'It is difficult to sustain a one point literacy programme'

What is the origin of the Pondicherry Science Forum?
Inspired by the experiences of the Kerala Shastra Sahitya Parishat, we set up PSF in December 1985 for the popularisation of science. We organised quiz contests and various programmes for schoolchildren. We used folk art and culture to discuss a number of development issues. And in 1988 we held a children's festival.

When did literacy become a part of your programme?
In September 1989, we started our literacy programme. At that time, only the Ernakulam district in Kerala had done it and the idea was not considered feasible. PSF, along with other voluntary organisations, joined hands with the government in setting up an autonomous body to coordinate a mass literacy programme. We were trying to establish whether such a programme could work. More than 10,000 volunteers were mobilised to reach out to more than 1 lakh illiterates in the course of 1 or 2 years. A small section of the bureaucracy was also eager to help. But the politicians were not really interested.

What was the reaction to the movement?
Lukewarm, but not negative. Our biggest problem was that of cynicism. I remember a minister leaning back on a chair and bursting out laughing, "Do you really expect to be able to mobilise so many volunteers?" Yet the volunteers were recruited and a training programme was begun. That is when the reactions became more confused. On the one hand, at the village level, a number of people who had been cynical started supporting the programme. But the political parties became were extremely hostile. Volunteers were incited to demand money. It was a very difficult time for us.

Did you consider taking the politicians into confidence?
Oh yes! The executive committee members included representatives of political parties. Besides, all the parties were approached and given responsibilities. The MLAs were informed about what is happening and asked to inaugurate the numerous functions. However, voluntarism per se upset them as it seriously undermined the dalal (middleman) culture. Time and again, they would attack the volunteers. They were worried about 10,000 people working voluntarily with some sort of understanding of social change, however nebulous it may have been. This sustained lack of cooperation from the general public -- because the politicians remained hostile to it and also because of the problems of managing a mass campaign -- created problems for us. Yet it was a thrilling experience, something that inspired us.

We were finally able to declare the first phase of campaign over in November 1991. For this short period, the administration co-operated with us. The politicians remained wary. For the next 4 months, the post-literacy programme was on.

Could you elaborate?
We created supplementary reading material in the form of newspapers for the neo-literates, as well as posters. Having given them a learning tool, you need to teach them to use it. Information has to be imparted on areas of their interest such as land, water, the ration shop, and civil and political rights.

We had a number of innovative programmes. One was called the village parliament where people would ask questions and officers would defend themselves. Neo-literates would be taken to the block development office or to the police station and shown how an FIR form is filled. This demystifies these places.

People began discussing major issues and even started questioning their representatives. It was a period of increased awareness, of hundreds of people getting small things done, a number of villages coming together to solve their problems where the government had failed to come to their aid.

So, in a sense, they took the initiative to solve their problems?
Precisely. This was a new thing and some people in the government were very excited about the positive response it was getting. However, the local press soon began to write that PSF was infiltrated by anti-national elements and had a lot of seditious material. Inevitably, in the assembly session at the end of March 1992, there was a 4-day all-out attack on the literacy movement.

Did this cut across the party lines?
Yes. The opposition and the ruling party united on this. They contented that the literacy movement was anti-national. One must realise that, in Indian polity today, when political parties unite across the board against a particular cause, it becomes extremely difficult to counter them. That is a lesson that we learnt. Demands were made for the dismissal of the secretary and director of the education department. The attack was targeted not only at a voluntary organisation, but against the movement as a whole.

But you did have support of the lieutenant governor and other education secretaries. Couldn't they...?
Let us not say that they couldn't...The office was not seized. We were not banned or victimised. No action was taken against us. We were attacked in the assembly. You cannot charge them with slander because it is protected by the privilege of the assembly.

Some mainstream dailies did publish our viewpoint. But the local press was under the influence of the ministry. The opponents of the movement prevented supplementary literature from reaching neo-literates. It was a planned diabolical campaign to scuttle the movement.

However, in August 1992, just 5 months after the attack in the assembly, the programme was awarded the King Sejong award by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation.

How did this affect the movement?
The moment this award was announced, those who had flayed the campaign started claiming credit for it. The movement was taken over from the voluntary bodies. The post-literacy campaign should have ended in November 1993, but not even 20 per cent of the money had been disbursed, although the officials had been collecting their pay and travel allowances.

What other factors hindered the movement?
It is very difficult to sustain a one-point programme. Literacy per se cannot hold the people's interest beyond a point. You need to look into the other problems people like health, sanitation, drinking water, land and water management, and jobs. But the programme was built up so fast and drew in so many people that it was not possible to change it into one with a multidimensional objective.

The other problem has been the lack of local bodies in Pondicherry. Panchayat elections have not been held for 25 years. So there is no authority to whom things can be handed over.

Is PSF planning to diversify its activities in the future?
Yes, we are basically now a very diverse organisation. We continue to work at non-formal education with women's groups. We are engaged in the popularisation of science and in environmental issues. We have also been looking at the sort of inputs people need to be better equipped to improve the quality of their lives.

Given your experiences, what role do you think voluntary organisations should play in such movements?
Before total literacy campaigns became government policy, they were very ill-equipped. In the initial phase, the collector would take up the programme only if he was really interested. When it became government policy, targets had to be achieved within a given timeframe and a definite amount of money had to be disbursed. Now these campaigns have been taken over by the bureaucracy, marginalising the voluntary organisation. Earlier voluntary organisations gave time for a people's network to develop, for mobilisation to take place. Now there is no time for such things. It is a date on a calender. Total literacy campaigns in the country must slow down and not rush headlong like this. Besides, the government cannot do it alone.

What do you mean by saying that the pace of the campaigns should slow down?
Already the campaigns have been expanded without adequate preparatory work. The people should realise that you cannot reach a 2000 AD target in this mechanical manner. You are killing a very good programme because of this 2000 AD business. We should take up work on health, education, deforestation, and land and water management. We should start village-level libraries and newspapers for the neo-literate. Let these be run voluntarily, let the network grow.

It is this post-literacy phase and what it seeks to do that worries politicians. Do you think it will even be allowed to reach these levels?
If you open a library in today's milieu, the library is not threatened. You bring in many of those elements before the campaign, take a longer build-up phase to allow voluntary networks that can sustain it to emerge, then go in for literacy. There is a demand for literacy. If there are people available to teach, then there are people ready to learn.