How to write one’s own name, use a phone, or open a bank account may not seem like much to write home about, but in one Jharkhand district, these are just some of the results of a remarkable transformation taking place.
In the heart of Dumka, thousands of women who could not read or write are now finding their voice, thanks to an adult literacy program that has touched 13,000 lives and counting. With 450 instructors, the program is part of a Niti Aayog initiative to help certain aspirational districts, which outperformed on several indicators, by giving them money to implement a scheme of their choice.
Dumka, which is one such district, had sent a proposal to Niti Aayog in 2022 seeking funds for a ‘Female Literacy Enhancement Program’, with a budget of Rs 1.62 crore and an aim to make 50,000 women foundationally literate – that is, versed in basic Hindi, numeracy, etc.
Former Dumka Deputy Commissioner R S Shukla, who started the initiative, told The Indian Express, “Female literacy is a vital component of social transformation and we wanted to create a social movement, but a lot of work needed to be done. We identified key resource persons from the previous ‘Saksharta Abhiyan’, and gave them residential training on teaching methods. We also developed a ‘Literacy Anthem’ in Santhali, translating Safdar Hashmi’s ‘Padna Likhna Sikho’. The processes had a cascading effect, and their results were astounding.”
After three months of training – January to March this year – 8,249 women of the 13,000 who had enrolled took the Foundational Literacy and Numeracy Test. The pass percentage was an astounding 95.4%.
Before this scheme was rolled out, another Centre-run scheme, ‘Padhna Likhna Abhiyan’, had 465 learners – both men and women – in Dumka until March 2022. Now, the aim is to make 50,000 women literate. Dumka has a population of 17.44 lakh.
Ashok Singh, nodal person of the Niti Aayog-funded program, who was also Dumka’s program manager for the Centre’s ‘Saksharta Abhiyan’ from 2009-10 to 2018-19, said: “Although 13,000 were trained, we saw there was some absenteeism. Out of 30 in each centre, only 20 were selected for taking the test as those were the ones who were regular. A total of 7,695 women cleared the exam and are now literate.”
Singh said that the first task was to identify instructors who would survey the “illiterate women” aged between 15 and 60 years – women who had not studied at all, or studied till class 5, or would use thumb impression instead of signatures. “Out of 1,670, we could select only 550 instructors despite the selection process lasting two months. Eventually, 425 instructors could join us for residential training for two months in November and December last year. Unlike how teaching is done for youngsters, the methodology had to be changed.”
He added: “In theory, the instructors were taught the following in ascending order: ‘Chitra par charcha, shabd ki pehchaan, aur phir usko tod kar akshar pehchaana (discussion on a picture, identifying the words, breaking the words to characters).” Singh said the instructors were later taken to various villages on practical assignments, and feedback was given for a robust teaching method.
‘I am proud of myself’
Around 25 kilometres away from Dumka town, in Karanpura village under Kadma panchayat, Mary Baski, in her 30s, readied her “classroom” on a raised concrete platform – a blackboard, coloured balls made of clay, stone chips, bamboo sticks, and cardboard cut out in the shape of numbers. One by one, women aged between 26 and 60 turned up. This is a batch Baski has already taught, but most are back for “revision”.
The class started with some banter as 26-year-old Kusmi Devi spoke about learning to read and write numbers for the first time. “This is the first time I called my husband by dialling the numbers myself. He’s in Kashmir and was stunned when I told him I did it myself,” she said.
One of the pupils, Katki Devi, in her 50s, recalled losing Rs 18,000 in a fraudulent biometric withdrawal. Now literate, she was able to close her previous bank accounts and open a new one with her own signature. “Now I don’t need to withdraw money using my thumb impression,” she said.
But the process was easier said than done.
Baski says the first step was to win the trust of the women’s families, particularly their husband. “I asked them to come with their children’s books, from which I taught basic Hindi letters. Some women did not know how to even hold a pen, and we made bamboo sticks to write on a concrete platform until they got a hang of it. But the bigger challenge was to equate the numbers to an inanimate object, show how much each number means in real terms, and make the process interesting,” said Baski, a graduate in geography and a mother of two. Her husband is a teacher at a government school.
Baski said she made cardboard cutouts of the numbers 1 to 10. “I also dug up some sand and made clay balls, and painted them with colours. One ball was kept next to the number one, and so on. The next step was people holding the cutouts, and making women read it. All these exercises mixed together bore fruit,” she said, adding that her husband is now using the same method to train students at his school. “I was proud of myself.”
Baski said she is waiting for the sowing season to finish to begin her next batch of teaching, since most women are engaged in farming.
Around 45 km from Dumka town, in the district’s Ranishwar block, Beli Kumari, who quit studies after marriage, is today an instructor. Kumari, who belongs to an OBC community and speaks Bengali, moved from Jamtara to a village in Dumka, and though her family was not supportive initially, she persevered. She also recalled facing taunts by neighbours, most of whom were educated.
“The day Santhali women finally started writing their names, the same neighbours were shocked. The process also made me realise I too needed to complete my graduation,” said Kumari, who came to Dumka recently – an “achievement” that shows the faith her in-laws now have on her. “I want to study more and I have not touched the honorarium pay that I received. One day I will use it in my studies. I feel liberated being part of the literacy program” she said.
In Chikanya Jama block, three women students – Savatri Soren, Kushila Soren (in their early 40s), and Anita Marandi (33) – discussed the challenges they faced in getting the Rs 36,000 a contractor owed them. Now literate, the three met the Deputy Commissioner at his ‘Junta Durbar’ and wrote a complaint.
Savitri said: “As we started learning, we became confident in asserting ourselves. We went to DC’s office and were directed to submit an application to the labour superintendent’s office. Our hard work paid off and the contractor was asked to release the amount.”
“The chronicle of Savitri Soren, Kushila Soren, and Anita Marandi shows how literacy empowers women to demand justice. By tenaciously pursuing their long-due remunerations, they have exemplified the agency and autonomy that education confers. I hope all 50,000 women become literate in a time bound manner,” Shukla, the former Deputy Commissioner, said.
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