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UPSC Essentials| Society and Social Justice — Literacy and associated issues (Part 1)

(In UPSC Essentials’ series ‘Society & Social Justice’, which we have started for social issues topics of UPSC CSE, our subject experts will give an overview of the theme from both, static and dynamic points of view. ‘Express Inputs’ and ‘points to ponder’ will widen your horizon on the issue. Our first two topics were ‘Population’ and ‘Urbanisation’. For the month of September, we take up the topic of ‘Literacy and associated issues’. In part 1, Manas Srivastava talks to Pranay Aggarwal about the the basic concepts, types of literacy, International Literacy Day’s theme, and more. He also suggests interesting introduction for UPSC essays related to the topic.)

About the Expert: Pranay Aggarwal is an educator and mentor for aspirants preparing for UPSC Civil Services examination. With more than 10 years of experience guiding civil service aspirants, he is acknowledged as an expert on civil service exam preparation, especially on subjects like Social Issues and Sociology. He is the India representative on Research Committee on Education for UNESCO’s International Sociological Association and a member of Indian Sociological Society’s committee on social movements. He is also the Convenor of Indian Civil Services Association, a think tank of senior bureaucrats.

Relevance of the topic: According to UNESCO, September 8 is celebrated as International Literacy Day (ILD) around the world “to remind the public of the importance of literacy as a matter of dignity and human rights, and to advance the literacy agenda towards a more literate and sustainable society.” It is an important theme in GS I (Society), GS II, GS III, Prelims and personality test. Aspirants will find it relevant for Essays as well.

Manas: Let’s start with some basic concepts. How is literacy defined? Who is a ‘literate’ and how is literacy different from education?

Pranay Aggarwal: At the most basic level, literacy is defined as the ability to read and write. In a broader sense, the concept of literacy encompasses the capacity to comprehend, interpret, and critically engage with various forms of written communication.

A person may be considered literate if they possess the skills to understand and communicate using written language. This implies the ability to decode letters and words and comprehend and analyse textual content. However, the Census of India adopts a more limited definition, as follows-

While literacy and education are related concepts, they are distinct from each other. Literacy focuses specifically on the ability to read, write, and communicate through written language. It is a fundamental skill that enables individuals to access, understand, and convey information. On the other hand, education is a broader concept encompassing a wide range of learning experiences and knowledge acquisition. Education includes formal schooling, but it extends beyond the classroom to encompass the acquisition of knowledge, skills, values, and attitudes through informal learning processes. Education, thus, encompasses a broader range of cognitive, social, and intellectual development.

Literacy can be seen as a foundational aspect of education, serving as a fundamental tool that enables individuals to access and benefit from educational opportunities.

In summary, literacy pertains to the fundamental skill of understanding and using written language, while education encompasses a wider array of cognitive and personal development that goes beyond mere literacy skills.

Manas: How is illiteracy a big burden to the nation even after so many years of independence?

Pranay Aggarwal: Illiteracy continues to pose a substantial burden on the nation despite several years of independence due to its multifaceted impact on various aspects of society. The literacy rate in the country is overall 74.04 per cent, 82.14 for males and 65.46 for females, as per the 2011 census. While the country has made significant progress in improving literacy over the years, it continues to be home to 313 million illiterate people; 59 per cent of whom are women. It is heartbreaking that 17.8 per cent of males and a staggering 34.5 per cent of females do not have basic literacy even after 75 years of independence.

Reasons why illiteracy persists:

In Indian society, illiteracy has persisted as a formidable challenge due to a combination of historical, socio-economic, and structural factors. Despite strides in various sectors and substantial improvement in literacy rates since gaining independence, the issue of illiteracy remains a significant concern with far-reaching implications.

