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Partner in Literacy Mission

Civil Society Processes and the State: The Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti and the Literacy Campaigns by Denzil Saldanha (Jaipur: Rawat Publications), 2010; pp v + 334, Rs 725.

Partner in Literacy Mission

Anita Dighe

nyone familiar with the literacy movement in the country in the last two decades would have heard of the Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti (BGVS). But while BGVS’ association with the liter

book review

Civil Society Processes and the State: The Bharat Gyan Vigyan Samiti and the Literacy Campaigns by Denzil Saldanha (Jaipur: Rawat Publications), 2010; pp v + 334, Rs 725.

for literacy. The campaign led to a substantial rise in literacy rates in the E rnakulam district. This was followed by a campaign in Kottayam district and subsequently, in all of Kerala in 1989-1990.

Literacy Mission

In 1989, the Ministry of Human Resource Development (MoHRD), Government of India, decided to adopt the Ernakulam model as a strategy for propagating literacy

acy movement is well known, what is less likely to be known is the exact nature of its involvement, its range of activities and programmes over the years and the impact it has had on government-sponsored programmes. Denzil Saldanha’s book is an attempt to fill this gap and to provide a historical account of the evolution of BGVS and of its 20-year association with the Government of India. But while this association started with BGVS sharing the space of the literacy campaign in the initial years, it was subsequently followed by various social development activities that spanned the length and breadth of the country with a reported presence of BGVS in 22 states and 316 districts by 2008. A book such as this was long overdue b ecause BGVS represents a civil society i nitiative that made a conscious decision to partner with the State. The historical study of BGVS provides useful insights into the potential and constraints to civil society participation in major stateinitiated programmes.

Saldanha’s long involvement as a researcher with the literacy movement in the country as well as with other educational programmes makes him particularly suitable for undertaking such a study. However, he acknowledges that despite efforts at objectivity, the study was not undertaken by a non-involved person. As a matter of fact, his involvement with the BGVS, both as its critic and its well-wisher and admirer, convinced him that considering the scale of its operation, its particular ideological perspective that emphasised people’s participation and its sustained, although complex and critical, collaboration with the government over the years, there was a need to provide relevant theoretical and strategic insights into the contentious relation between civil society processes and the State and to examine the possibilities and bottlenecks in such a relationship.

Climate for Literacy

This historical study on the background of the BGVS is covered largely through secondary sources, interviews and group discussions with key informants from the government, the BGVS itself and local communities. This was supplemented by field visits to selected sites. The analysis and interpretation of secondary documentary sources such as reports, leaflets, pamphlets, teaching/learning and training materials and BGVS’ publications constituted a major source for developing a historical perspective on the BGVS’ interventions.

The background of BGVS goes back to the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishad (KSSP) whose objective was social transformation through the application of science and technology. In the 1970s and 1980s, the KSSP had grown into a mass organisation and organised jathas (a socio-cultural caravan for development communication) as a tool for mass mobilisation on various issues. In 1987, other organisations came together with the KSSP and organised the Bharat Jan Vigyan Jatha (BJVJ) during the third anniversary of the Bhopal gas t ragedy. The 1987 jatha was the seed for the concept of mass mobilisation for a cause like literacy. In 1988 and 1989, the KSSP, in collaboration with the district administration, undertook a campaign for literacy in Ernakulam district. The kalajathas (cultural caravans) that consisted, beside displays of posters, banners, and hoardings, of padayatras (processions), street plays and songs, created a climate

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and facilitated the formation of the BGVS at the national level. What is significant to note is that this social formation was created at the invitation of the government to be a partner in the implementation of the literacy programme.

The history of BGVS has been classified by Saldanha into four distinct phases:

(i) The period from 1989 to 1993 that was characterised by mobilisation for literacy; (ii) the period from 1994 to 1997 that was marked by a transition from literacy to other development initiatives such as natural resource management, watershed development, health, basic education, formation of savings groups as a result of women’s mobilisation; (iii) the period from 1998 to 2001 that was marked by an attempt to consolidate the expansion and diversity of sectoral interventions through decentralised institutionalisation; and (iv) the period from 2002 to the present that is characterised by advocacy with the central government for policies related to rights issues. An attempt is now made to consolidate its extensive spread through concentration of efforts in selected cluster of villages, focus on convergence of programmes and capacitybuildin g of village resource persons.

