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4 Aug, 2010 02:52

Despite economic growth, illiteracy entrenched in India

India is one of the world's fastest-growing and most powerful economies, but the workforce of tomorrow could prove to be an Achilles heel.

Millions of children are growing up illiterate. There's compulsory, free education – but going to class can also mean going without food.

Manish does not go to school because his parents simply cannot afford to send him.

He is one of 8 million children in India facing the same predicament.

Even though the government has made education free and compulsory for children under 14, the family cannot lose the income he makes as a rag picker.

“We have no money to teach our children,” said Surana Devi, Marish’s mother. “The government doesn't give us a livelihood, so the children have to help our family support itself. We spend the day trying to get food to eat. How can we educate our children?”

Even if Manish got access to education, this is what might well greet him.

In rural India, government schools often exist only on paper. They may be registered, but there may be no buildings or teachers.

“We have no books here, the children have no books to write on, there are no pencils to write with,” complained teacher Paritosh Kumar. “You can see the state of the board, it's very difficult teaching this way.”

It means many who attend school are barely able to read and write. For instance, RT correspondent Karan Singh asked 8-year-old Asha to recite the alphabet (not in her native language, it should be noted), and this is what she said: “A, B, C, D, E, F, G, H, O, P, S, H, T, N, L, M, O, V, S."

Seven out of 10 children in Delhi drop out when they turn 14.

“In many schools, especially municipal schools, teachers write the answers on the board, so there's no question of anybody failing,” said education expert Anouradha Bakshi. “It doesn't matter if you understand, don't understand. So the child will reach Class 6 and be totally unable to cope.”

To counter this, Anouradha has started a group to provide educational support in underprivileged areas. Project Why helps 700 students from Delhi's slums who are looking to supplement their government-provided education. 13-year old Tanuja likes mathematics and wants to be a banker when she grows up.

“I learn more here than in my school,” Tanuja told RT. “First of all, there the kids make a lot of noise so you can't hear anything, and also the schoolteacher doesn't explain things. Here I can ask my tutor many things, but in school before the teacher can explain, the class is over and the teacher vanishes.”

India is one of the youngest countries in the world, with over half its population under 25. While it may provide a workforce with an edge over countries with aging populations, access to education will be needed for all Indian children for the country to continue its economic growth story.