to have only literate/educated members in the panchayat lok shiksha samiti. In the second scenario, the PRIs remain as the implementers and managers of the adult literacy programme with a key role in environment building activities. In that case what tools will they adopt for community mobilisation to motivate the targeted non-literates to get involved in literacy programmes? Why would non-literate adults desire literacy skills when their f ellow men and women in the gram panchayats (power) are better placed despite being illiterate? What shall be the fate of the programme and the literacy centre when the target recipients question the reliability of the programme being managed by non-literate members? Does the fundamental difference between making children and adults literate render all programmes, policies and practices (PPP) defunct? Will literacy educators and preraks work under uneducated/non-literate managers? What shall be the outcome of the evaluation and assessment (of the learners and trainers) being conducted by such members of the samiti?

The fourth and final lacuna of the programme is the absence of a monitoring system. Neither the NLMA’s SBM 2012 d ocument nor the guidebook deals with the evaluation of the functioning of the panchayat lok shiksha samiti.

These concerns should be kept in mind while seeking remedies to eradicate illiteracy. This is one of the most urgent tasks to be accomplished in India.

Notes

1 On 21 August 2009, the HRD ministry addressed a press conference that discussed the new programme of the NLMA with the specific focus on achieving 80% literacy for women by the end of the 11th Plan.

2 Chairing the 11th meeting of the NLMA Council, Kapil Sibal, the HRD minister, made this announcement. For a full report see http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/india/Revamped-literacymission-to-focus-on-educating-women/articleshow/ 4920390.cms retrieved on Dec 28, 2009.

3 Refer to “A Guidebook for Gram Panchayat”, developed by NLMA, ministry of HRD, Government of India.

4 The Employment Guarantee Bill had provision for the appointment and functioning of a Programme Officer (PO), see Jain, L C (2005): “Putting Panchayats in Charge”, EPW, 13 August, pp 3649-50.

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