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 Of all the countries of the world, it is India, which has the biggest literacy problem. About one third of the world’s non-literate people reside in our country. At the last decennial census held in 1991, the most startling fact to emerge was that about 200 million adults in our country were non-literate. India’s tryst with nation building began with the severe handicap of extremely low levels of literacy at the time of Independence. The neglect of education during colonial times combined with social distortions had made the quest for learning a rather difficult and daunting task especially for those belonging to underprivileged social groups.

The rationale for the establishment of the National Literacy Mission (NLM) lay in the realisation that the process of nation building would never be complete without giving literacy a major thrust. It was on this account that the NLM was launched in the Mission mode with a clear time frame to achieve the objective of making 100 million in 15-35 age group literate by 1999. The success of the Ernakulam model (a district in the state of Kerala), which based itself on a spirit of voluntarism and complete mobilisation of civil society, became the organising principle of the Total Literacy Campaigns.

The Coverage and Components of the Literacy Campaigns

Over the last decade, literacy campaigns have reached more than 90 per cent of India’s villages and population. The district is the unit of implementation and coverage of all the blocks in a district is taken up in campaign mode with people’s participation. Over the last five years, the campaign has been expanded to remote corners of the country including the educationally backward states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan. The spirit of voluntarism has been remarkable in the literacy campaigns. Evan, naccessible districts such as Dumka in Bihar and Banswara in Rajasthan, with very low female literacy levels in 1991, have generated significant social mobilisation campaigns and have unleashed unprecedented enthusiasm across the country. Nearly 50% of the districts of this country are in the Post Literacy Phase and a number of them have already started their Continuing Education Centres.

Monitoring and Evaluation of Campaigns

With the expansion of the literacy programme, need for an effective and periodic monitoring and evaluation system was felt. The NLM meets the challenge of monitoring by periodically providing for external visits to campaign districts and by generating performance reports in a simplified format. In order to further streamline the monitoring mechanism, monthly monitoring meetings are held at the state level involving all the district literacy societies. The focus of discussion in these meetings is not merely on obtaining up-to-date statistical information but also on assessing the qualitative aspects such as problems encountered in accelerating the pace of literacy campaigns planning future course of action.

Both concurrent and external evaluations are conducted in all the districts and achievements under the literacy campaigns are assessed through sample surveys. Concurrent evaluations are undertaken when at least fifty percent of the enrolled learners have completed the first Primer. Final evaluation of TLC campaigns are undertaken when at least 60 per cent of enrolled learners have either completed the third Primer or are nearing completion. Districts in the Post Literacy and Continuing Education phases are also evaluated.

The Results: Findings of the National Sample Survey

In the normal course, authentic information on literacy rates at the national level are available only from the decennial census held in the country. The last census was held in 1991. However, inclusion of literacy as an important variable in the recently held national level sample survey by the National Sample Survey Organization has made it possible to get a picture of the progress made between 1991 and 1997, as also a comparison of the progress made in the previous decades. It is important to look at progress in literacy in a long-term perspective as changes in adult literacy figures are not dependent only on literacy activities but also on the efficiency and effectiveness of school education programmes. Such a comparative picture of the growth in literacy is given in Chart 2.7

The growth of literacy has been quite steady since 1951. And, it shows a remarkable jump 1fter 1991. While the average decadal growth rate has been only 10.3 per cent, between the period 1991 to 1997 (actually a period of about six years) has registered an increase of about 10 per cent. Extrapolation of this growth rate, indicates that the country with little more intensive effort could cross the critical point of 70 per cent by the turn of the century, five percent short of the threshold target level set by the NLM. This, no doubt, is a remarkable progress made in a relative short period of time.

Table 2.12: Population and Number of Illiterates (in millions)


Total Population

7+ Age Population

Number of Illiterates (7+)

























* Source: NSSO Survey 53rd Round.

** Extrapolation based on NSSO Survey 53rd Round.

It is a well-known fact that the total population of the country has been raising at a fast rate and as the estimates indicate, it has already crossed the billion mark. Though, the literacy rate had also been consistently increasing it could not keep pace with the population growth rate. Consequently, the number of illiterates went raising for several decades. As the figures in Table 2.12 show, there has been a turn around in the trend since 1991. In fact, the reduction in the number of illiterates between 1991 and 1997 has been quite substantial indicating to the success of efforts made in the decade in the area of literacy and basic education.

