A Study in Social Mobilization and Innovation in India

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Pratham is one of the leading Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) in India, working at the forefront of Socio-Economic development by having an umbrella of development programs under its belt. It was setup in 1994 to provide education to slum children in Mumbai. From then till now, it has grown into a mammoth organization, often cited as the biggest NGO in India. Its core focus remains the improving the life of the underprivileged children in rural and urban India.

The Read India Project:

Pratham's flagship program, Read India, helps to improve the reading, writing and basic arithmetic skills of the children in the age group of 6-14 years. Even though India has made significant strides in improving the enrollment levels of the children, a lot still needs to be done as far as the learning levels are concerned. Read India was therefore launched on a national scale in 2007 to help achieve the following objectives:   

All Std I children know at least alphabets & numbers.

All Std II children can read at least words & do simple sums.

All Std III-V children can at least read simple texts fluently & confidently solve arithmetic problems.

Various surveys and the statistics they result in have gone on to show that the Govt. Schools in India have not proved effective enough in producing desired qualities in its students. High dropout ratio remains a perennial problem. Especially in the field of primary education, despite various govt. schemes to bring about changes in the grim scenario, fact remained that as of 2003, out of 100 kids, 89 entered primary school. Yet, 40% of them dropped out before completing primary education. Of the remaining, 30% dropped out till they reached middle school. Thus, though India as a nation claims 64% literacy, nearly 80% of her young citizens are not able to complete elementary education. On an average 50% of school going children in government schools do not know the 3 R's even after four years of schooling. This fact derived from a national survey, displayed a very grim reality that needed some intervention.

The Read India Project was a response to the problem. It basically aimed at enabling the school children to learn to read in a limited time frame. Of course, this initiative started with such a basic mission, with long term aims associated with it to follow once the first step had proven successful.

The Beginning:

The dismal results of the Govt. Schools which the poor slum children attended pointed to one important factor: The way the Govt. teachers approached the teaching had something inherently wrong in it. Not unlike what Paulo Freire mentioned in his masterpiece on education and pedagogy,"The Pedagogy of the Oppressed", was the approach of the teachers in these schools. Rather than treating kids with the love and care that they deserve, the teachers always ended up forming the image of an oppressor. The knowledge exchange process in these schools was never in the form of a dialogue. Learning was being enforced on the children who did not have any visible incentive to take it. Neither these teachers were displaying any form of leadership behavior which could inspire the children into learning. In this scenario, Pratham made an experiment to find out, what they referred to as, a 'magic wand', a practical method to involve the children in their own development process. Over the years, they had been engaged in training children who were either out of school, or in school but unable to afford private tuitions. Based on the learning derived from their work with these kids in various city slums like Mumbai, Ahmadabad etc they took up an opportunity to experiment in 6 new cities in Maharashtra based under funding by the Ballarpur Industries. They identified 10 young women and two young men community leaders who had been engaged in teaching the Mumbai slum kids hitherto. In each of the 6 towns selected, they chose more such community leaders. They were given the basic aim to focus on qualitative achievement in learning among children. This whole team was asked to meet once every 20 days to share their experiences and learning over a period of 10 days and design new strategies.

A Chance Discovery That Set The Fire:

The very first innovation the team chanced upon was a surprising success in their ability to teach mathematics to these children. The basic methodology was to abandon the sequential method of learning mathematics. Traditionally, children are taught numbers, followed by addition-subtraction followed by the concept of units and tens etc. The team instead came up with an integrated activity to go about teaching math: rather than their being a formal teacher teaching the kids mathematics in a classroom with a proper blackboard and chalk, one of these community leader took them to playgrounds/backyards and engaged them in a game. They were not told any concepts to begin with. The game involved asking the children to make a bundle of 10 straws while counting them. They were supposed to work with these bundles based on rules of the game which essentially were mathematical concepts of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, only the kids were not told they were being taught. Emphasis was put on their critical reason skills. Results were surprising: It took less than a month for children to learn numbers and basic mathematical operations which would otherwise take months in a formal setup. This first success made Pratham confident to carry on further experiments.

