The trick is to discover what women want. Somehow it was Saakshar Bharat, an adult literacy programme born out of the national literacy mission, that was able to crack this enigma. The programme, inaugurated by the prime minister in 2009, was specially aimed at adult women and was conceived on a changed definition of literacy. Not just writing the name but some arithmetic, the ability to read road signs and simple instructions, to read aloud at the rate of 30 words a minute, to copy with understanding seven words a minute and similar basic skills would be the target of 300 mandatory hours of learning.
The women of at least four states took to the programme like ducks to water. Eighty-one per cent of the 53 lakh adults who appeared for the assessment from Bihar were women, 82 per cent of the 37 lakh from Andhra Pradesh were women too. Women made up over 60 per cent of the candidates from Chhattisgarh and Tamil Nadu, and Karnataka, too, had eight lakh women aspirants against a total of 13 lakh candidates. In spite of the fact that the showing from Delhi and Rajasthan was rather poor, women made up 72 per cent of the total number of successful candidates. Any effective literacy programme ensures safety at the basic level within the home. A technologically advanced — and advancing — world full of instructions is a trap for the bewildered mother or housewife, especially if she cannot read labels on medicine bottles or directions from school. More obvious but as important is the empowerment it implies, a step towards a balancing of powers between genders. The tapping of enormous human resources is the real achievement here. It is rather telling that Delhi and Rajasthan are lagging behind, and that Bihar is leading. The programme seems to have opened up other areas of concern that need looking into.