One key aspect is the sheer size and diversity of the Indian population. India’s vastness, along with its multitude of languages and dialects, poses a unique challenge for addressing illiteracy. The country’s linguistic diversity necessitates the creation of educational materials and resources in multiple languages to ensure effective learning. This challenge becomes more complex when considering that a substantial portion of the population resides in rural and remote areas with limited access to educational infrastructure.

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Moreover, the interplay of socio-economic factors exacerbates the issue. Illiteracy is often concentrated in marginalised and economically disadvantaged castes and communities, perpetuating a cycle of poverty and limited educational opportunities. The lack of access to quality education, particularly in rural and economically backward regions, further widens the gap between urban and rural literacy rates.

The issue is not solely about access to education, but also about the quality of education provided. Many regions face a shortage of qualified teachers, outdated teaching methodologies, and inadequate learning resources. This affects the learning outcomes and diminishes the impact of efforts to enhance literacy rates.

Societal impact of the persistence of illiteracy:

The persistence of illiteracy inhibits social, economic, and cultural progress in several ways, highlighting the complex nature of this issue.

From an economic standpoint, illiteracy restricts an individual’s access to a range of opportunities, including formal employment, vocational training, and entrepreneurship. This hampers economic growth as a significant portion of the population remains unable to contribute effectively to the workforce and engage in higher-value economic activities.

Furthermore, illiteracy perpetuates cycles of poverty and social inequality. The inability to read and write limits individuals’ capacity to access information, make informed decisions, and advocate for their rights. This, in turn, affects access to healthcare, legal resources, and other essential services, leading to a vicious cycle of disadvantage that is passed down to subsequent generations.

In terms of social and cultural development, illiteracy hinders the spread of knowledge, inhibiting the transmission of cultural heritage, scientific advancements, and social innovations. This can result in a lack of awareness about critical issues such as health, sanitation, and sustainable practices, impeding the nation’s progress towarddevelopment goals.

Addressing the challenge of illiteracy:

It’s worth noting that addressing illiteracy requires more than just improving literacy rates; it involves a comprehensive approach that includes ensuring quality education, promoting lifelong learning, and addressing socio-economic gaps and regional disparities. A holistic effort is necessary to break the cycle of illiteracy and fully unleash the nation’s potential for growth and development in the modern era. Addressing illiteracy in India requires tailored strategies and sustained efforts that acknowledge and respect the linguistic and cultural diversity of the nation.

In conclusion, the burden of illiteracy in India post-independence is a complex challenge deeply intertwined with linguistic diversity, socio-economic disparities, and the quality of education. Addressing this challenge demands a multi-pronged approach that encompasses equitable access to education, focused efforts on quality enhancement, and proactive engagement with marginalized communities. By tackling illiteracy comprehensively, India can unlock its full potential and accelerate its journey toward inclusive and sustainable development.

Manas: What are the different kinds of literacy that students need for the 21st century?

Pranay Aggarwal: Today, the notion of literacy has evolved far beyond the basic ability to read and write. In fact, in the 21st century, students require a diverse set of literacies to navigate an increasingly complex and interconnected world. Beyond traditional reading and writing skills, these literacies enable individuals to thrive in various contexts and effectively engage with modern challenges. Here are some essential types of literacy:

1. Functional Literacy: It equips individuals with basic reading, writing, and numerical skills necessary for day-to-day life. It enables them to understand and respond to practical information, forms, and instructions, fostering independence and self-sufficiency.

2. Financial Literacy: It empowers individuals to manage their personal finances wisely. It involves understanding concepts like budgeting, saving, investing, and making informed decisions about loans and credit. Financial literacy promotes economic well-being and prevents financial vulnerabilities.

3. Digital Literacy: It encompasses the ability to use digital tools, navigate online platforms, critically evaluate digital content, and safeguard personal information. In an increasingly digital world, this literacy is crucial for communication, learning, and participation in the digital economy.

4. Linguistic Literacy: This involves proficiency in multiple languages. As globalization connects diverse cultures and languages, being able to communicate effectively across linguistic boundaries enhances cultural understanding and global collaboration.

