How almost everyone in Kerala learned to read
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In the early 20th century, social reformers in the region continued the drive for education for the lower castes and for girls. All of this gave Kerala a head start and by 1961 the state had double the literacy rate of the rest of India: 55 percent compared with the Indian average of 28 percent.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Ravindran says land-reform measures established after the state of Kerala was formed in 1956 also contributed to the success of its literacy movement. "When every family owns a piece of land, no matter how small, they have a sense of belonging," he says. "Then they can plan for the future, and education of their children becomes a part of that planning."
He attributes lower levels of literacy in some other Indian states to the lack of effective land rights for the poor. "If you live by the roadside, what tomorrow do you have to think about?"
Even now in Kerala, coastal fishing communities and hill tribes, both itinerant, lag behind because their school dropout rate is nearly three times that of the overall dropout rate of 1.5 percent. The government has set up special schools to bridge the gap.
While literacy rates in Kerala had outstripped those in other Indian states for some decades, it wasn't until the late 1980s that the Kerala Sastra Sahitya Parishad - a regional group originally organized as an association of science writers - embraced the cause of total literacy. Ravindran recalls the strategy of public persuasion that the group employed.
"At that time Ernakulam [a district in Kerala] had 76 percent literacy. So we said to the literate, 'It is your social responsibility to make your brother or sister literate.' To take away the feeling of charity, we said to the illiterate, 'It is your right to become literate. You should demand it from society.' "
The Kerala government has also focused on adult education, spending $7.4 million to open 3,500 adult continuing education centers between 1998 and 2003.
Despite Kerala's education successes, the region has not yet been able to provide its literate population with enough work. Kerala has a rural employment rate of 11.6 percent and an urban employment rate of 12.2 percent, according to an economic review published by the Kerala government in 2003.
"Ninety percent of the people go out of Kerala to find jobs," says K. Deepa, a computer-science teacher at a college in the town of Muvattupuzha.
But education allows many from Kerala to find work elsewhere - in other Indian states, the Middle East, and the US. The money they send back home forms the backbone of Kerala's economy. Literacy has become the state's chief asset.
That makes parents in Kerala keenly aware of the value of learning. As a result, they are ready to make sacrifices to educate their young.
"We spend only on necessities," says C. B. Jayachandran, father of a Janaranjini preschooler. "Everybody in the community is ambitious to educate their children."
K. A. Babu, father of a 9-year-old girl at a government elementary school in Kolani, raises his hand way above his head to show how far he's willing to educate her. "To the ultimate level."