The computer-based functional literacy (CBFL) project has proved that it can be a cost-effective solution to India's adult illiteracy problem. But there are many miles to go, and a multitude of challenges to be overcome for the programme to realise its full potential.

The foremost challenge has to do with resources. Getting the computers the project requires, the infrastructure to house the centres, the teachers to conduct the classes, all of this costs money. Even if organisations can be persuaded to donate machines for the programme, there are obstacles to be surmounted.

The entity that can make the greatest difference in a project such as this is the government, but getting its endorsement requires hard work. Where the state and local administrations have responded, like in Andhra Pradesh, the programme has been a success. "We have gone to the collectors and so on, but maybe we should go to the chief ministers," says Kesav V. Nori, executive vice president, TCS, and one of those prominently involved in the CBFL initiative.

Plugging the holes
The resources barricade may have tripped TCS up, but it has learnt plenty from overcoming other impediments that the project faced. "Initially we didn't have the wherewithal to monitor how things were progressing," says Mr Nori, "We had spread ourselves too thin." TCS fixed that by employing some temporary hands.

Then there was the obstacle posed by what Major General (retired) B. G. Shively, under whose charge the project operates, calls the "social dynamics" operating among people targeted by the project. "If somebody dies in a village, nobody attends class for 13 days," he says. "For a wedding it's two days, and three to four for a festival. Also, the monsoons are a hassle: leaking centres, flooded roads, etc." Add erratic electricity supply, uninterested instructors and badly located centres.

Another problem was — and remains, at least in Andhra — getting the villagers to come to class. "Convincing these people that becoming literate is a good thing is very difficult," says Mr Shively. Adds P. Amarender Reddy, who works on behalf of TCS as a coordinator in the project: "Most of these people have to work for a livelihood. Persuading them to come to a class after a hard day's work is quite a task. The teaching itself is the easy part; getting people into the room is much harder."

It is in this context that the role of non-governmental organisations becomes valuable. They can motivate people to join the project by offering various incentives, like combining this literacy programme with income-generation initiatives, self-help group activities, etc.

No straightjackets here
If and when they do come to class, the beneficiaries cannot be treated like ordinary students. "Adults have to be dealt with differently," says Mr Shively. "You cannot tick them off: why are you late? Why are you lagging behind? So the teachers have to be trained to understand these nuances, and we do this to some extent. We tell them to be nice, to be polite." The regular classroom straightjacket is absent (for instance, women are allowed to bring their children along).

Where the programme has come up short is in attracting uneducated adults among men. The overwhelming majority of those attending the classes in Andhra are women. A shortage of male teachers is one reason, but Muthiyala Jayamma, an instructor with the project in Medak district, says this is because women see becoming literate as more important than do men. "Also, men take being taught by women as an affront to their ego; they feel ashamed," she says. "They won't even let their wives [who have come through the programme] teach them."

 

"Most of these people have to work for a livelihood. Persuading them to come to a class after a hard day's work is quite a task. The teaching itself is the easy part; getting people into the room is much harder."

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