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NEP 2020: India’s portal to achieve universal literacy

A look at the provisions included in National Education Policy (NEP 2020) to revamp the education sector to ensure quality education and universal literacy

September 09, 2022 / 01:02 PM IST
(Representational image: Yannis H via Unsplash)

(Representational image: Yannis H via Unsplash)

International Literacy Day 2022 is an apt time to review the provisions that the National Education Policy (NEP) 2020 has made towards building on past efforts into achieving universal literacy in India. The National Literacy Mission launched in 1988, now known as the Saakshar Bharat Programme (SBP) and run by the National Literacy Mission Authority, has made creditable progress. The average literacy rate since independence has grown from a pitifully small 18.33 percent in 1951 to 74.04 percent as per the 2011 Census. Despite this, India still remains the country with the largest number of illiterates, with the Census 2011 putting the count to be approximately 287 million.

National Literacy Mission

The National Literacy Mission (NLM) defines literacy as “acquiring the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic and the ability to apply them to one’s day-to-day life”. As per the mission document, to be “functionally literate” implies (i) self-reliance in the 3 R’s (reading, writing, and arithmetic), (ii) awareness of the causes of deprivation and the ability to move towards amelioration of their condition by participating in the process of development, (iii) acquiring skills to improve economic status and general well-being, and (iv) imbibing values such as national integration, conservation of the environment, women’s equality, observance of small family norms.

UNESCO has also gone beyond the conventional definition and literacy is now understood as “a means of identification, understanding, interpretation, creation, and communication in an increasingly digital, text-mediated, information-rich and fast-changing world”—an understanding that is also espoused by NEP 2020.

A working definition of literacy in the Indian Census as of 1991 has been the count of the number of literate persons above the age of seven as a percentage of the population above the same age. The National Sample Survey 75th round  (July 2017- June 2018), in which only persons in the age group of 7 to 35 years have been surveyed, estimates the average literacy rate in this age group to be 77.7 percent. There is a large rural-urban divide with the average rates being 73.5 percent and 87.7 percent respectively, and an equally large divide between men and women, the gap being as large as 16.5 percent in rural areas and nearly 10 percent in urban areas.


Only 65 percent of rural women in this age group are literate, relative to 81.5 percent or rural men and over 92 percent of urban men. As is well known, there are also considerable geographical variations and these are not only due to a lack of access to educational facilities in rural areas but also due to caste and other disparities.

UNESCO’s announcement for the celebration of International Literacy Day 2022, notes there are as many as 771 million illiterate people around the world, most of whom are women, who still lack basic reading and writing skills and are faced with increased vulnerability. Nearly 24 million learners out of which 11 million are projected to be girls and young women might never return to formal education, due to the pandemic.

The theme chosen for International Literacy Day 2022, ‘Transforming Literacy Learning Spaces’, is an opportunity to rethink the fundamental importance of literacy learning spaces to build resilience and ensure quality, equitable, and inclusive education for all. The UNESCO announcement also says that in order to ensure that no one is left behind, we need to “enrich and

transform the existing learning spaces through an integrated approach and enable literacy learning in the perspective of lifelong learning”.

These observations by UNESCO tie in exceedingly well with NEP 2020 which makes ‘equitable and inclusive access to quality education for all’ the central theme, and the attainment of universal literacy an aspirational goal. One of the key recommendations of NEP 2020 is to create school complexes, spaces that are well-resourced and can be shared by several schools, and then make these same spaces and resources available to youth and adults after school hours. The policy document states that all communities and educational institutions – schools, colleges, universities, and public libraries – will be strengthened and modernized to ensure an adequate supply of books that cater to the needs and interests of all students, including persons with disabilities and other differently-abled persons.

