In my view the single most significant event in human development is the evolution of languages. It was this process that enabled human beings to preserve their thoughts, teach others, learn from history and talk to generations yet unborn. Language is the elixir of eternal life. Or as close to it as we are likely to come. Literacy or to be able to use language, reading and writing, is the key to this world which essentially distinguishes and differentiates us from animals. Literacy is therefore as fundamental to the human condition and as essential as food, clothing and shelter. And in a manner of speaking, even more essential than that.

When adults teach children to read and write, they are transferring their very humanity and empowering their students to access the collective wisdom and learning of the human race. There is no greater service that one human being can do for another than to teach him to read and write. Societies which are unable or unwilling to teach their children to read and write are impoverished and bankrupt in the most essential element of wealth, knowledge. Without literacy the only door that opens into the world of the future remains locked. The child stands before it in mute testimony to the fact that those whose responsibility it was to hand over the keys, had failed to do so. There is nothing more tragic than that.

In India today, illiteracy is almost bequeathed to the child, thanks to poverty of the parents and an almost non-existent primary & secondary school system in the country. Primary & Secondary government schools which do exist are extremely poorly staffed and resourced and the quality of education provided is abysmal. For illiterate adults there is no place where they can go even to simply learn to read and write. A cursory journey through the villages of India will show that there is a very large pool of very bright children available. The tragedy however is that thanks to a complete lack of support, they are simply allowed to go to waste and instead of legitimately aiming for the stars they spend their youth trying to earn a living doing menial unskilled jobs for a pittance. From there, when they realize the dead-end of life they have entered, they graduate to crime or become the fodder for political skullduggery. We will never know how many potential scientists, philosophers and intellectuals we have already lost only because the rest of us don’t care. If there is something worse than not to care what happens to the minds of our fellow citizens, I must claim ignorance of it. Of this we are all guilty to some extent.

So, what is the challenge before us? To ensure that every child is given the key to his or her future that is his/her birthright and our duty. For this I would suggest five measures:

  1. Schools must be sponsored by corporate companies and the government must encourage this by giving tax rebates on the money spent on primary education. All this should (probably can already) be included in their CRS spending. These schools should be taken out of the Education Department’s control so that the evils of corruption and dysfunctionality don’t infect them. Chambers of Commerce and Industry can set up an Inspectorate to monitor the quality of service.
  1. Skill training institutes must be set up in partnership with Schools to teach children useful and saleable skills which will not only inculcate respect for dignity of labor but also enable them to become entrepreneurs. At any rate, whether they set up shop or not, learning a useful skill that requires you to work with your hands adds value to everyone. Entrepreneurship is the only reliable solution for unemployment.
  1. Every School must have a library and a structured reading program. Books from the library can be sourced from society at large and can be of any nature and on any subject. Not only must the library be a place to borrow books from but the system of maintaining the library must also be taught. We were taught the Dewey Decimal System of Classification in our school, Hyderabad Public School (Class of 72). The library must be run by the children.

Along with this there must be classes on social skills, manners, consideration for others, caring for the commons, environmental protection and wildlife and forest conservation. These can be taught by field trips, growing gardens, keeping pets and other practical activities to ensure high involvement.

  1. Adult literacy programs must be started in every gram panchayat, municipality and sub-division taught by educated citizens of the locality. This is a social responsibility that all of us should be willing to fulfill free of cost. The purpose of this course is only to teach people to read. Writing and speaking can also be included in the curriculum but are not essential. ‘Text books’ could be any book at all in the language being taught. If books that promote the right attitudes and values through their storyline, are used, it would be a huge value addition. Care must be taken to keep religious and political ideology out of the curriculum due to its divisive nature.
  1. Talent searches must be done annually and students who are identified must be sponsored for higher education. Corporate heads must volunteer to sponsor a certain number of students each. Government must also offer tax rebates for any amounts spent on the education of these children. After qualifying they can be offered employment in the sponsoring companies.

I have no doubt that if these steps are taken we will see their positive results in less than one plan period – 5 years. How I wish we had been doing this since we became independent instead of spending our energies in politicking for reservations. People who have been deprived of education need active support with high quality education. Not reservations in worthless schools and colleges.

Will someone see the light before it is too late?