Fact and fictionGoing by the past records, there are reasons to doubt the claimed spike in adult literacy rate
Earlier this month, the Non-Formal Education Centre (NFEC) under the Ministry of Education (MoE) claimed that over 92 percent of our adult population—people between the ages of 15 to 60 years—can now read and write. After the announcement, almost all local media carried the news without raising any questions or doubt.
Newspapers further reported that because of the adult literacy classes run by the NFEC, 18 districts are now literate zones and 37 others are in the process of receiving illiteracy-free status. Baburam Poudel, the director of NFEC, has been quoted saying that the government aims to achieve 100 percent adult literacy by the end of this year.
If that is really true, then it is indeed good news and we should celebrate it. This is a commendable progress even though Nepal is not going to be a 100 percent literate society by the end of this year as the government claims to be ‘in the process of achieving’ that goal.
But can we take our government’s figures to be real, true and not fake like it used to be in the past?
Reasons for doubt
I cannot help but wonder if this claim of the MoE is indeed true. Is the ministry spinning lies Like the two swindlers in Christian Hans Anderson’s short story, Emperor’s New Clothes? Are they conducting adult literacy classes only on paper, registering fake names of students, and sharing money in the name of literary classes which never existed? And are the other actors involved in adult literacy in Nepal—like the Unesco, myriad of NGOs, political parties and their fraternal organisations—all involved in this massive corruption?
I am bound to ask these questions because this is what our adult literacy scene used to be like in the seventies. I certainly hope that things have changed for the better.
In 1977, I was involved in conducting an evaluation of the Adult Education programme in Nepal for the Centre of Nepal and Asian Studies. So while conducting field work in Kavre, Bhojpur, Dhankuta, and Dandeldhura, we found out that no adult literacy classes were running in those areas as claimed by the MoE that year, and that they had not been held in the previous years too.
The government was spending millions of rupees to produce adult literates and yet adult literacy classes were only being held on paper. Even so, the Education Ministry was supposedly producing new adult literates every year, producing new text books and spending millions of rupees in the process by employing an army of district education officers, supervisors, schools teachers and so on to conduct the adult literacy classes all over the country.
What we found out through our field studies was completely different.
A certain number of quotas worth a certain amount of money were received by the District Education Office (DEO) from the Adult Education Section (AES) of the MoE to promote adult literacy classes. The DEO was responsible for distributing these quotas to organisations and people who were interested and capable of running adult literacy classes in the area.
The DEO then distributed these quotas to school teachers, various organisations such as women’s organisation, and anyone else who claimed to be capable of teaching at least 20 interested students. More often than not, a school supervisor funded the teachers. But the DEO was usually not interested in adult education, either because he was well aware that it could not be effective under the prevailing conditions, or because he did not find it useful under any circumstances. We came across one DEO, who did not even find it necessary to keep an account of how the fund for adult education was being spent.
Moreover, the people who applied for the quota, in several cases, were usually not interested in making anyone literate. They simply took it because it was available and a small remuneration was offered at the end.
In exceptional cases, some people were assembled for the literacy classes, which at best lasted for a month or two. But mostly, no classes were conducted. Therefore, if a supervisor were to come for inspecting the classes, the teacher usually received a prior information and was able to assemble a miscellaneous group of people to act as participants for the occasion.
At the end of the stipulated six months, the teacher—the quota recipient—went to the DEO with a list of the names of the people claimed to have been made literate through their classes. These names usually lacked accompanying details, and adequate address, age, etc. and were as ambiguous and anonymous as possible.
In our field work, while checking the listed participants we found that the names belonged mainly to people who were either: (a) not living in that locality any longer; (b) attending lower secondary school; (c) already literate (these were usually Panchayat members who had acquired
literacy skills years ago); (d) listed as repeating the course every year (usually in the jail); (e) not adults (meaning less than 15 years of age); or dead.
Upon the submission of such a list of participants, the teacher was paid. In a few cases we even found out that the lists of registered students were not even required by the DEO and the teacher was paid without them.
The number of the so-called participants was then sent by the DEOs to the AES under the Education Ministry and these were the figures which were used in calculating the number of new adult literates produced that year. The number of new adult literates was a result of how much money was spent and not of how many new adults went to literacy classes and were then able to actually read and write. Therefore, the adult literacy campaign was a total failure, a sham in which the Education Ministry officials and everybody involved created a system of corruption to benefit themselves. This why when I read the new report from the NFEC, I wondered if things have changed today and whether I should celebrate the news or cry for the country.
Shrestha is a former lecturer at the Department of English, Tribhuvan University. He conducted a research on adult education for the Centre for Nepal and Asian Studies in 1977 (email@example.com)