Nothing is more shameful for a country than to keep quarter of its population as illiterates. Occasionally the issue of educating those who do not have the basic reading and writing skills come up for discussion in the corridors of power. This is happening with much sound and fury for the past fifty eight years. Every government had its own paper and plan contribution to the ways in which illiteracy can be removed from India. Alas! No government was able to achieve even halving the illiteracy level. Seriousness of eradicating illiteracy is picking up pace in the last few years. This is mainly because of the several international organizations report about India’s poor status in the social sector.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) set the ball rolling in a faster speed by bringing in legislation to make elementary education as a free and compulsory for all children up to the age of fourteen years. This encouraged the Congress led UPA government to think of Right to Education Act (REA). Due to the impending financial crunch and a lot of loopholes, the introduction of REA was suspended for the time being. This is another example of weakness of will of the state.

Many hurdles came in the way of government’s efforts to educate the whole population. Every section of the society had its own share of preventing the country in achieving literacy for all. More talk and less action left the country with no option than to continue as the one of the most uneducated nation in the world. When Rajiv Gandhi created Navodhya and Kendriya Vidyalaya schools in eighties, Left parties opposed it as an encouragement of luxury in schools. But the same parties cry foul over the sad state of Indian education. What a twist of tongue over a period of time!

Without understanding the priority, some people talk about why not free and compulsory secondary and tertiary education. In that confusion, the first priority of providing basic education suffered heavily. Creating clash among primary, secondary and tertiary tiers of education is a dangerous mode of pitting one against the other. The need of the hour is to depoliticising, deregulating and decentralising the education mission.

The grey areas in literacy growth are many. Too much of state control is one of the major stumbling block. It is impossible for the central government to penetrate to every nook and corner of the country to teach the uneducated. Although the onus is on the union government, the share of state governments in solving this problem is badly tapped. An important lesson from the past experience should be decentralized function of education mission. Funds and directions should not flow from the centre to state to village. Several blocks of babucracy is seriously damaging the main purpose. By encouraging village panchayats and unemployed educated local people (UELP), the speed of illiteracy elimination can be increased. Media can be encouraged to play an effective role. If movie stars and sports heroes can influence the lifestyles of people, why not they be brought in for the purpose of literacy development. Their involvement in the literacy campaign can really help the people to catch up with the literacy programmes.

Deregulation of the educational sector is essential to quicken the reach of education in the remote corners of the country. When government cannot achieve complete literacy in the last 58 years, it is better to leave to the UELP. By removing license hassles to start primary schools and allowing them to borrow money from banks, qualitative education can be provided to children. UELP involvement in the education mission can also reduce unemployment rate to a great extent.

Generally schemes are well intended to serve the poor. But the implementing agencies play the spoilsport in delivery. For instance the educational loan for poor students in the higher education is utter failure because of too much of harassment on the part of bank authorities. Despite having clear rules about no security and no mortgage, the bank authorities frustrate the needy students to such a level they do not come to the bank for loans. Minimal government involvement will produce the maximum educational benefits. Of course government should be alert enough to punish immediately the fake fellows who cheat the public in the name of education.

If India can survive successfully as a multiparty democracy with a decent level of development despite huge illiteracy, imagine the progress of the nation if there was cent percent literacy. To see the bright and better future, the nation needs all around attention on basic education.

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The opinions expressed in this essay are those of the authors. They do not purport to reflect the opinions or views of CCS.