5. Reading and Writing Literacy: Traditional literacy remains fundamental. Being able to comprehend complex texts, communicate ideas persuasively in writing, and engage with diverse genres of literature fosters critical thinking and effective expression.

6. Numerical Literacy: This goes beyond basic math skills. It includes understanding and interpreting data, making informed decisions based on quantitative information, and applying mathematical concepts in real-world scenarios.

7. Spatial Literacy: It involves understanding and interpreting visual information, maps, and diagrams. It’s crucial for comprehending spatial relationships, geographical concepts, and even interpreting data through graphs and charts.

8. Cultural Literacy: This involves understanding cultural norms, values, and historical contexts. It fosters empathy, cross-cultural communication, and a deeper appreciation for diverse perspectives in a globalised world.

9. Media Literacy: It equips individuals to critically evaluate and interpret media messages, including news, advertisements, and digital content. It enables them to discern bias, misinformation, and make informed judgments.

10. Health and Medical Literacy: Health literacy empowers individuals to make informed decisions about their health and well-being. Medical literacy extends to understanding medical information, treatment options, and being an active participant in healthcare decisions.

11. Environmental Literacy: Environmental literacy involves understanding ecological systems, climate change, and sustainable practices. It empowers individuals to make environmentally conscious choices and advocate for environmental protection.

In a rapidly changing world, these various literacies are interconnected and essential for holistic development. They equip students with the skills and knowledge to thrive, contribute positively to society, and address complex challenges in a meaningful and informed manner.

Manas: As the India representative in UNESCO’s International Sociological Association Research Committee on Education; you have closely worked in strengthening UNESCO’s educational research activities in India. Please tell us about this year’s theme of UNESCO; “Promoting literacy for a world in transition, building the foundation for sustainable and peaceful solutions”.

Pranay Aggarwal: UNESCO celebrates International Literacy Day (ILD) on September 8. This year’s theme — “Promoting Literacy for a World in Transition: Building the Foundation for Sustainable and Peaceful Solutions”– reflects the critical role that literacy plays in navigating the complex challenges of our rapidly changing world. The theme underscores the idea that literacy is not just a fundamental skill, but also a catalyst for positive transformation and the establishment of sustainable and peaceful societies.

Promoting Literacy for Transition: As the world undergoes rapid technological, economic, and social changes, literacy becomes an essential tool for individuals to adapt, innovate, and thrive. Literate individuals are better equipped to comprehend and embrace new ideas, technologies, and ways of thinking. They can navigate the digital landscape, critically evaluate information, and engage meaningfully in discussions about the transformations occurring around them.

Foundation for Sustainable Solutions: Literacy serves as the bedrock for sustainable development. A literate population is more capable of understanding and advocating for environmentally conscious practices, health and hygiene, and responsible citizenship. Literacy equips individuals with the knowledge and skills needed to address global challenges such as climate change, poverty, and inequality.

Contributing to Peaceful Solutions: Literacy is a powerful tool for fostering understanding, empathy, and communication. It enables individuals to express themselves, share experiences, and engage in constructive dialogue. In a world grappling with conflicts and divisions, literate individuals are more likely to seek peaceful resolutions, respect diversity, and contribute to social cohesion.

Empowerment and Inclusivity: Promoting literacy also empowers marginalised communities and ensures inclusivity. When everyone has access to education and literacy, it reduces disparities and contributes to a more equitable society. Empowering women and underserved groups through literacy creates a foundation for their active participation in decision-making and social progress.

In summary, this year’s UNESCO theme emphasises that literacy is not merely a means to an end, but a transformative force that empowers individuals and societies to navigate transitions, contribute to sustainable development, and work towards peaceful solutions. As the world faces numerous challenges and opportunities, literacy remains a crucial cornerstone for building a brighter future for all.

Manas: Can you suggest some attractive introductions for an essay on literacy and education?

