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Imported Literacy Benchmarks

Written By: Usree Bhattacharya on January 11, 2008 No Comment

Navigating the clogged streets of New Delhi at rush hour, near the towering Rashtrapati Bhavan (the President’s mansion), is no mean feat. Scores of buses, cars, motorbikes, three-wheelers, two-wheelers, and cyclists battle for limited space. Further, this time of year, a wintry smog cloaks the city by early dusk; and frequent security roadblocks don’t help matters much either. While we were trapped in one of a dozen traffic jams that delayed us today, something the driver Rehman said really got me thinking. As a huge DTC (Delhi Transport Corporation) bus roared past us on the wrong side of the road, Rehman exclaimed, “Paper’e announce kore chilo bar bar, ‘Overtake nahin karna!’ Keo shone’i na!” (“The paper was announcing [sic] over and over again, ‘Don’t overtake!’ (But) no one listens!”

A DTC bus

The sentences were trilingual: “paper,” “announce,” and “overtake,” of course, are from English; “kore chilo bar bar” and “Keo shone’i na” are Bengali, and “nahin karna” is a Hindi phrase. Rehman, a long time resident of Kolkata (in West Bengal) has just moved to North India, and speaks to us in Bengali (our first language). He is very fluent in Hindi, the national language, and says his prayers (namaaz) in Urdu/Arabic. He also follows elementary English conversations, though he generally responds only in Hindi/Bengali/Urdu. For all the linguistic calisthenics he performs in everyday life, he’s stuck with the appellation “illiterate”….To the world at large, he represents the failure of the Third World to educate its masses, a canker on its path to progress. One of teeming millions of “illiterates,” he stands between India and its glowing tomorrow. Or so one would think, looking at newspaper, television, and billboard advetisements…

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India’s “illiteracy” has been a priority and a pressing issue since before Independence in 1947. Recently, the Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, had this to say:

“No modern country has less than 80 per cent literacy….India needs a new revolution in modern education.” Source: The Hindu.

I think we focus too much on numbers, on percentages in this Indian “War on illiteracy.” A simple Google search will reveal millions of documents asserting the rampant illiteracy in India. Yes, there are many people in India who are considered illiterate by many standards, but I also want us to acknowledge that literacy takes shape in myriad ways in India, and perhaps this old way of judging one’s “literate” status should give way to a standard cognizant of the cultural and linguistic plurality that marks Indians…why must we measure Indian literacy with imported benchmarks that don’t take India’s diversity into consideration? There are people, like Rehman, who spend their lives stigmatized as the illiterate in India, but are able to traverse multilingual boundaries with ease, and make sense of the world in so many rich, complex ways…There’s something not quite right here…

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