As can be seen from Chart 2.8, rural-urban disparity has been a serious problem with respect to literacy. One can see that this gap which was very wide is getting gradually reduced. In particular, the rapidity of growth of literacy in rural areas, as opposed to urban areas, is markedly more in the last 6 years as opposed to any previous decade. This is possibly due to quicker progress in primary education that picked up in the earlier decades as well as due to the unprecedented participatory mobilization process initiated through the Total Literacy Campaigns in the 1990s. This clearly indicates the emerging convergence between literacy rates between rural and urban areas.

Another vitally important factor (as indicated by Charts 2.9 and 2.10) is the rise in female literacy between 1991 and 1997, which is 11 per cent whereas for the same period the male literacy rate has risen by only 9 per cent. In the previous decade, too, literacy rate for females had grown faster than that for the males (9.6 per cent as against 7.8 per cent). Thus, the faster rate of growth among females has not only been maintained but has slightly been enhanced during the present decade. This is possibly due to the special emphasis laid by the NLM on women’s participation as also on higher enrollment and participation of girls in primary education. In fact, almost all the evaluation studies have highlighted the fact that participation of women in adult education programmes has been overwhelmingly more than that of men.

Impact of the Campaigns: Some Significant Facts

Community and Social Mobilization

The single biggest characteristic of the literacy campaigns has been their ability to galvanize entire communities into believing that learning must become an integral part of their lives. The modus operandi has been to create and build an environment conducive to learning by accessing communities through their cultural roots and traditions. All manner of tools have been used such as cultural processions, street plays, local theatre, puppetry, folk songs, etc.

Increased School Enrolment

The Adult Education programme has contributed in a significant way to better enrolment of children in schools. Study findings in India show that enrolment of boys and girls in the age group 5-15 years is significantly higher in neo-literate households as compared to children in illiterate households. Two out of three boys in neo-literate households are enrolled in schools compared to three out of four in participant households. In the case of girls this difference is even more enhanced - 58 per cent for non-participants and 72 per cent for participants.

Social Awareness of the Importance of Education

India recorded heightened social awareness regarding the importance of education both for themselves as well as for their children. The biggest achievement of the adult education movement has been its impact on girls education. The confidence of the girls as they perform their scholastic and extra-curricular roles is the result of the awareness among neo-literate parents that girls need to be educated and outgoing. The need to provide equal opportunity to both girls and boys has also had the effect of generating greater demand for the quantity and quality of primary schooling.

Gender Equity and Women’s Empowerment

One of the great strengths of the adult education programme has been the involvement of women. As much as 62 per cent of participants in India are female. Programmes have provided illiterate adult women who have been denied access to formal schooling with great opportunity for reading, writing, increasing awareness levels and skills training. Literacy and adult education campaigns have actively promoted gender equity and have sought to empower them as to decision-making about themselves, their families and their communities.

Status in the Family

This major strain running through the programmes has played a significant role in improving the status of women within their own families. Whereas, traditionally women in India had little say in family decision-making, they, through participation, have begun to express their newly found self-belief in having a say both within and without the family.

Health and Hygiene

The effects of adult education on health and hygiene are indeed most significant. Raising the functional literacy level of a community leads to a demonstrable decline in fertility and infant mortality rates. Adult education has helped spread knowledge about health care and nutrition, thereby enabling mothers to keep their families in better health and to care better for their children.


As discussed earlier, India has initiated a series of new programmes and projects during the last ten years to meet the goal of EFA. Each project or programme has set specific targets and also incorporated various monitoring and evaluation mechanisms. No attempt will therefore be made to evaluate specific programmes or programme components. The section only attempts a broad reflection on some of the new strategies and approaches adopted in recent years and their operationalisation through programmes and projects. Also many observations made here may not be applicable to all India level, as each state is in its own way responsible for implementing EFA programmes.