Other steps mentioned in NEP 2020 include strengthening all existing libraries, setting up rural libraries, and reading rooms in disadvantaged regions, making reading material in Indian languages attractive looking and widely available, opening children’s libraries and mobile libraries, establishing book clubs across India across subjects, and fostering greater collaborations between education institutions and libraries. All shared spaces—schools, school complexes, public libraries, special purpose Adult Education Centres (AECs) etc. will be ICT-equipped and will be used for community engagement and enrichment activities. Technology-based options for adult learning such as apps, online courses/modules, satellite-based TV channels, online books, and ICT-equipped libraries and AECs, will be developed. These enhancements will also enable quality adult education to be conducted in an online or blended mode.

Education For Adults

In the past, the NLM and the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) have been the primary vehicles of the government for achieving universal literacy rates. The NEP is also tackling the challenge of lack of access to opportunities for education across the age spectrum—for young children as well as for youth and adults. For instance, it is bringing children between the ages of 3-6 into the fold of formal education and is putting considerable emphasis on every child attaining foundational literacy and numeracy (FLN) by the age of eight. It has an equally strong emphasis on early childhood care and education (ECCE), and many prescriptions for ensuring that all children remain in school until Class 12 so that the scourge of school dropouts is overcome completely. In this article, we focus on adult education.

As stated in NEP 2020, extensive field studies and analyses, both in India and across the world, clearly demonstrate that volunteerism and community involvement and mobilisation are key success factors of adult literacy programmes, in conjunction with political will, organisational structure, proper planning, adequate financial support, and high-quality capacity building of educators and volunteers.

The document goes on to say that all efforts will be undertaken to ensure the participation of community members in adult education. Social workers/ counsellors travelling through their communities to track and ensure participation of non-enrolled students and school dropouts will be requested to also gather data of parents, adolescents, and others interested in adult education opportunities, as learners and as teachers/tutors, during their travels. They will then connect these aspirants with local Adult Education Centres (AECs). Opportunities for adult education will also be widely publicised, through advertisements and announcements and events and initiatives of NGOs and other local organisations.

A central aspect of NEP implementation is the work that is currently underway on creating new National Curriculum Frameworks (NCF). Of the four curriculum frameworks that are being prepared, one of them is an outstanding adult education curriculum framework.

The NEP 2020 document states that the curriculum framework for adult education will include at least five types of programmes, each with clearly defined outcomes: (a) foundational literacy and numeracy; (b) critical life skills (including financial literacy, digital literacy, commercial skills, health care and awareness, child care and education, and family welfare); (c) vocational skills development (with a view towards obtaining local employment); (d) basic education (including preparatory, middle, and secondary stage equivalency); and (e) continuing education (including engaging holistic adult education courses in arts, sciences, technology, culture, sports, and recreation, as well as other topics of interest or use to local learners, such as more advanced material on critical life skills). The framework is expected to be ready within the next year.

The NEP 2020 recommends that the adult education curriculum framework be prepared to keep in mind the fact that adults will require different teaching-learning methods and materials than those designed for children as will instructors/ educators who will be specially trained for the purpose. The instructors/ educators will be recruited and trained by the national, state, and district-level resource support institutions to organise and lead learning activities at specially created Adult Education Centres (AECs), as well as coordinate with volunteer instructors. Qualified community members including some from HEIs, as part of each HEI’s mission to engage with their local communities, will be encouraged and welcomed to take a short training course and volunteer to serve as adult literacy instructors or as one-on-one tutors.

They will be recognised for their critical service to the nation. The steep increase in literacy rates during the NLM owed a lot to the participation of large numbers of volunteers and the support of the people. State governments are also expected to work with NGOs and other community organisations to enhance efforts toward literacy and adult education.

The stage has been set by NEP 2020 for closing the gap toward universal literacy. It remains to be seen if the implementation can leverage its provisions to deliver on the promise.

(This article first appeared in the ORF.)

Leena Chandran Wadia is Senior Fellow at ORF’s Mumbai Centre. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.
Leena Chandran Wadia is Senior Fellow at ORF’s Mumbai Centre. Views are personal and do not represent the stand of this publication.
first published: Sep 9, 2022 01:00 pm
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