Looking at literacy


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A curriculum is at best a statement of intent, which not only reflects the philosophy of its framers but their conception of society as well. In a way it conceptualizes their understanding of the present based on which a plan for the future is formulated. All of this may not be articulated in the curriculum though. Therefore, the renewed thrust in the last two decades on adult and elementary education, to be precise on developing literacy and numeracy skills, needs to be located in the context of socio-political and economic changes.

Unless the debate on curriculum is informed by the educational prerequisites of these wider changes it is not possible to discern the compulsions for framing curricula the way it is. It is also true that the analyst’s own philosophy and conception of an alternative, which may not be particularly concretely formulated or articulated, would influence any such analysis.

In the last two decades there has been a shift in government policies on education for the deprived, be it women’s development or literacy programmes. The stated focus has been on mobilization, empowerment and awareness building to enable people to organize and fight for their own rights. Post the sixties, this shift in emphasis from functionality to state sponsored struggle has created confusion and crisis in the language of debate. For some, this is an indication of the withdrawal of the state from the social sectors.

This is because first, instead of ensuring the basic human rights of the people through assertive actions, by punishing the oppressors and exploiters and redistributing resources, the government through such programmes is asking people to organize and fight themselves. Second, such statements often put the onus of deprivation on the people themselves. Had this not been the intent, why would policy-makers and implementers be asking people, through state sponsored programmes, to organize and fight for their rights? Is this not tantamount to inciting people against the state? Or has the state been so weakened that it cannot implement its own policies? Hence, in exasperation or for legitimacy, it is urging the masses to organize themselves against the state.

For example, isn’t it worth asking why the state cannot ensure the implementation of its own pro-poor policies such as minimum wages and land reforms? Or is the present thrust on mass education, literacy and universalization of elementary education only a manifestation of the demand for a ‘cheap’ workforce with basic skills, with the state playing into the hands of such forces?



Perhaps there are neither clear answers nor sufficient evidence to establish one or the other conclusively. Nevertheless, some of the underlying dominant trends articulated in the literacy curriculum need to be analysed. A quote from Saheli’s newsletter about women’s development programmes seems appropriate in the context of literacy as well. ‘In contrast to development plans for other sections of the population, government’s emphasis with respect to women is not on policy measures, resource allocation or redefining development, but on awareness building and mobilization or, in other words struggle as opposed to development. With such a definition of development, a bizarre situation has been created where the fight is no longer against the establishment, but is a state-sponsored struggle’ (Saheli, 1995: 3).

Unlike the school curriculum, the adult education curriculum is neither publicly visible nor does it attract the attention of educationists and social scientists. Whatever is done in the area of adult education is considered good and noble, beyond controversy, not requiring any debate or scrutiny. Some people think of adult education as a kind of charity for the upliftment of the ignorant masses, patronage offered by a benevolent state. In such a construct, education of the masses does not fall in the realm of basic human rights.

In the past, viz. during the social education programme in the ’50s, functional literacy programme in the ’60s and even during the National Adult Education Programme in the ’70s, perhaps there were no neatly chalked out and separately published guidelines on material development. But an unwritten curriculum there was. There was a noticeable shift in objectives – from purely functional objectives of skill development in the ’50s and ’60s, to functionality and conscientization in the ’70s, to functionality, awareness building and empowerment in the ’90s. Another important change in the ’90s was that for the first time curricula was formulated and published in the form of guidelines for material production, clearly reflecting the shift in emphasis from conscientization to functionality and awareness building.

Though not widely known, a literacy curriculum does exist and is strictly adhered to. In the name of maintaining uniform standards it actually serves as an instrument of control and centralization. The reasons for such a disguised, low-profile presence could be many. One, it could be that curriculum sounds serious and a formal policy matter and immediately attracts the attention of critics. It is perhaps safer to use pragmatic terminology such as guidelines for material production and let underlying principles remain disguised.



Other differences between school and adult education curricula are related to the social hierarchy of education. Mass education is considered a matter of lower priority, not only in social and economic terms but also in terms of a sustained effort. It is relevant to underscore that the cost per learner is a matter of utmost importance and cost reductions invite appreciation and recognition. Historically, adult education concerns have been dictated by the international agenda, viz. farmers’ literacy programme during the spread of the Green Revolution or skill development for economic liberalization during the Total Literacy Campaign days, promises of conscientization, awareness building and empowerment notwithstanding.

The strategies and ‘target population’, like the unstated and undefined curriculum, change with every new dispensation. For example, farmers’ literacy had nothing to do with landless people. In essence the focus kept reverting to income generation and thus functionality. Little wonder that this vast curriculum encompasses anything and everything from beauty parlours to vocational education.



Unlike school education, adult education is not dependent on age-wise cognitive abilities. Its focus is, according to government policies and plans, on the 15-35 age group, i.e., workers age group, though the upper limit is extendable. Since it primarily addresses the poor of this age group, it is assumed that any age-wise gradation is not required. The following are some other crucial assumptions and differences.