The country had been pursuing for many years a basic distance and population size norm for opening primary education facilities. This has resulted in tremendous expansion and spread of primary schools within an easy physical reach of most children. This is evident from the figures for 1991. The decade 90s marked two new developments in this regard. Several state governments through the EFA projects have gone beyond this and have begun creating educational facilities in smaller habitations. This was done based on the recognition that barrier to school participation does not consist only of physical distance, but is closely linked to local cultural and economic factors. The initial results reveal that this has helped improve the enrollment and participation of children in primary education in localities where such initiatives have been taken. Another important strategy adopted during the last decade was to define at the national level basic norms for equipping a primary school. Through the Operation Blackboard Scheme government took initiative to specify that every primary school will have at least two classrooms and two teachers irrespective of the number of children in the school. The package also included provision of certain basic set of instructional material to all primary schools. This measure implemented all over the country seems to have considerably improved the infrastructure position in the rural areas. It is difficult conclude whether it has also had impact on quality of school functioning. A full-scale evaluation of the Scheme is underway which should guide further actions in this regard under various EFA initiatives.

Saddled with nearly half the people in the country being illiterates, it was not an easy task to move ahead in the field of literacy and adult education. After evaluating previous strategies and achievements, the country set up the National Literacy Mission in 1988 and adopted mass campaigning as the mode for spreading literacy in the country. Here, again instead of using paid workers it was decided to take the help of a national non-governmental body to mobilize volunteers to take part in the mass campaigns which were designed to be district specific led by people from within the district. Though the impact, for obvious reasons, may not be uniform across the country, overall success of the strategy has been well documented. The strategy, coupled with the initiatives in the primary education sector, has been able to significantly increase the total literacy rate; in particular, the number of literate persons in rural areas and among females. The effectiveness of the strategy can also be assessed in terms the massive demand emerging from the field for post-literacy and continuing education.

An important policy orientation that came up in the last 10 years is that of intensive action with selective focus on disadvantaged groups. It should, of course, be noted that ‘positive discrimination’ in favour of marginalised groups has been a part of all social policy making in the country right from the beginning. But this approach got intensified in all educational programmes initiated during the 90s. In particular girls’ education has come for special treatment in almost all the education development schemes. For instance, the operation blackboard scheme specified that at least fifty percent of additional teachers appointed would be women. Following this, many states have made this a standard feature of their teacher recruitment policies. Similarly, in order to promote the participation of local people, particularly from ethnic minority groups, in the process of education special incentive schemes are operated in almost all the states. Also, specially designed primary education development programmes have been initiated in many states for localities inhabited by ethnic minority groups. Analysis shows that the principle of selective focus has worked well in bringing more girls to school and improving the overall literacy rates among females. However, improvement in case of socially and economically marginalised groups appears to be much slower. On the whole, the strategy seems to be an appropriate one to be pursued with greater vigour and intensity.

A holistic approach has been adopted to achieve quality improvement in basic education. Apart from focussing on infrastructure provision, the approach has also been to look at the human resource dimension and to the teaching learning process. A major step forward in improving the learner achievement levels has been the specification of the ‘minimum levels of learning’ at the national level. This prompted, as already mentioned, a series of actions in all the states focussing on revision of curriculum and textbooks as well as retraining of teachers. It is however, difficult to determine how much impact have these actions made on learner achievement. Initial results of testing in selected areas show positive changes. However, there are no national level benchmarks to determine the levels of quality improvement in basic education. In fact, with the policy of promoting pluralism in curricular prescription and modes of evaluation among different states national programmes can only be supportive to state level actions. Implementation of the recommendation of the National Policy on Education – 1986 on the creation of a National Testing Service should help move forward in this regard, though the policy of a holistic approach to quality improvement has to be continued.

District planning coupled with autonomous management structures was adopted as a major strategy for designing and implementing primary education projects. This has been the case in the literacy campaigns as well as in other EFA projects including DPEP. How effective has this been? There is no doubt that the strategy has helped in galvanising local initiative through mass campaigns. District focus brought in under DPEP along with emphasis on investing in educationally backward districts has also helped in closer analysis of local specific problems and overcoming the inter-district disparities in the long run. Another important dimension of the effort is to ensure faster movement of funds to project activities. However, changing the long entrenched processes of centralized planning and management is likely to take time. It has to be pursued as part of a policy of taking planning process nearer to the people and getting them actively involved in management of basic education. It would, perhaps, be counterproductive to view the initiative only in terms of its immediate impact.

