How to Get 100 Million Children in India Reading

“Santosh is one of the boys.”

I looked at Papa in surprise. Shortly before leaving India, he and Caroline and I sat under the shade of the mango tree while he related to us the difficulties he was having with some of the adolescent boys. A group of them were going off to classes in the morning, but then sneaking back into the ashram shortly thereafter to play or nap. It had been occurring on a fairly regular basis, exasperating both Papa and the staff.

“Santosh?” I questioned. “He’s been skipping school?”

“Hai, yes,” Papa said. “I don’t know what to do. We don’t have enough people to watch every child every minute. I tell them they must get their education…” He trailed off, raising his hands in a gesture of defeat.

I glanced at Caroline. Part of me wanted to laugh a little, at the image of this small band of renegade boys pulling a Huckleberry Finn to have a good time. But of course I did not want to make light of the problem, and was well aware of the importance of an education for all these kids. Their futures had been compromised enough with the odds they already had stacked against them: abandonment or orphanhood, poverty, caste. Without a good education the future grew much bleaker. It was their ticket out.

“Do you think I should talk to Santosh?” I asked both Caroline and Papa.

Papa nodded his head vigorously. “I have talked, and still they are doing this. He will listen to you.”

I had halfway hoped Papa would decline my offer. Until then I had been the fun aunt who only had to play games and have a good time and bring treats. But it was a long-term relationship I had embarked on, not only with Santosh and Daina but with all the children, and Papa as well. I knew that going into it, and now the time had come for the aspect of the adult/guardian role that was not so fun – the arm of discipline. I was going to have to be the bad guy.

Later that day there was a lull in the activities and I pulled Santosh aside for a quiet moment. His English had improved but was still limited, so I needed to make sure he understood. “How is school?” I began.


“Do you study hard?”


“What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Santosh thought about this for a moment. “A dancer,” he said. I suppressed a smile at the memory of him dancing in the mosh pit party when we’d first arrived. Like most children, his adult career plans changed with regularity; when I’d first met him, he wanted to be a painter. In one letter to me he’d written that he wanted to be a soldier when he grew up.

I paused, choosing my words carefully. “Papa tells me that sometimes you don’t go to school.” Santosh looked down, not meeting my eyes. He seemed embarrassed that I knew this; it had not occurred to him that Papa might tell me.

“Papa said that you and some other boys leave school and miss classes,” I continued. “You know that school is very important, don’t you?” His nod was an almost imperceptible movement. “You need to go to school every day, Santosh. You need to study hard and do well in school to be a dancer when you grow up. You need to know your English well so you can be anything you want to be.”

He nodded again, but was clearly sulking at the reprimand. The last thing I wanted was for him to feel bad or think I was mad at him, so I put my arm around his shoulders and hugged him to me. “You’re a very smart boy, Santosh. Do you know that? You are very smart. You can do anything you want to. I’m very proud of you, and it will make me happy if you go to school every day and work hard.”

Santosh continued to look at the ground. I patted his back. “You will go to school every day, and not leave classes? You will study hard?” He nodded. “Okay. Do you want to get my camera and take some pictures?” I stood up.

He loved snapping photos with my camera, and I sometimes entrusted it to him as my “official photographer.” He smiled and perked up, and I took his hand. “Come on, let’s go.”

* * *

The difference that an education, literacy and competency in English makes in the future of a child cannot be overestimated – especially a marginalized or disadvantaged child; a child like Santosh. One of the main factors that makes children vulnerable to street life, trafficking, early marriage, child labor or adult unemployment is lack of education. And education of its children remains one of India’s greatest challenges as a country. Approximately a hundred and thirty-seven million Indian children – nearly half the entire population of the United States – are illiterate. In the six to fourteen year age group, thirty million cannot read at all, forty million recognize only a few letters, and forty million can read some words. Over fifty-five million of these children will not complete four years of school, eventually adding to the illiterate population of India – the largest of any country in the world.

The World Bank Group has a terrific blog devoted to Ending Poverty in South Asia. The blog is maintained by Shanta Devarajan, Chief Economist of the South Asia Region at the World Bank. Its goal is to create a conversation around how South Asia can end poverty in a generation.


Last year an article appeared on their site that asked the question:

How do you go from a rural India in 2006 in which:
– close to half the children in grade 1 could not recognize numbers or letters
– almost half the children in grade 2 could not read a grade 1-level text fluently or do a 2-digit subtraction problem confidently
– about half the children in grade 5 could not read a grade 2-level text easily or do a simple division problem

to a situation by 2009 in which:
– all grade 1 children know at least the alphabet and numbers
– all grade 2 children can read at least simple words and do simple sums
– all grades 3-5 children can at least read simple texts fluently and solve arithmetic problems confidently

And do it for a target population of almost a 100 million children?