* That people from only a particular class need to be addressed through adult education.

* That the attention span and time availability of such people is short, as is their motivation.

* That these deprived people do not value education, that they alone are responsible for their plight is another assumption, though unstated.

* That such illiterate people can be made functionally literate and possibly empowered in 200 hours.

Although, like universalization of primary education, adult education and literacy is an important objectives of the state, most valuable contributions have been made by small autonomous groups and political formations, i.e., trade unions, labour organizations and political parties who have a philosophy and perspective on adult education. Workers organisations in particular have always woven adult education programmes into their larger struggles for equity, equality and justice. However, most such groups do not prepare a blueprint of any curriculum.



Autonomous groups which focus on adult education, experiment with various innovative methodologies and materials, often linking their efforts with the basic demands of the people. Government programmes on the other hand not only ignore such efforts, but function within the framework defined by dominant national and international forces.

Because of a nonformal setup with seemingly flexible structures in terms of timing and place, it is assumed that the scope for innovation is far greater in adult education than within formal systems. However, in practice, tight time schedules and centralised curricula negate all such illusions and hopes. The innovations by small groups are rarely taken cognisance of or woven into mainstream practice, thereby either remaining islands or fading into oblivion. Consequently, instead of flexibility and innovation in government programmes, what we witness is a focus on publicity and working towards quantitative targets as a measure of success.

Against this backdrop, I would like to draw attention to two books: ‘New Guidebook For the Development and Production of Literacy Materials’, a publication of Asian Culture Centre for UNESCO (ACCU) and ‘Handbook for Developing IPCL Materials’, a publication of the Directorate of Adult Education. IPCL stands for improved pace and content learning which, according to this publication is ‘a new pedagogical concept, an outcome of decade-long thinking and experience in the field of adult education in India’ (DAE: 1993). Further, ‘IPCL is a result of long and serious thinking. It is a pedagogical concept which attempts to provide an answer to the problems of slow and poor learning’ (2: 1993).

The ACCU publication (1992) lucidly spells out the functional objectives of literacy for increasing production. ‘Literacy is recognized as a basic human right and an essential condition for human development. An analysis from a sample survey of developing countries indicates that increase in literacy contributes to increase in investment and output per worker’ (ACCU: 2, 1992).



Further, the section on Curriculum and Learning Materials, under the subsection ‘Objectives’, states that, ‘The functional literacy programme needs to be specified in terms of the developmental programmes; for example, the objective to eradicate illiteracy is to enable learners to participate actively in an appropriate technical and vocational skills programme to improve their quality of life’ (ACCU: 4, 1992).

A brief review of the content of the IPCL handbook will not be out of place as it established guidelines for all the district and state level primers published during the Total Literacy Campaign phase of the programme. For the first time IPCL guidelines, including the literacy curriculum, were formalized and published in 1993. It was the first consolidated effort in formulating a centralized curriculum dealing with all the three crucial aspects – approach, content and pedagogy.

This formulation helps exercise control on the content and overall structure of the primers. Further, approval of a national committee called IPCL Committee was made mandatory before publishing primers. Only a few districts were able to add creative dimensions, raise locally relevant issues in the primers and thereby escape control. The primers by and large followed the government framework to the last details. Most were actually produced at the state level by the state resource centres and merely reprinted at the district level without major changes.



The outreach of a primer and the messages it carries cannot be ignored or undermined. More so as they cater to a particular class of people with little access to any other printed materials. Moulding their opinions and worldview is of crucial importance to any government and, given their outreach, the primers can play a crucial role since unlike other publicity materials, they are part of a package backed by volunteers taking the messages right into the literacy classes.

The Handbook for Developing IPCL Materials appears radical in comparison to the ACCU Handbook since, alongside functionality, it mentions awareness building as one of the key objectives. A careful reading, however, brings out the contradictions and that the emphasis is not really on awareness building but on functionality alone. A look at the section entitled IPCL Curriculum brings this and other internal contradictions out clearly and uncovers the conformist goals couched in the progressive language and phrases.

The chapter states that, ‘The IPCL curriculum is based on the programme goals set by the NLM. It has two types of contents, viz., core content and locally relevant content’ (Handbook: 4, 1993). The core content is comprised of non-negotiable national values (NV), such as national integration, women’s equality, population education, conservation of environment and development of scientific temper.



According to this handbook, under subsection ‘Programme Goal’, ‘Curriculum objectives and content should be in tune with the goal of the programme of adult education which, as determined by the National Literacy Mission, is to impart functional literacy to illiterate persons in the 15-35 years age group’ (Handbook: 4, 1993). Functional literacy is defined as:

* achieving self-reliance in literacy and numeracy;

* being aware of the causes of deprivation and moving towards amelioration of oppressive conditions through organization and participation in the process of development;

* acquisition of skills to improve economic status and general wellbeing;

* imbibing the values of national integration, conservation of environment, women’s equality, and observing small family norm.