External funding for basic education increased considerably during the nineties. In utilising these finances, the country has consciously adopted an area specific integrated approach. This appears to be paying well in promoting intensive efforts to address issues in a local specific fashion. Also, the items for utilisation external financial resources have been carefully chosen placing limits on investment in infrastructure and ensuring that expenditure on standard items of maintenance and development are not met by these sources. It is expected that these precautions should, in the long term, help avoid burdening the system with unrealistic demands and also facilitate smooth absorption of the items into the state budget.


In the process of improving the status of basic education in the country the biggest challenge has been the rising population and the increasing demand for school places. Obviously, this has outstripped the investments made for expanding the system and reaching primary education to all children, not withstanding the multifold expansion of the system achieved during this period. Mobilizing resources to match the raising demand, undoubtedly, is a major challenge before the planners. It is in this context that the country embraced programmes of EFA in the nineties to intensify efforts and reach the goals of EFA both in quantitative and qualitative terms. These intensified efforts have brought into the fore several critical questions that need careful consideration.

As pointed out earlier, considering the size of the country and the multicultural and multi-linguistic setting in which the goals of EFA have to be achieved, the focus of action during the last decade has been on district and sub-district levels. It in this context that several new institutional structures such as the DIET, BRC and CRC have been created. These institutional arrangements have begun meeting the teacher capacity building needs in a more comprehensive manner. However, decentralization to district and subdistrict levels has brought to light the fragility of the expertise available at these levels for educational planning and management. Though efforts have begun to establish state level institutions to meet the training needs of local level planners and administrators, it may take some time before these efforts could lead to creation of local level expertise capable of independent planning and management of EFA initiatives.

One has to take note of the enormous size of the operation taken up for improving basic education during the last ten years. But, it has also to be recognized that all these efforts fall within the framework of different projects. Several important issues have to be carefully addressed which invariably arise in the context of such project based initiatives. The most important challenge is to avoid the creation of unviable structures and processes that cannot be integrated into the larger system in the post-project period. Short-term aberrations in the form of parallel structures and multiple norms of operations are, perhaps, inevitable. But, considering the variety of conditions in which the basic education system functions in different parts of the country, a smooth transition from the project mode to the programme mode has to be carefully orchestrated. This requires careful consideration from two angles. Several of the project initiatives have come up with the help of external funding. This raises the natural question of financial sustainability of the new initiatives. A second issue, not often fully examined, relates to the fact that project initiatives get implemented with specific sets of management processes which become crucial to the success of operations. This poses the challenge of preparing a long-term perspective for management capacity building, on the one hand and for initiating necessary management reforms within the larger system, on the other.

The data presented in the earlier sections clearly reveal that the main challenge for achieving the goals of EFA in the country is not merely one of providing physical access but also of ensuring the participation of all children in the process of basic education. Though the system has expanded enormously over the years, it has not been easy to overcome the resilience of certain pockets leading to persistent disparities among different geographical regions as well as between different social groups. Certain kinds of disparities such as male-female difference have decreased during the last ten years. However, equity in promotion of EFA goals continues to be a major challenge for educational planners and administrators. It is recognized that this challenge cannot be met without bringing the school and the community closer and creating a sense of ownership and accountability among the stake-holders at the grassroots level. It is hoped that the processes of decentralization that are gradually emerging on the scene would help in addressing this issue in an effective manner.


The last decade has clearly demonstrated the tremendous power of the civil society in mobilizing public opinion and promoting basic education programmes. This is clearly evident from the phenomenal scale on which social mobilization for education was achieved through the literacy campaigns. The campaigns also brought into light the readiness of the community members to contribute towards basic education development on a voluntary basis. It further showed that demand for basic education in the country is enormous. The task before the country is to orchestrate the demand among the marginalised and underprivileged sections of the society through effective micro level actions. The nineties witnessed many successful attempts in this regard. Besides, several EFA projects such as Lok Jumbish as well as the literacy campaigns have also demonstrated tremendous potential of collaborative efforts between government and non-governmental organizations. On the whole, one can say that recent years have witnessed closer involvement of the civil society in EFA activities and have consequently increased public awareness and political attention towards EFA.