A noteworthy point here is that in these 'games', the instructors were not university educated formally trained teachers. The locally chosen 'community leaders' were young men and women who had not graduated (sometimes they had not even completed their graduation) from these local Govt. schools. Their own education foundation was found to be weak many a times and they learnt for the sake of these children who they did not want falling in the same trap as they had. It was often the motivation that these community leaders carried that pushed them to bring out such enthusiastic atmosphere of learning that they created for the kids. The children on their part could identify with these young men and women who did not come across as oppressors but friends teaching them a game they could enjoy.

Source: www.pratham.org

Further Leads:

Fresh from the success of the reading program, the Pratham team next decided to tackle the problem of reading with these children. A story book based on the life of the legendary Maratha leader Shivaji was made. These children were already aware of the stories in their school textbook. Apart from that, they had heard this storied recounted many times in their households as well. The task given to them was to read these stories as a group based activity. The inherent structure of the story book was that each page of the story book involved an increasing number of consonants and vowels: beginning with 6 consonants and 3 vowels in a page and incrementing regularly as the story progressed.

Ralegaon block of Yeotmal district and other locations in Maharashtra came up with good result in these experiments. After a period of 4 months, this model of reading was replicated by Pratham Gujarat, where the story of the movie "Lagaan" was chosen as the theme of the story book with the consonant-vowel pattern remaining the same. Later, in September 2002, a traditional chart referred to as 'barakhadi' was used to enhance reading abilities of children. This method had been successful in West Bengal and Bangladesh and was suggested to Pratham by Prof. Jalaluddin, an expert in the field of Literacy.

The Barakhadi Chart used by Prof. Jalaluddin (source: www.kiransoft.com)

The conclusion from the success of both these experiments was that the process of learning takes place under two important circumstance:

The student is allowed to involve his natural thinking abilities in the learning process. In both the experiments, the activities had implicit interconnections which the children were not beforehand. In both cases they succeeded in making these connections on their own which lead to the development of their skills.

Motivation is an important factor in learning. The leanings would have been not as effective had the community leaders, i.e. the youth teachers were not as motivated in bringing about a change in these children. In the process they derived self-learning at a lot faster rate as well.

Increasing the Scale of the Project:

Once these initial successes were seen in the state of Maharashtra and Gujarat, the need was felt to spread it on a nationwide scale. Though the technique itself was not perfected in isolation. Apart from Maharashtra and Gujarat, Delhi and Patna were also part of the location where these experiments were carried out in a similar fashion. However, spreading it on a mass scale was a big challenge. Pratham, due to its good track record had always shared a good rapport with the Govt. of India. It wanted to push these methods to be adopted by the Govt. of India especially as the Govt. had then recently launched the 'Sarva Siksha Abhiyan': a move to ensure universal elementary education by 2010.

The basic goals Pratham kept in mind before it went large scale were the following:

A complete mastery over the techniques by all Pratham groups located in different parts of the country so that they gain confidence over the methods and replicates it easily.

From Policy-makers to Parents, the need was to take them into confidence by sharing the excitement of the new methods. Unless popular support is achieved, it's not possible for an idea or a project to achieve mass acceptance.

The level of comfort with the technique should be such that any Pratham volunteer can teach it to a poorly skilled instructor in a slum or a rural area for eventually; they will be the resource person who will carry forward the mission.

Once the initial phase is successful, i.e. the children are able to read, it should be followed by providing ten with good books that can feed their new-found talent. Lack of good reading material will result in a relapse into the old habit of perceiving reading as a boring activity which would make the entire process of teaching them to learn futile. Thus a source of good books has to be ensured for the effort to be sustainable.

The phase of learning to read must be followed by the next level of reading in order to learn and acquire necessary knowledge to succeed in academics.

The Concept of Social Auditing:

An important concept Pratham came up with in order to ensure the success of its programme in this phase was the concept of Social Auditing.

Social Auditing involved the result of the teaching process, i.e. improvement in the reading and math ability of the kids to be shown to the parents and other community persons. This had multiple benefits.

Firstly, it made the community realize that the ability to read is something that can actually be acquired in a short time with the right kind of teaching technique and thus, they would become supporters in promoting the idea.

