Addressing India’s Literacy Challenge

The Sign of the Times has written extensively about the importance of education and skill development for India to fully realise its demographic advantage and thereby achieve economic development.  Approximately a quarter of India’s population is illiterate, and by virtue of its sheer size, India has the largest illiterate population in the world, accounting for c.40% of the world’s illiterate population.  This is disproportionately skewed towards women and girls, approximately a third of whom lack even basic literacy skills and has therefore limited women’s ability to choose how they participate in the economy. 

Addressing India’s literacy and education challenges, along with the large gender gap, clearly requires transformative solutions.  In this context, Greater Pacific Capital talks to Sourav Banerjee, Country Director for Room to Read in India.  Room to Read is a global non-profit organisation whose mission is to tackle the problem of childhood literacy across the developing world. 

The Interview


What was the vision behind setting up Room-to-Read globally and how has that evolved?

Room to Read envisions a world in which all children can pursue a quality education that enables them to reach their full potential and contribute to their communities and the world.  Room to Read was founded with the belief that “World Change Starts with Educated Children”®.  In the past 16 years of existence we have collaborated with local communities and governments to ensure that primary school children become independent readers and girls complete secondary school with the skills necessary to negotiate key life decisions.  We seek to transform the lives of millions of children in developing countries by focusing on literacy and gender equality in education.  Globally we have benefited over 10 million children through our  programs and aim to reach 15 million children by 2020.

What countries are you currently present in?

We currently work across ten countries in Asia and Africa.  These are Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos in South-East Asia; India, Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka in South Asia; and South Africa, Tanzania and Zambia in Africa.

What led you to set up in India and what are the key problems you were targeting?

With poor reading outcomes and low school completion rates among girls, India was a natural choice for Room to Read.  Over the past decade, India’s public education system has made great strides toward improving access to education with more schools and teachers; however quality of education still remains a major challenge.  A significant proportion of the primary grade children across India lack basic reading, writing and comprehension abilities; nearly 50% of the children in grade 5 cannot read grade 2 text.  Of the world’s illiterate’s, 37% live in India, and two-thirds of them are women and girls.  Being subjected to social discrimination, girls are doubly disadvantaged.  Very few of those girls that enrol into schools in India graduate grade 12. Room to Read’s Literacy and Girls’ Education programs are designed to address these gaps in the India education system.

Who are the key groups you impact and your impact metrics?

Room to Read’s Literacy Program helps develop reading skills and the habit of reading among primary grade children in government schools.  We assess reading fluency and comprehension as a measure of reading skill.  Assessment results indicate that students exposed to Room to Read literacy interventions have developed reading skills that are three times greater than students in comparison schools.  Childrens’ habit of reading is measured by the number of books that children check out (per child per year) from the school library.  Since the beginning of its operation in 2003, Room to Read India has established close to 7,400 libraries across nine states, trained over 15,000 teachers and distributed over 1.3 million books.

The Girls’ Education program works with girls in grades 6-12, providing them life skills and mentoring support and ensuring that they continue their education up to grade 12.  Over 8,400 girls have been benefited from this program until now.  As of 2015, 614 girls have completed their grade 12, and more than 70% of them have chosen to pursue higher education or gain employment.

What are the key challenges you have faced in India?

Lack of age appropriate reading materials in schools and the lack of teachers’ ability to teach basic literacy skills (reading and writing) are the key challenges to literacy.  Poor quality of education and social stereotypes are challenges that adolescent girls face in continuing their education.  While Room to Read has been able to address these challenges effectively, our scale of operation is still very limited and therefore one of the biggest challenges is to scale up our operations and reach out to more children.

What further resources do you need to achieve your mission?

Given that there are over a million government schools and close to 200 million school-age children in India, it is not possible for a non-profit to address the needs of all.  However Room to Read aims to have enough spread and reach to be able to demonstrate the efficacy of our programs across all states and hopefully reach a tipping point beyond which our programs can be scaled up and sustained through government systems.  Apart from financial resources to be able to expand our programs, we will also need visibility and advocacy to demonstrate our achievements to governments and convince them to adopt our model.

What message would you like to send out to business and policy decision-makers across the world?

Quality of life, health and economic opportunity all depend on education. There is also evidence to suggest that educated girls lead to stronger and more prosperous nations.  It is therefore important for business and policy decision makers to invest more in education.  However at the same time it is also important to invest in programs that have demonstrated impact, are scalable and sustainable and are transformative in nature.