A significant step taken through the Jomtien Conference was to bring together the political leadership of the world for the cause of EFA. To take forward that commitment, it demanded a great political will within each country. How good has this been? This is again a very difficult area to make any clear cut observations. However, three lines of action taken by the government during the last decade are indicative of a positive political ambience in the country worth mentioning. The first set of actions relate to certain major legislative measures initiated in the recent years. One of them is the formulation of a bill for making education a fundamental right of every citizen. The bill which is under examination if adopted by the parliament will make the government legally responsible for ensuring education of all children upto the age of 14 years as already specified in the Indian Constitution as a directive principle. Some states are also going for additional legislative measures. For instance, Tamil Nadu has passed a compulsory education act with all necessary clauses for enforcing universal participation of all children in primary education. Another legislative measure adopted in recent years relates to the constitutional amendment on panchayati raj institutions following which some states have initiated radical measures for decentralizing primary education management.

A second aspect which also indicates to a postive orientation of the political leadership towards EFA is that of increased allocation for EFA. In reality, the resources available for basic education may not be adequate. However, the efforts made in last few years to provide increased allocations for primary education in comparison to other sectors of education is a significant point to note. While appreciating the efforts made, it is necessary to caution against any complacency on this count. Advocacy within the political circles to find alternative means of funding EFA efforts have, perhaps, only begun and needs to be pursued further.

As mentioned earlier, sustained progress in basic education cannot be achieved merely through project initiatives. It should be accompanied by certain management reform processes to sustain the change brought about through short term project level actions. This is another area that depends on the readiness of the political establishment for reforming the existing structures and processes of management. One could, again, observe some positive signals from the state governments in this regard as indicated by concerted moves in certain states towards decentralization and for empowering school level bodies for effective management. However, the actions on the ground are still small in magnitude to gather momentum and galvanise the effort into a major force of reform at the national level for changing the deeply entrenched education management set up in different states.

Despite all the problems and challenges that the system faces, recent EFA project initiatives in the country have clearly demonstrated the capacity of the country to move forward towards the goal of EFA, both in terms of continued commitment at the policy level and availability of human resources necessary for implementing various policies and programmes in the field.


Considering the vastness of the country and the varying conditions under which basic education operates in different parts, it is an impossible task to make any meaningful assessment of the overall progress made in India towards EFA goals during the post-Jomtien period. One can at the most chartacterise the progress as a mix of considerable success coupled with yet unsolved riddles. Therefore, what is mentioned in this section has to be seen only as illustrative and not as an exhaustive description of the progress made in basic education.

Improvement in the provision of basic education facilities in the country has been a gradual process and sufficient space had already been covered even before the nineties. But a major step forward taken during the recent years is to make primary education practically available at the doorsteps of the children. This is being done by creating institutional facilities in smaller habilitations with the help of the local community moving away from the traditional norms of distance and population size. This step could prove to be major step forward in bringing marginalised sections of the population into the fold of basic education.

Along with improved provision, enrollment and participation of children has also grown. One of the most positive trends observed is regarding the decreasing disparity between male- female enrollment figures as well as literacy rates. The traditional resistance to education of girls seems to have been at least partially overcome possibly due to major advocacy carried out through literacy campaigns and through overt actions to improve women’s status as a whole. However, the process seems to have just begun and there is still a long way to go. A related factor, which appears to be not fully tackled, is the persistence of low participation of certain marginalised groups and geographical pockets. It is not that efforts have not been made in this direction. But the issue, perhaps, calls for closer scrutiny and redesigning of the strategies adopted in the past.