Secondly, it would result in introducing an element of accountability in the school system. If 21 days is enough to bring such transformation, 4 years of schooling is definitely capable of bringing more positive changes in the children. Once the parents believe this, they will stop seeing sending their children as a futile activity and on the contrary, want to promote their children to go to school regularly.

Thirdly, this step would create a sense of responsibility amongst the Pratham volunteers so that they would not resort to making false report of progress to gain a good incentive. Infect, the very fact that they would have to undergo routine evaluation will keep them motivated to try and be sincere and consistent in their work.

From January 2003 to June 2003, Pratham successfully trained 155,500 children with the ability to read. A breakdown of the cost involved in this massive effort is as follows:

Instructor's Salary Per Child: Rs.25

Teaching Learning Material per Child : Rs. 10

Cost of Space: Nil ( Provided by Community)

Additional Cost of Training, Supervision, Evaluation etc Per Child: Rs. 50

So overall there is a cost of Rs 100 per child. It's been targeted that once taken up by school, other costs will come down drastically and an average of Rs 10 per child is all it will take.

The Process of Transfer of Knowledge for a Mass Scale Spread of Read India Project:

Detailed notes were created listing procedures, do's and don'ts. Workshops were held at different centers of Pratham located nationwide to explain key points. The basic objective remained just one: Let the Children Learn in a time-bound setting. This simple shift from open ended teaching learning to time bound result oriented learning was simple in its approach but often took time to sink in for many instructors used to a teacher-centric approach to education. However, overall response was enthusiastic. Even those who did not respond with full enthusiasm were told to change their perspective and try again with a fresh set of values. The result of this whole exercise came back in April. The results were not even across region. The basic hindrance was the inability of many instructor to understand the simple basic concept: Do not teach. Let the Children Learn. Nonetheless, the number of children who did not know the alphabet changed from 33% to 5.6 % post the intervention. Results in cities like Delhi, Jaipur, Thane, some parts of Maharashtra were highly encouraging with 95% children who learnt how to read. Such results could not have been achieved with the old learning methods.

The common characteristic at all these locations where such highly encouraging results were obtained was the involvement of local people in the evaluation process under the social audit scheme. This inclusion of the masses in evaluation turned out to be the major advocacy tool that impacted governments at different locations.

Opportunities provided by summer vacations were utilized to further the campaign. A summer workshop of 4-6 weeks was organized in different locations in North and Western India with an aim to teach the children to read by the time the school re-opened after summer vacation. Taking the case of Ahmadabad in particular, a total of 6000 children participated. At the end of the camp, which lasted only 3 weeks, 55% children ended up in the reading category. A point of note here was the fact that this camp was purely volunteer based with professionals, students, Ngo activists participating in the process in the capacity of teachers. Their involvement was achieved through a system of promotion which mobilized them into providing such self-less and motivated volunteer action. The actual members of Pratham displayed a Primary Leadership role in catalyzing the masses to offer these services by inspiring confidence in them at being part of a revolutionary process of bettering the education system of the country and making direct influence to the lives of many children. Their leadership function involved not just displaying their skills in getting people together, but also in creating a pool of potential leaders. The basic aim of this exercise being to create a snowball effect that will spread the mission of Read India all over the country in a sustainable way.

This was the phase of Read India where it could be categorized in the mobilization phase where a in terms of ideology, leadership style and strategy pattern, it conformed to all the basic characteristics found in any movement before it has settled down to the phase of an Institution. Its promotion centered on creating mass appeal, centered on the issue of deprivation in the field of education that needed instant remedy. The stress was basically on collective participation as the size of the project was too huge for Pratham to carry it on without involving people. All the volunteers were communicated the ideology of the mission with a great zeal. Unlike the Institution phase, there was no exclusive and defined boundary for inclusion of volunteers; rather an open-arm approach was adopted.

These strategies resulted in fantastic results not just in Ahmadabad but in summer programs arranged in Jaipur, Jodhpur, Kishangarh, Delhi and Patna too. Following data tables display the results of the summer camps in these cities:

An interesting off shoot of the above successes has been the result of holding similar camps in remands homes and observation homes run by government. The time taken to implement this rapid learning technique in these centers was found to be two to three weeks on an average. This prompted the Maharashtra Govt. to take help of Pratham in setting up such camps in all its remand homes in Maharashtra.