In short, functionality is redefined to include some sort of awareness, though the underlying implication is that the onus of non-participation in development programmes is on the illiterate people. Understanding the role of the oppressors and the creators of oppressive conditions is nowhere mentioned as central to the definition of functionality. This despite the fact that the definition of awareness specifically reinforces this responsibility: ‘Awareness would mean critical understanding of social conditions, in which the learners live and work. This would involve understanding the factors contributing to their existing predicament and problems and finding ways to solve them for betterment of life’ (1993: 5).

For facilitating the development of such an understanding, including establishing the identity of the perpetrators of such predicament, it is necessary that literacy programmes provide space and opportunity to understand the local situation and that local issues are given due importance in the formal curriculum. Equally, that approaches to understand the ‘factors contributing to their existing predicament,’ whether time consuming or not, are adopted. Nothing in the ICPL handbook, however, helps sustain such hopes.

The chapter, ‘IPCL Concept’, declares that, ‘Key aspects of the approach to development of IPCL material are ...inclusion of core contents which are sacrosanct, indispensable and irreducible...’ (2: 1993). However, the section, ‘Locally Relevant Content (LRC)’, stresses that this aspect is not important at all. ‘A large part of material is covered by the core content leaving little room for dealing with LRC. In view of this the TLC districts are advised to adopt the SRC materials with generalized contents or any of the approved primers of other districts by substituting a couple of lessons with locally relevant content’ (5).



There is little room for time consuming problem survey in IPCL. Also, ‘there is a precedence of national values (NV) over LRC’ (5). In effect what is being said is that identification of local issues and local problems is a time-consuming activity; that within the IPCL approach there is no scope for this as, ‘there is urgency to exploit initial motivation (of the people) for developing literacy skills’ (5).

Almost as an afterthought, the final para of the subsection ‘LRC’ states, ‘Notwithstanding the above policy, in cases where the lifestyle of learners is far removed from the general pattern, or where the language of the learners is distinctly different from the district’s language, or where there is overriding necessity, there is a justification for going in for a quick survey and including more locally relevant content’ (5).



This is probably a ‘gentle’ way of laying down the boundary conditions. Most primers which were subsequently prepared adhered to these conditions, not that there was much scope for deviating from the guidelines, as all the drafts had to be approved by the IPCL committee. People who attempted an innovative approach, even while adhering to the guidelines and the curriculum, found the process frustrating and debilitating. Except for a few primers prepared by BGVS and other activist groups, most did not even follow the above guidelines.

Consequently, a majority of primers presented the issues in a stereotypical and prescriptive manner, reflecting a patriarchal and majoritarian bias. The excessive or sole emphasis depicting linear causal relationship linking all the problems – from gender discrimination, poverty, unemployment, underdevelopment and environmental degradation to population – reveals the mindset of the IPCL committee.

The issue of centralized control and planning is of utmost importance as, in the name of uniformity, it not only undermines and suppresses diversity and creativity in society but, more importantly, imposes a specific worldview and understanding. Since literacy is considered beyond controversy, these centralised processes escape public scrutiny and attention. The effectivity and power of this vehicle for spreading a mainstream worldview can be gauged by the sheer number of primers published per district, invariably a few lakh.

The experience of some TLC districts such as Pudukkottai, Nellore, Ernakulam and so on are well documented, chronologically as well as from different perspectives. Little, however, is known about the fate of smaller innovative of adult education projects which either preceded these campaigns or ran concurrently until they were shut down by government order. For example, Rupantar, an NGO based in Raipur (M.P.) ran 100 innovative adult education centres before the launch of total literacy campaign. This innovative project too was funded by NLM.

In 1993, it was decided to initiate district level programmes in Raipur and Rupantar was asked to shut down its project to avoid duplication. When the organisation pleaded that it could not stop a project midstream and insisted on continuing with the centres, it was asked to recast its adult education materials as per IPCL norms, failing which its next instalment of funds would not be released.

Their adult education primer, Nava Anjor, primarily focused on locally relevant issues. There was certainly less focus on national values as the primers were prepared with the active involvement of local teachers. This was seen as unacceptable and funding stopped. It is a different matter that Rupantar continued its work by raising funds from other sources. The extent of control and centralization can only be gauged by such undiscussed ground realities and experiences, not by what is stated in national seminars and written in policy documents.




Saheli, Development for Whom: A Critique of Women’s Development Programmes. Report, Saheli Women’s Resource Centre, New Delhi, 1991.

New Guidebook for Development and Production of Literacy Materials, AACU, 1992.

Handbook for Developing IPCL Materials, DAE, GOI, New Delhi,1993.