How almost everyone in Kerala learned to read

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.

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.

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.

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."

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