Implementation of the model in Govt. Schools:

Under the Balsakhi (Friend of The Children) Program, children between grade 3 to grade 4 in municipal government schools in Maharashtra (municipal bodies of Thane, Aurangabad and Pimpri-Chinchwad) were taught by community volunteers using the Read India model. Based on the successful result obtained in these three schools, Pratham met Govt. of India officials, those who dealt with the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan in mid-January, 2003. The decision taken was to implement the Read India programme under the Janashala programme in selected districts and cities. This programme is a joint initiative by The United Nations and Govt. of India. The Jaipur unit of janashala program took up the Read India model first, but restricted its working to 10 days. In Maharashtra, the scenario was more positive where the Read India program was received with far more openness. Here the teachers were given the training not just to implement the model but also to carry out assessment. Apart from this, the local teacher training college was given the task of assessing the results. Though a government plan being assessed by external parties was unheard of till that time, it was taken up with sufficient enthusiasm.

The first round result arrived at by the internal teachers and external agency were markedly different. Whereas the internal teachers gave a figure of 73% as the number of children who could read, the external agency settled with a figure of 44% only. The difference between the methodologies of the two parties was that the external agency had randomly chosen 10% children in 20% schools. However, as results from 160 schools came from the teachers side, the result matched that arrived at by the external agency. These results were recorded on video with testimonials from the teachers and external agency resource persons who vouched for the radical difference it made in reading abilities of children.

Another figure which was a pleasant news for the Govt. was the cost involved in this program: A figure of Rs.2 per child was the final verdict.

With such encouraging results, The Govt. of Maharashtra agreed to implement the Read India model in all its schools in the rural areas and small town which had so far been left untouched.

Pratham also received an invitation from the State Project Director of Sarva Siksha Abhiyan. Pratham was asked to provide training so that this program could be implemented in urban areas of Assam.

In Mumbai about 600 teachers have been trained by teachers in implementing the model and most of them have gone about implementing the model in their schools not even waiting for the central government administration to give approval. This displays the fact that if people can be inspired and the result of a positive intervention is made visible, they attain empowerment at their own initiative. The concept of threshold can be applied here, where though initially people tend not to participate in a new and radically different idea, but once its success has been proven, mobilization become easy as people come by themselves, being motivated to become part of a successful landmark movement. The aim of trying to win Govt. support was a tactic applied by Pratham to turn the targets of advocacy into advocates. This ensures community participation and sustainability. This was in sync with the basic motive of Pratham of conceiving a tripartite partnership between people, corporate and government.

After these initial waves of successes, Pratham has continued its trend of community mobilization to promote the schemes by involving big names from important fields like Politics, Arts and Entertainment to increase visibility of the campaign among the general population. The incentive of involving these people in promotion of the campaign is, for example, let's say a popular leader endorses the campaign, then along with him, all his followers start seeing the campaign in a positive light too. Again, the leaders or other celebrities approached for making endorsements never back away as they have their own benefits from being associated with a socially relevant and revolutionizing program like Read India. It's a case of reciprocity with both parties deriving equal benefits and at the same time, the society gaining at large.

Shift from Mobilization to Institutionalization Phase:

With the program already having achieved tremendous mass appeal, we also see signs of it evolving into an institution. Today, the task of spreading the program is dependent on teams of two persons working with city/district administrations. The major task remaining with Pratham is identifying such people, giving them sufficient training and the necessary resource support to work with NGOs and various state government/ central Govt.


A study of the Read India Project of Pratham displays how it evolved as a movement in 2003. During its initial phase, it concentrated chiefly on gathering mass participation by mobilizing them to carry forward the radical method of teaching children that Pratham had stumbled upon in its teaching centers. The reapplication of the model in its initial days faced its share of hindrances, but by effective leadership and strategies, Pratham was successful in giving the model an all India reach by processes of Social Audit, involvement of community and the Government. Finally, it has reached an almost institution like phase at the moment with a nationwide presence of the Read India model. It is therefore an intersecting example of a successful attempt at community mobilization aimed at social development in a sustainable manner.