Pranay Aggarwal: The introduction of an essay should aim to capture the reader’s attention, evoke curiosity, and set the stage for an engaging exploration of the essay topic. In the UPSC exam, the essay paper is one of the low hanging fruits. A good score of 125+ marks can be attained in the Essay paper if one approaches essay preparation and writing in the right way.

The essay introduction should be brief, simple and relevant. It should be engaging and powerful. Here are some different ways to begin essays on literacy and education:

1. Painting a Vivid Scene: “In the early morning light, a village comes to life with the sound of children’s laughter echoing through the air. They gather under the shade of a tree, eager faces aglow with anticipation, ready to embark on the journey of education – a voyage that begins with the first step into the realm of literacy.”

2. Setting a Historical Context: ” Throughout the annals of history, the journey of civilization has been guided by the ink-stained pages of literature. From ancient scrolls to digital tablets, the torch of enlightenment has been passed down through the generations.”

3. Opening with a Simple yet Thought-Provoking Question: “Imagine a world without letters, storybooks, pens and pencils. Will it also be a world with less magic, wonder, and adventure?”

4. Highlighting the Value of Learning: “In an era where information flows ceaselessly, where innovation reshapes industries overnight, and where the world evolves at a relentless pace, education emerges as the compass that guides us through the uncharted waters of knowledge and empowers us to navigate an ever-changing landscape.”

5. Foreground Education as a Lifelong Pursuit: “Education is not confined to the walls of a classroom or the span of a college degree; it is an enduring journey that accompanies us from cradle to grave. It is the lifelong pursuit of wisdom, the never-ending adventure of the mind.”

6. Starting with a Quotation: “The progress of any society depends on the progress of education in that society.” – Dr. B.R. Ambedkar or “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” – Nelson Mandela. These quotes encapsulate the essence of education as a catalyst for individual growth and societal advancement.

7. Using an Anecdote: “In the heart of a bustling city, a young child sat in awe, captivated by the spellbinding world hidden within the pages of a book. He is ready to embark on the magical journey of education, transcending boundaries and opening up new horizons.”

8. Invoking Curiosity: “Imagine a world where every mind is a fertile ground for ideas, every heart resonates with stories, and every voice is empowered to articulate thoughts. This is the world that education creates, a canvas of endless possibilities waiting to be explored.”

9. Call attention to a Contradiction: “In an age where information flowsabundantly, it is paradoxical that millions around the world are still barred from accessing the treasures of knowledge.”

10. Underscore Global Relevance: ” From bustling metropolises to remotest hamlets, from the physical classroom to the virtual realm, the pursuit of education unites people in a common endeavor – the quest for knowledge, growth, and a brighter future.”

11. Embracing Diversity: “In languages whispered across deserts and spoken amidst the clamor of cities, education weaves a tapestry that bridges cultures, transcends borders, and celebrates the rich diversity of human expression.”

In the upcoming parts on literacy we shall focus on questions such as:

— What is the power of literacy?

— How COVID 19 pandemic highlighted the peril of illiteracy?

— How adult illiteracy and child illiteracy differ in terms of challenges?

— What is the impact of this digital divide on education in India?

— What are India’s various initiatives towards increasing literacy rate, including education policies?

and many more points to ponder…

Previous topics on Society and Social Justice:

UPSC Essentials: Society & Social Justice | Population and associated issues (Part 1)

UPSC Essentials: Society & Social Justice | Population and associated issues (Part 2)

UPSC Essentials| Society & Social Justice — Urbanisation and associated issues (Part 1)

UPSC Essentials | Society & Social Justice : Urbanisation and associated issues (Part 2)

UPSC Essentials | Society & Social Justice : Urbanisation and associated issues (Part 3)

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Share your views, answers and suggestions in the comment box or at manas.srivastava@indianexpress.com. You can also post your doubts, questions, and suggest themes on topics related to Society and Social Justice.

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