The article goes on to focus primarily on an initiative called Read India that was launched by Pratham, a nonprofit organization devoted to the education and literacy of India’s children. I have written about Pratham in my book as well:

When families struggle to feed themselves and even clean water remains painfully scarce, education plays a minimal, too often expendable, role to many of India’s poor. Organizations like Pratham employ a preventative approach to decrease the vulnerability of children living in such poverty to ending up on the streets, trafficked or in child labor. Originally parented by UNICEF in 1994, Pratham began in Mumbai slums where the learning program reaches about thirty thousand children each year with literacy efforts, preschools, computer classes and teacher training. It quickly expanded to Delhi and other cities, launching a nationwide program called Read India in 2002 with a mission of “every child in school and learning well.”

An incident in a Delhi slum called Zakhira demonstrates the difficulty that children living in these areas often face just getting to school. Zakhira is an illegal shantytown balanced precariously – and dangerously – in a triangle formed between three train tracks. Trash and defecation clog the tracks where trains speed by mere feet from corroding tin and plastic homes. Not long ago a young child was run over and killed by a train as he followed his mother to school. When the police came, the grieving mother had to deny the child was hers to avoid prosecution for endangering the lives of passengers on the train.

Other students must cross these very same tracks to attend the nearest school, a risk that most parents don’t allow. The largely migrant families that make up Zakhira rarely stay for more than a few months. These challenges, coupled with the great poverty, make many parents reluctant to send their children for an education. When Pratham set up their program in this area in 2005, many members of the organization saw the Zakhira venture as one of its most difficult and wondered if the possibility to teach anything substantial there even existed. Slow improvements have come, however. Children who previously knew nothing of India’s Independence Day now celebrate in Zakhira’s own commemoration festival. The community was soon swarming with children able to count and read the Hindi alphabet; seemingly small accomplishments, but something few in the area could do before.

* * *

A few weeks after I returned home from that visit with Santosh, I received a letter from him. He talked about the fun of the visit, sent wishes for our good health, and asked Chandler to write him a letter. He also wrote:

“Now I am appearing for my annual exam. We’ll get summer vacation next month. I’ll let you know my academic result on my next letter. You are right that education is very important for me. Lovingly yours, Santosh.”

About Shelley Seale

Shelley is a wanderer and student of the world, yoga chick, voracious reader and dog lover. She pounds the keyboard as a freelance writer, author and publication designer, based in Austin, Texas when she isn't traipsing around the globe. Shelley has written for National Geographic, USA Today, The Guardian, The Week, Fodor's, The Telegraph and Texas Monthly, among others. Shelley has performed a catch on the flying trapeze, boarded down a live volcano, and was once robbed by a monkey in India. But she doesn’t know how to whistle.

Posted on February 1, 2008, in India, shelley seale and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. Sandy Seale "Mom"

    Absolutely wonderful piece….I continue to be amazed and exceptionally proud of the accomplishments you are making. I don’t just mean the book and the information you are getting to the public but most importantly the difference you are making in these children’s lives. Even though I haven’t been able to actually meet Santosh, Daina, or the others you hold so dear, I feel I know them and love them very much. They are so lucky to have you in their lives; even when you are here you are with them in love & spirit and they remember your words and hopes for them and their futures. Who knows what Santosh would have done had you not taken that step to talk to him about the extreme need for him to stay in school and get his education and your desire for him to be all that he can be and have a wonderful life. You could have played it safe, not wanting to jeopordize your relationship but stepped up to the level that can really make a difference. He’s like a child that hears his parents (Papa, etc.) daily reprimanding him and tunes it out; but a person with a little distance whom he loves and respects takes the time to care and it makes all the difference. Keep up the good work; even if only a few of the children are directly effected or benefit from your love and attention, that is a blessing that can’t be measured. I love you. Mom

  2. I was pleased to read about Pratham and the work they’re doing. Education really is the key. You remember Akanksha Foundation, of course, from your last visit? I’ve now launched a new tour called “Mumbai Local” for which I have recruited teenagers from Akanksha and trained them to be guides.
    I figured this is a better way to support the cause of children’s education than donating money.

    – Deepa

  3. For another incredible blog about child slavery and the efforts to stop it, check out my friend Jeff Turner’s blog –

  4. Hillol Sarkar

    Hi Shelley

    I am visiting India from California.

    It would be big help if we could exchange some ideas.
    I am working on a project to delever Text Books to 200M
    students in India.
    Hillol Sarkar

  1. Pingback: Global Voices Online » India: Kids, poverty and education

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