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How almost everyone in Kerala learned to read

By Nachammai RamanContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / May 17, 2005


At the Janaranjini preschool in the state of Kerala in rural southern India, children aren't building castles in the sand. Instead, as they sit cross-legged in front of a thin layer of sand, they are learning the fundamentals of reading and math.

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Three-year old V. S. Madhav twirls letters of his native Malayalam - the language of Kerala - into the sand with his left forefinger while his classmate, 4-year old Neethu Saji, writes Arabic numerals more quickly than her teacher can call them out.

"I also learned like this. My father also like this," says N. Revindhran. Mr. Revindhran is a volunteer at the public library that runs this preschool, locally referred to as a kalari. "This is the ancient model [of schooling]," Revindhran explains.

Education in Kerala represents a success story that many nations might wish to emulate.

Kerala, located in the southern tip of India, is an agrarian state with a per capita income of only $265. Yet its literacy rate of 91 percent puts it closer to the United States than to any other Indian state. (The national literacy rate in India is 65 percent.)

Kerala was the first state in India to declare total literacy in one town in 1989, and subsequently, total literacy in a whole region in 1990. India's National Literacy Mission declared total literacy in the whole state of Kerala on April 18, 1991.

"Literacy is a prerequisite for social development," says P.K. Ravindran, a former president of the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad, a group that gave a push to the state's literacy movement in the 1980s. "Without literacy you cannot go forward."

In Kerala, commitment to education pervades society. About 37 percent of the state's annual budget goes to education. The state supports 12,271 schools. There's an elementary school within two miles of every settlement.

Even when times are tough, education is the last item the Kerala government will cut. "Traditionally, we've always been funding education. The social demand is there. If we make budget cuts now, there'll be agitation from the people," says A. Ajith Kumar, director of public instruction in Trivandrum, the capital of Kerala.

The roots of Kerala's literacy culture can be traced back at least to the Hindu rulers of the 19th century. The Queen of Trivandrum issued a royal decree in 1817 that said, "The state should defray the entire cost of the education of its people in order that there might be no backwardness in the spread of enlightenment." She hoped education would make her people "better subjects and public servants."

The kings of Cochin also built public schools and promoted elementary education.

Christian missionaries gave a further boost to education by setting up schools for the poor and oppressed, bypassing traditions that had allowed only high-caste Indians to attend school.