Contributions of BGVS

Thus, the initial years of the BGVS’ interventions in the literacy campaigns were marked by major social mobilisations. The jathas of 1990, 1992 and 1993, while focusing on literacy, concentrated on three important social sectors. The 1990 jatha was a national level jatha and served to place literacy on the national agenda. It also provided the contours for what was to become the national strategy for the literacy campaigns. The 1990 jatha covered

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about 40,000 villages in 333 districts of the country and was able to mobilise about a million volunteers for engaging in the literacy programme. From the 1990 jatha there emerged the strategy popularly known as the Total Literacy Campaigns (TLCs). The essential features of this strategy that was based on the E rnakulam model were: use of local cultural forms for mobilisation, motivating voluntary teachers and youth, and the formation of decentralised people’s structures for implementation from the village to the district levels. The district administration, headed by the collector, was expected to facilitate the entire process. Beside the entire state of Kerala and the union territory of Pondicherry, 31 l iteracy campaigns were initiated largely in several districts of the non-Hindispeaking as a result of 1990 jatha. The 1992 jatha was undertaken with a special focus on the Hindi-speaking belt of the country. Since this region had the largest concentration of non-literate adults, BGVS was requested to initiate a campaign with a special focus on this region.

The 1992 jatha covered 147 out of the then 250 districts of the Hindi states, including Orissa. Due to the massive involvement of women and girls, as learners and as voluntary instructors in the literacy campaigns, there was a growing demand for a focus on issues that concerned women and a felt need for women in leadership positions. The Samata jatha of 1993 for women, with a focus on education, equality and peace, covered more than 20 states and had reached out to over two lakh people. The significance of mobilisation through the jathas of 1990, 1992 and 1993 was that in over 200 districts, literacy campaigns had emerged by 1993. Literacy was firmly placed on the national agenda and a strategy for people’s mobilisation and voluntarism for the cause of literacy had been formulated. This was the most significant contribution of BGVS.

Linkages with Development

The next phase from 1994 to 1997 marked a transition from mobilisation for literacy to taking forward these mobilisations by establishing linkages between literacy and other developmental interventions such as people’s participation in natural resource management, watershed development, health and basic education of children, formation of credit and selfhelp groups emerging from the Samata mobilisation of women, interface with the panchayati raj bodies, undertaking low cost publications and setting up a l ibrary movement. The book has seven chapters that focus explicitly on specific projects undertaken by BGVS, while carrying out the agenda of literacy linked to socio-economi c development.

Saldanha avers that in establishing linkages between literacy and multi-sectoral development, BGVS was following a sequential approach that entailed mobilisation for literacy first and then establishing linkages to development through post-literacy and continuing education programmes. That such an approach could work for a high literacy state like Kerala, but would not be effective in low literacy states, was the l esson learnt by the BGVS as there was an indiscriminate expansion of TLCs to districts without even minimal preparation, leading to increasing bureaucratisation of the literacy campaigns, alongside such problems as growing corruption and falsification of achievement data. Critics of BGVS, including Saldanha himself, had forewarned that the TLC strategy that had evolved in the context of Kerala with a relatively high literacy rate, with a history of social reform movements and labour class organisation and struggle, was being implemented across the board throughout the country, without much care for contextualisation.

According to Saldanha, the TLC approach was not feasible for low literacy regions. For it was here that the structures of caste and the inequalities of class and patriarchy acted as severe constraints to the introduction of “literacy in isolation” or to a strategy of literacy first and then addressing other low social development indicators. The major weakness of the TLC approach was the rapid expansion of the programme, especially during 1994 to 1998. It was also during this period that the literacy campaigns became “collector-centred” and gradually lost the “people’s movement” perspective. By 1998, the Natio nal Literacy Mission (NLM) strategy had reached a point of relative stagnation.

That the relationship between the BGVS and the Government of India had its share of trials and tribulations is evident from the next phase of its involvement that started from 1998. An ideological tension relating to the emphasis in the campaigns was emerging at this stage. While the government and district administrations f ocused on literacy in a restrictive sense of an enabling skill and stressed the need for coverage and meeting literacy targets to demonstrate impact, the BGVS was beginning to realise that in order to meet targets meaningfully, there was a need to establish a linkage between literacy and other development interventions from the very beginning. There was another major area of ideological differences. The then central government of the National Democratic Alliance led by the Bharatiya Janata Party followed educational policies that in effect promoted sectarianism and religious nationalism. This was clearly at variance with the BGVS vision.

