THE remote administrative block of Jirania in west Tripura, with its mixed population of tribals and non-tribals, has, in a truly remarkable way, turned a large proportion of its population literate. This has been done under the Prabahaman Siksha Karma Suchi project of the Rajya Saksharata Mission (state literacy mission). Today, Jirania boasts of a literacy rate of 97 per cent. Not only is this higher than the state�s average of 82 per cent, it is also much higher than the national average figure of 61 per cent, reports Gautam Choudhury, Block Development Officer (BDO).
Of course, all the credit for this should go to the women, who have worked tirelessly for over a decade as volunteers of the Prabahaman Siksha Karma Suchi among the various communities of the region to highlight the importance of literacy. In fact, the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan, a Central Government programme for universal elementary education, has now become part of Jirania�s identity. Juhera Khatun, a volunteer from Ranir Bazar village, says: "If the mother is not literate, then her children will also remain illiterate. Without education a person is as good as blind. We took this project as a challenge. We gather the village women and teach them. Our classes start from 2 pm. I have been involved with the total literacy programme for a long time, and today we have almost achieved our target."
Jirania block has 43 villages where the project has been implemented as part of the state literacy mission. Every week, all the volunteers of the project from various villages hold a meeting, which is chaired by the BDO, to exchange notes on the different aspects of the programme. When the project was launched, there were around 19,442 illiterate people in the block. Today, this number has come down to 347, with many among them being either physically challenged or too old to come to the study centres.
There are around 100 such centres run by the state literacy mission across the block, and they are set up at popular places in the villages. Also, those villagers who are active participants in the project give their private space for evening classes. Over the years, the local women have motivated hundreds of uneducated people in the 15-50 age group to enrol themselves in the adult education centres that hold classes for school dropouts and illiterate people. Education has not just been restricted to the basics of reading and writing. In order to give the students a wider perspective, they are encouraged to talk about larger concerns, even national problems, and ways in which they could be addressed.
The first challenge the volunteers faced was to get the elderly, especially older women, to come to the study centres. The volunteers admit that it was far easier to motivate children and youngsters to study because their parents and guardians could be counted upon to send them to the centre in order to improve their future prospects. But when it came to the elderly, it was a different story. For one, they believed that they will not really benefit from such learning, and in any case the opportunity costs were far too high since most of them are employed and found it difficult to find the necessary time.
In the case of women, social taboos and the belief that they are better off within the four walls of their homes had also contributed significantly to the earlier levels of illiteracy. The volunteers also realised that the only way to increase the rate of enrolment in the literacy programmes was to introduce some kind of vocational training along with the regular teaching. Some of the literate members of the community, therefore, got together and made provision for the introduction of vocational training courses, like food packaging, tailoring and stitching, which were then imparted free of cost.
Now, for instance, the women of Bridhdhanagar village package and sell pineapple jam (Tripura is well-known across the globe for its pineapple products). Another move that has contributed to the sharp rise in the literacy level in this block was the one made by local panchayats to make it mandatory for villagers working under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) to sign their names rather than settle for thumb impressions while collecting their wages. This Central scheme guarantees 100 days of work to the unemployed. Observes Renu Saha (32), a teacher at an adult education centre in Ranir Bazar village: "At this government centre, it is largely the poor and illiterate from the surrounding regions who come to learn. Our centre is open from two to four in the afternoon to make it convenient for most people, especially women." Thanks to these sustained efforts to gradually dismantle all the roadblocks to total literacy, everybody�not just the men�began to attend the numerous study centres in Jirania regularly, some making it a point to be present at class even if it meant bringing their children along. They have also discovered many additional gains from their newfound literacy. For instance, now that they themselves are able to read and write, they can help their children to acquire these skills. States Samba Laxmi Debbarma (28), a tribal student from Colagesura village, with pride: "Since our tribal communities are backward, many of us are still illiterate. Realising this, I joined this centre. Now, not only can I read and write, I can also do maths and count money. People can no longer make a fool of me by giving me a sum of Rs 10 and getting my thumb impression on a piece of paper that mentions a bigger amount. Now that I am literate, I can read for myself."
Over the years, many more women from the poor and backward sections of society have come to believe that education is their fundamental right and have enrolled in the local study centres. This change in mindsets will go a long way in helping them overcome the severely debilitating effect of poverty and deprivation. The people of Jirania have shown the way. Many poor and illiterate communities in the rest of the country can learn from the example set by this little known block in distant Tripura. � WFS