Social education or education for the masses has been the priority of the Government for implementing democracy in its true sense. Adult education was the inbuilt part of social education during the twelve Five-Year Plans (1951-2017).
The National Policy on Education 1986, which came during the Seventh Plan (1985-90), laid greater emphasis on adult education. Although the literacy rate had climbed from 18 per cent in Census 1951 to 43 per cent in 1981, the absolute number of illiterates increased from 247 million to 305 million during the same period on account of slow pace of literacy programmes and rise in population.
The prevailing scenario led to the belief that the goal of covering all illiterates including those in the age-group 15-35 could only be achieved through launching a mass movement involving social institutions such as village panchayats, mahila mandals, community centres, Nehru Yuva Kendras, National Service Scheme, voluntary organisations, students, teachers, employers and the community. Hence, the National Literacy Mission (NLM) was launched in 1988. By the end of the 10th Plan (2002-07), NLM made 127 million persons literate.
However, despite the efforts of NLM, illiteracy continued to be an area of national concern. As per Census 2001, female literacy remained at an unacceptable level of 54 per cent as against male literacy of 75 per cent.
The gender gap in literacy was over 21 percentage points. Since increase in female literacy could become a force multiplier for all other social development programmes, the 11th Plan (2007-12) recast NLM as a female literacy mission with the name ‘Saakshar Bharat’ Programme (SBP) with sharp focus on female literacy.
The revamped SBP was launched in 2009 with the aim to raise literacy rate to 80 per cent, to reduce gender gap to 10 per cent, and minimise regional and social disparities. By March 2019, the SBP covered 404 districts in 26 states with nearly 6.6 million functional literacy learning centres. Basic literacy primers in 14 languages and 28 local dialects were printed and distributed for the learners.
The programme’s focus was on rural areas, especially districts with low female literacy rates (below 50 pc). Under SBP, 70 million illiterates (including 60 million women) were to be covered with 50 per cent of the target groups comprising SCs, STs and minorities. As per data available with National Institute of Open Schooling, 101 million illiterates (70 pc females) appeared for certification. Of this, 76 million (54 million females) were declared successful in 16 rounds of learner assessment tests during 2010-2018.
The dominant strategies of NLM and SBP yielded positive outcomes. Literacy rate moved from 52 per cent in 1991 to73 in 2011. The absolute number of illiterates also declined from 329 million in 1991 to 283 million in 2011, despite the increase in population. The urban-rural literacy differential declined and gender gap in literacy decreased at a faster rate (from 25 pc in 1991 to 16 in 2011).
However, the SBP was discontinued after 2018 and succeeded by Padhna Likhna Abhiyaan with focus on basic literacy. Later, in alignment with National Education Policy 2020, a new initiative covering all aspects of adult education and literacy, namely Nav Bharat Saaksharta Karyakram, has been taken up for 2022-27 to eradicate the scourge of illiteracy.
The term ‘adult education’ is now replaced with the inclusive term ‘education for all’ covering all nonliterates aged 15 years and above. Literacy has been redefined as “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, compute, and communicate using visual, audible, and digital materials across disciplines and in any context”.
(The writer is former Director, DAE, MHRD & former Dy. Adviser, NITI Aayog)