An excess of enthusiasm followed by an excess of inaction is a familiar sequence in West Bengal. There is often much drama about precisely the right steps to be adopted when a particular mess looks to be spinning out of control. After the initial excitement, everything fizzles out. One of the most glaring problems in the state is that of illiteracy. The initial goal of achieving 75 per cent literacy by 2005 was itself not an encouraging one; it only served to point up the enormity of the problem. But now things look worse. Having laid claim to a literacy level of 72 per cent in 2000, it is not difficult, but impossible, to explain the level of 69.22 per cent a year later. The hemming and hawing over not having kept track of neo-literates is hardly to the point, it is still a red herring. The first question is, how literate were the neo-literates in the first place that they have managed to lose all they had acquired within a year' The modern environment, not only in the city or the towns, but also in the villages, provides numerous stimuli for reading and interpretation, and there is now a felt need to write even if for the most basic of official purposes. Surely it cannot be very easy to forget everything if the lesson has been learnt well. Almost every independent assessment of the state’s claims to literacy has revealed balancing acts directed towards obscuring both the quality and quantity of literacy training. The strange decline in literacy levels merely vindicates those findings.
It is difficult to define the disease that makes nonsense of the programmes meant to correct the most worrying problems. It may be that the people in West Bengal luxuriate in a work culture that spawns a lack of accountability at the official level. The State Resource Centre, the state agency looking after adult and continuing education, can do little more than plead “all-round confusion”. The agency, quite inexplicably, has not held the workshops intended to determine focus areas, it has not published the books and released the audio-visual cassettes meant as teaching tools. Evidently, it has no worries about accounting either for not doing the work it has been set up to do or for not using the money that must have been set aside for doing it. With the lack of accountability comes a sense of contentment. The state has given up its assessment of districts in order to declare them “totally literate” when the time comes. There is no urgency, no timebound goals to meet. If a state administration, with all the necessary wherewithal, cannot stir itself to make 12.2 crore people literate because of a lack of “interest”, this lotus-eating land is in dire straits indeed.