Is ecology a constraint on female literacy?

Published: Sunday 15 November 1992

"ONE BY one each of the girls answered my questions. What was their name and age? What do they do during the day? What do their parents do? Had they ever been to school and for how long? The children were remarkably articulate. Half of the children had been to school for one year or less, a few had completed two years of school. Only one girl had completed the third standard. A few of the children work for wages but most were at home helping their mothers. They look after their younger siblings. They fetch water and firewood and care for the cattle. Since their mothers often work, many of the children prepare the main meals for the entire family. "I asked whether they would have liked to remain in school. All but two girls raised their hand. (They explained) they left school at the request of their mothers. I asked the children if they would keep their own daughters in school. All of them raised their hands. "But what would you do," I asked, "if you had to work and needed your eldest daughter to take care of your younger children?" "I would send my babies to my mother-in-law," said one girl. "We could have a creche," said another, "and we could have someone watch over all the children." "Who would take care of the cattle?" I asked. "We could bring the cattle together," another girl replied, "and hire someone to look after them." The children clearly did not regard their parents' decision about their schooling as choiceless."
-- Myron Weiner, The Child and the State in India

THESE are telling paragraphs from Myron Weiner's passionate and damning indictment of the government of India and the Indian elite for its abysmal performance on the literacy front. India has the unenviable record of being the single largest producer of the world's illiterates. It has one of the highest rates of child labour in the world, one of the lowest rates in school attendance, and a literacy rate that has fallen behind most of the developing world. Even poor countries have been able to surpass India's record in primary education.

Weiner's argument is essentially that the Indian elite does not care. It uses its problems as its justification for inaction. And all that is needed is political will to implement compulsory education. The imperative of modernisation and the need for social justice demand that this be done.

There can be no doubt that Weiner is right. But, equally, getting Indian children into school and keeping them there, especially young girls, is not going to be an easy task. Indian children play an important role in the survival economy of their households. The work burden on them is very high, delegated to them by their hard-pressed parents. This work pressure cannot disappear overnight.

A number of factors are responsible for this extraordinary work burden on women and children. One of the most important is environmental destruction and the resulting low biomass productivity. There is not enough data to build up a nationwide picture of women's work burden and how it is changing over time. But energy studies do show that it is worst in those areas where forests have disappeared or receded and agriculture has remained poor. This situation prevails today in several hill and mountain regions and in arid and semi-arid plains.

For instance, studies show gathering firewood and fetching water in the semi-arid parts of Karnataka, Gujarat and Rajasthan can account for as much as 9 hours daily. By contrast, a study showed a far smaller work burden on women in Kerala because of its rich tropical climatic conditions.

Much credit has been given for all this to the work and foresight of Christian missionaries, of erstwhile Travancore maharajas and of Left governments that have ruled the state. Without their enlightened initiative, it is clear that the state could not have become India's most literate. But it would be useful to investigate whether their efforts would have succeeded if Kerala's environment was not rich and green, and women's work burden was as high as in Gujarat, Rajasthan or the Uttar Pradesh Himalaya. For, even if girls in Kerala could get to school because such facility was available, would they be able to stay on there?

There is clearly a need to investigate the link between environment and female literacy. A woman's work burden varies in the different agroecosystems of India. This should be mapped in detail and the factors increasing the burden need to be identified. It would be possible then to design environmental regeneration, economic and educational programmes taking these factors into account and thereby assist female literacy.

The children that Weiner interviewed had their own solution: cooperative efforts to take care of all the daily survival functions that kept them out of school, ranging from child care to cattle grazing. Educationists may not care to organise cattle grazing cooperatives, but a detailed analysis may show that this, along with rapid forest regeneration, is the best way to improve literacy.

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