As a result, there was a critical tension with the MoHRD, leading to a near marginalisation of the BGVS. It was at this juncture that the BGVS sought the “restoration” of many stagnant TLCs that had got bureaucratised by working out an alternate strategy. The elements of this strategy were decentralisation and concentration of efforts on selected villages within blocks, integration of the basic literacy, post literacy and continuing education phases of the literacy campaigns and establishing linkages with other d evelopment sectors.

In view of the severe constraints of funding support from MoHRD, the BGVS approached the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust (SDTT) for funding support in 2002. Since then, the BGVS has attempted to institutionalise the large-scale mobilisation that had taken place by setting up people’s organisational forms like community schools, women’s SHGs, setting up libraries and bringing out publications. Realising the importance of consolidation and convergence, the BGVS has since 2005 been focusing on its educational development interventions within clusters of gram panchayats in selected blocks/districts, accompanied by direct training of about eight resource persons – half of whom are women, within each gram panchayat.

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Since 2002, the BGVS has also utilised its mass-based support in order to undertake advocacy for policy on several issues relating to the rights of the marginalised groups. Among these were included the right to food and work from 2002 onwards, together with the campaign for the provision of mid-day meals for schoolgoing children, the right to social security, culminating in the campaign for right to education from 2005 onwards. This broad strategy of convergence and advocacy indicates the direction for BGVS’ work in the future.

These four phases of BGVS history make it possible for Saldanha to capture the changing contexts and multiple processes of BGVS interventions at the same or at different times, at various levels – village, block, district, state, national – and in different regions. A conceptual framework that emphasises the importance of understanding varying contexts, varying processes and varying ideological perspectives provides Saldanha the basis for analysing these phases of BGVS’ work.

Overall Contribution

What is the overall contribution of BGVS? Saldanha identifies several aspects to be of primary significance. Beside putting literacy on the national agenda and being a partner with the government and serving as a strategist of the NLM, the BGVS was responsible for generating a spirit of voluntarism among those associated with the literacy programme, using kalajathas as a major communication and mobilisational tool for creating a demand for literacy, providing resource support to literacy campaigns through activists and setting up state-resource centres and organising training programmes and workshops, producing low-cost teaching-learning materials that had local specific content, establishing linkages between literacy and various development sectors, and placing emphasis on the education of women and girls.

Finally, a question that has often been asked is whether the participation of a civil society organisation such as BGVS in the literacy campaigns, in collaboration with the government, has in effect resulted in co-option by the State in diluting the transformative potential of the literacy campaign. Saldanha, while conceding of this possibility, arrives at the conclusion that it is people’s organisational forms for literacy for development, as an expression of the aspirations of the most disempowered sections within civil society, that are the crucial conditions for ensuring the transformative potential of the literacy campaigns and for creating conditions for acquiring and sustaining literacy itself. Despite several efforts in this direction, it was only after 2005 that the BGVS was able to eventually set up sustainable forms of people’s organisations linked to various literacy for development initiatives within clusters of gram panchayats as part of its strategy of convergence.


The study captures the highs and the lows of BGVS, of mistakes made, of lessons learnt. But above all else, it shows the dogged determination of like-minded ideologically inclined members of BGVS, to persevere, and despite setbacks and vicissitudes, to move forward. As a result, the process of learning has been continuous in BGVS. Saldanha, therefore, concludes that on the basis of its experience over the last 20 years, the BGVS has provided a pointer to the possibility of civil society organisation which, while collaborating with the State, can also hold it accountable, thus creating conditions for the possibility of more basic and equitable social transformations as envisioned by the Constitution.

Thus, on the one hand, the BGVS would need to consolidate its extensive national coverage and its diverse programmes by taking forward the approach it has adopted to concentrate on clusters of villages around nodal gram panchayats, converge programmes according to local needs and create human resource capacities to carry forward these activities of education linked to development. These decentralised centres of people’s power through different organisational forms would then serve as pressure groups on local self- governance for accountability. On the other hand, the BGVS has demonstrated its capacity to mobilise its mass base at district and sub-district levels for policy reform at the state and national levels. This has been achieved through cultural mobilisation and awareness generation, networking and advocacy.

The book is a reflection of Saldanha’s scholarship, dedication and commitment to the cause of literacy. It would be of great interest to policymakers, academics, and practitioners who are interested in understanding the transformative potential of literacy with its democratic implications.

Anita Dighe ( has had a long association with the literacy movement in the country.







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Economic Political Weekly

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