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One step forward, two steps back in literacy

Calcutta, Jan. 19: A literacy level of 72 per cent in 2000; a year later, 69.22 per cent — an unprecedented drop of nearly 3 per cent. There will be no surprises if the trend continues.

As multiple government agencies juggle with literacy figures and the state’s only agency looking after adult and continuing education, the State Resource Centre (SRC), struggles to meet self-imposed targets, Bengal’s neo-literates may be slipping back into illiteracy, say officials.

Worse, the state does not seem to have any idea of what is happening to its neo-literates. “The monitoring necessary to keep track of those who have just learnt to read and write is not being done,” admitted a senior mass education department official. “It has resulted in all-round confusion over the actual number of people who really know the three Rs at this moment,” he added.

The figures tell the story. The National Sample Survey Organisation found in 2000 that 72 per cent of the state’s population could read, write and do simple calculations. The census that took place in 2001, however, found that a little more than 69 per cent of Bengal was literate. Minor statistical discrepancies, which could creep into sample surveys, do not explain the drop, say experts.

According to the latest figures for the eight “high-risk” districts — most of them, like North and South Dinajpur, Murshidabad and Malda, are in north and central Bengal — nearly 27 lakh people (in the age-group of 15-35) were yet to recognise the alphabet or the digits in the beginning of the academic year. The all-Bengal figure is a little more than 2.12 crore.

The figure, according to officials, should remain much the same at the end of the year as the SRC has not even conducted many of the workshops it was supposed to hold to determine focus areas.

Even the state government has given up the practice of declaring districts “totally literate”. Five had been declared such, a senior SRC official admitted, but the practice had to be discontinued because of the “all-round confusion”.

Although additional director, National Literacy Mission, Mohan Kumar preferred to be diplomatic, saying that “no complaint had reached the human resources development ministry in Delhi”, the SRC’s own mid-term assessment is far from happy.

The draft of the mid-term action plan (“to achieve 75 per cent literacy by 2005”) admits that the “situation… has totally changed”. “The spirit behind the literacy campaign during the last few years has been on a markedly low ebb,” the report says, adding that “motivation” and “interest” have “almost vanished”.

The SRC was supposed to publish several books and release audio-visual cassettes to arm the state’s educators, according to the draft plan it proposed at the beginning of last year. The year has passed, and the SRC was yet to publish most of the material.

“Besides a few guidebooks for primers, the SRC published only four books (which were supposed to be published two years ago) last year,” a senior official said.

“We have done probably less than 10 per cent of what we set out to do in the beginning of last year,” said another.

The most worrisome aspect is the lack of up-to-date teaching material for residual illiterates, said officials.

Neither has other material — motivational as well as books for neo-literates — come out this year. The state would never be able to emulate Kerala (“cent per cent” literate) if this approach continued, the officials added.

“How can material be published if we don’t have the workshops where the contents and programmes for the future are discussed'” asked another official.

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