Quality improvement has, no doubt, come to occupy the centre stage of all EFA efforts during the last decade. Large investments have been made to upgrade the infra-structure and human resource position in the primary schools across the country. Though external funding has contributed significantly in this direction, it is important to note that a large part of the overall investment has been from domestic resources. Apart from increasing investment, several concrete steps have also been taken to improve quality of learning and teaching in primary schools. As many reviews have pointed out, massive efforts for training of in-service teachers has been initiated during the last ten years. This coupled with the specification of ‘minimum levels of learning’ at the national level has, in general, heightened the awareness of all concerned people towards improving learner achievement levels. Apart from these, concerted efforts have been made in almost all the states to revise primary education curriculum and prepare child friendly teaching-learning material. Added to this is the establishment of localised resource structures such as DIET, BRC and CRC for teacher support and guidance. It is, of course, difficult to state in categorical terms whether these measures have made any significant impact on the quality of teaching learning processes and in terms of learner achievement levels. Perhaps, it is necessary to continue with the efforts for a longer period of time before assessing such impact. Also, these measures still are not comprehensive in coverage and several of them are project specific. The challenge, therefore, is to expand the scale of operations to cover unreached areas and groups and yet ensure that the quality and intensity of actions are not compromised. After all, it needs no special evidence to note that sustainable change in quality can be achieved only through long term investment in human resource development, in terms of capacity building among teachers as well as educational planners and administrators.

Community ownership and empowerment have been the watchwords in basic education for a long time. Almost all documents and policy pronouncements have been referring to this, though very little concrete action has been coming forth. For the first time, however, one finds progress from mere rhetoric to more realistic operations in the field. The efforts as well as the progress may not be uniform across the country. Nevertheless, one has to recognise the major initiatives taken during the recent years in identifying techniques and processes for creating environment for positive involvement and action from the community. Systematic efforts have been made in this direction through designing and implementing innovative approaches for school mapping and micro-planning. These are at present limited to certain project initiatives and therefore the task is still enormous. It is necessary to carefully chart out paths for adapting these techniques and processes on a wider scale in a contextualised fashion.

Management restructuring has been another area, which has received considerable attention during the last ten years. Several measures have been initiated which are expected to have a lasting impact on the efficiency of the basic education system in the country. In almost every state, a separate Department of Primary Education has been created to provide more focussed attention to the sector. At the national level also a separate department of primary and mass education has been created. It is hoped that this will help intensify as well as integrate efforts in the area of basic education. A second development in this regard is the emergence of para-state bodies for streamlining the fund flow as well as management of basic education initiatives. Currently, these are created within the context of specific EFA projects and have proved to be very effective means for improving the management efficiency. One has to work out mechanisms for their continued existence and utilisation as the activities move into the larger systemic framework. A third and perhaps the most significant development is the process of decentralization initiated on a systemwide scale following the recent amendments to Constitution. Several state governments have already implemented structural reform measures changing the management set up for basic education in a significant manner. It is expected that this will lead to a radical shift in the management framework in the form of smaller basic education systems under local-self governing bodies which can be more responsive to varying local contexts and conditions at the micro-level.

As far as mobilization of resources is concerned, as mentioned earlier, it continues to be a big challenge. Economic liberalisation policies and the accompanying structural adjustment processes have made the job even more challenging. However, certain positive steps taken during the last decade have to be noted. One can observe a substantial increase in the plan expenditure for basic education, which signifies availability of funds for developmental action for improving the status of basic education. This is important in the Indian context as most of the non-plan expenditure goes towards salary and maintenance of the large system. Availability of funds for basic education from international agencies has also played a significant role in this context. Government has also made a conscious effort to tilt the allocation of resources within the education sector in favour of basic education. Further, the government has committed itself to raise the share of education in the GDP to 6 per cent by the end of the current five year plan period (1997–2002). It is also emphasized that a major part of the increased allocation will go towards basic education. Though achieving such a significant jump in allocation is somewhat ambitious and may take a little longer than expected, public commitment by the government is likely to bring pressure for increase in availability of resources for basic education in the years to come. This acquires further significance as last few years have seen serious attempts by the government to make a clear cut assessment of the actual resources required for providing education for all children upto the age of 14 years. While resource mobilization continues to be matter of concern, experiences in the recent years have highlighted the need for increased attention towards effective and efficient utilisation of resources.

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