Editor's Guest Column

India’s literacy rate is 77.7 percent. In 2017, UNESCO Global Education Monitoring’s report mentioned that the country has over 26.6 crore adults and 3.3 crore young population who are unable to read. This is quite a brimming situation to deal with if we want to become global power as the uneducated population leads to low economic growth and lower GDP due to low monetary contribution. Hence it is important we educate them, empower and encourage them to emerge powerful and contribute with pride. One of the main reasons for these large uneducated population is the lesser focus of the government and bureaucrats towards imparting education to them and on the other hand the lack of vernacular schools or alternate ways of educating them are missing from the entire ecosystem.

Though through the recent National Education Policy, the government has tried to address the gap between education and medium of imparting (vernacular) shifting the focus from just English, there is a bigger need for alternate methods of education like night schools. Since the first night school in India was established in 1885 by social reformer Mahatma Jyotiba Phule in Mumbai, and Maharashtra saw many night schools spread across the country. However, today these night schools are left in darkness and need magical touch for revival. Nikita Ketkar, an ex-IAS executive, left her lucrative job to provide that magical touch through her venture Masoom. I spoke to her in length about the grim situation of night schools in India, what need to be done and how we need more organizations like Masoom.

You left your childhood dream to incept Masoom. What led to this change of vision?

I have always been interested in the education space. After UPSC, which was my childhood dream, I got into defense civil services and served at Delhi for four years and then came back to Mumbai on deputation. But after a few years of service, I was very keen to get back to the field as there was too much bureaucracy and you don’t have much contact in the development sector. As I was more keen about the education sector, I started volunteering in Mumbai. That is when I came across night schools meant mostly for working students who cannot go to day schools. The beautiful part was that in spite of tough days & hard work, these students are self-motivated and want to achieve something in their life.

But when I saw that the practical classes are being taught on the blackboard, I was just shocked at the quality of education. But their enthusiasm to study prompted me to do something, to provide them access to quality education. Hence I taught of talking to couple of stake holders, headmaster associations and several night school students. I then realized that there is so much to be done. The so called night schools are unique to Maharashtra started to take care of adult education and students who have migrated. If not for night schools, the adults and adolescents wouldn’t have had the chance to get educated at all.

As you mentioned that night schools are in a healthy-state, what all needs to be done to fix the nuts & bolts?

Not just giving the best to these students but also ensuring that the night schools survive. After I resigned, I was very serious of doing something and hence did a research in 2007 about night schools. It is then that I realized that many of the night schools were on the verge of dying down due to lack of fund and support although the government provide the necessary aids for teachers’ salary. But these schools are owned by private trusts who are not eager to financially support the schools as there is not return or benefit for them.

But my intension was to provide these students the best of the education and hence in 2008 I started Masoom as a pilot project in two schools based on my research. Today there are several organizations that help incubate & support such ideas. They found our idea interesting and decided to help us develop the proposal and even connect with the donors. But as Paulo Coelho said, “And, when you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”. So it happened with Masoom. We got all the support we needed. Today our whole intervention is around ensuring that schools get the required resources that are missing. For instance just like mid-day meals, we introduced evening meals, we created labs & several materials. These materials were created keeping in mind that the students who come to night schools are mostly the secondary school students and have come to school after a gap of years. So sometimes we need to start with the very basic. Our foundation courses help bridge this gap. We also realized that we needd an academic team to create these courses, and hence created the team of experts. We also created the main curriculum and even trained the teachers apart from the e-learning materials. As many students come for limited hours, our e-learning materials help them learn anytime, anywhere.

Till date we have enrolled over 5000 students and empowered them to better their life. We have even enrolled grandparents who not just study with their grandchildren but have scored even higher than them. Now we are working on strengthening these institutions so that they doesn’t die down. We are on an expansion spree and have signed an MOU with the government of Gujarat to create around five centres there for adolescents and adults. However, what is important is not just providing them education but life skills and leadership qualities. We also help our students not just pass the exams but to get placed in better jobs apart from teaching them life skills and leadership programs.

There is a large number of illiterate people who if educated will add more towards strengthening the economy. How can this be achieved as just educating them isn’t enough?

The night school students are already working as domestic help, courier boy or in other jobs earning nearly Rs.7000-8000 per month on an average. But now the idea is to get them into the organized sector and lead them to their dream job. This requires skilling and leadership qualities to not just enter the sector but to sustain and win there. Hence we established Career Cell to empower them and ensure they earn better and simultaneously contribute towards the economy growth.

On the other hand, we had not emphasized on leadership qualities till date as we felt that education will provide them the necessary fodder. But we were wrong. Hence we conduct small leadership sessions apart from skilling support to provide them life lessons. We have even tied up with other NGOs and organizations to provide them the first-hand entrepreneurial and work experience. One of our batch of 30 students are working under Rakshak program, which is a leadership program intended to develop life skills when dealing with real life issues. For instance, one of our students saved a nine year old girl who went missing for several days by posting on various social media platforms, moving across the city to find clues and then finding her with the help of the police. We are proud of such Rakshaks. This also helps them be a responsible citizen more than just an ordinary one.

That’s great! But do you see the government playing a part or providing helping hand to organizations like yours to curb the illiteracy rate in the country? What support or help do the organizations need from the government?

As per the 75th round household survey by NSSO in 2017-18, the number of out of school children in the age group of six to 17 years is 3.22 crore. And through the New Education Policy, the government is addressing this challenge to educate them through alternative models. The need of the hour is to provide them an ecosystem, whether formal or informal, and give them the flexibility of open schools and the power to choose their subjects.

The next big thing the government has done is to provide them the option to learn in their mother tongue or the language of their choice, which is almost on the verge of dying due to the growing preference of English medium schools. But this move will ensure that vernacular schools will get a new lease of life, however this needs investment and commitment. This won’t happen overnight though, as we need to develop good infrastructure, curriculum and even teachers. They have to pull up the socks, and collaborate with NGOs but in a more concrete manner.

As there are plenty of resources and infrastructure available, the government just have to ensure they are utilized in the most productive manner. Gujarat is one such state that is working proactively in this field. And other governments and bureaucrats need to come up with such initiatives and lead the way forward.