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Literacy The level at which functional literacy is set rises as society becomes complex, and it becomes increasingly difficult for an illiterate person to find work and cope with the other demands of everyday life. A developed education system was prevalent in the sub-continent from the time of the Aryans and educated people were highly esteemed in their society. But access to education was an exclusive affair of the elite and aristocratic classes. Similar situation continued during the Muslim period. It was during the British period that western education enlightened the youths of the country and created an interest in the education of the masses. In Bengal a section of the educated people in the early 20th century expressed their concern over the prevailing illiteracy among the people.

Literacy in the British period In 1901, the literacy rate in British India was 5.6%. Growth in literacy rate was very slow and in 1941, it was 13.9% in India and 16.1% in Bengal. In 1939-40 the literacy movement in Bengal gained some momentum with the adoption of the slogan 'each one teach one' and night schools for adults started in Bengal. The subject of adult education was placed under the provincial government's newly formed Department of Rural Reconstruction. The curriculum of the department's adult education programme included courses on agriculture, animal husbandry, and sanitation. Officials were appointed to monitor the programme. The programme experienced a setback because of the Second World War. The Department of Rural Reconstruction was abolished and all adult education centres ceased slowly as local people failed to maintain them without official support.

Literacy in the Pakistan period In the first census people were classified as literate if they could only read clear prints in any language. According to this definition, literates in East Pakistan (1951) constituted 24.7% of the population of age 5 and above and 21.1% of the total population. In the census of 1961, literacy was defined as the ability to read a short statement on everyday life in any language. The census estimated that the literacy rate was 21.5% of the population of 5 years and above and 17.6% of the total population.

The education policy of the Pakistan government gave marginal attention to adult illiterates and almost no attention to universal primary education. In East Bengal some benevolent individuals undertook some ventures on adult education. HGS Bever, an officer of the Indian Civil Service, did notable work in this area in the 1950s. After retirement, he dedicated himself to the task of removal of illiteracy from East Bengal. He revived the movement of adult education and devised primers and charts on the Luebac model and organised a literacy centre in 1956. Later on, in collaboration with Mr. Abdul Hai Hasnat Ismail and few others, he set up an Adult Education Cooperative Society. But the movement he initiated ended with his death in 1962.

The first serious national venture to fight against illiteracy in East Pakistan was launched under the Village Agricultural and Industrial Development (V-AID) programme. Several adult education centres were set up in rural areas under the programme. However, it was short-lived. The work of V-AID was later taken up by the bangladesh academy for rural development established in comilla in 1959. In 1963, the government of East Pakistan created a separate Adult Education Section in the Directorate of Education and through it launched a model pilot project on adult education in 1964. The project initially covered four thanas of four districts. Subsequently, four more thanas were included in this programme. These eight thanas continued to function as project areas till the liberation of Bangladesh in 1971.'

Literacy in the Bangladesh period the first census was held in 1974 and thereafter four censuses were held in 1981,1991, 2001 and 2011. Literacy rate among people of all ages rose from 17% in 1961 to 24.9% in census year 1991. For the 7 years and above age group, the literacy rate increased from 26.8% in 1974 to 32.4% in 1991. And it rose to 45.3% in 2001. In all census periods, the literacy rates were higher among the males than among the females. The female literacy rate, however, rose significantly in the 1991 census. It was 16.4%, 25.5% and 40.6% in 1974, 1991 and 2001 respectively. Urban rural variation in literacy rate is also quite evident in all census periods. Literacy rates in urban areas are higher than in rural areas in all census periods.

Adult literacy Adult literacy rate for population 15 and above is defined as the ratio between the literate population of the age 15 years and over to the total population of the same age expressed in percentage. This rate for both sexes was 25.9% in the 1974 census and 29.2% in the 1981 census. In the 1991 census the rate was 35.3%. In all census periods, male adult literacy rate was higher than the female. Educated adults come to the urban areas for better employment and education. As a result, the adult literacy level of urban population is much higher than that of their rural counterparts in all census years. However, the gap between urban-rural literacy rates narrowed in 1991, as did the gap between the male and female population. This is due to rural people increasing participation in education in recent times.

The independence of Bangladesh generated a new enthusiasm in both government and private level in efforts to expand literacy and remove illiteracy. The Bangladesh Constitution of 1972 provides the basis for a policy on universal primary education. The policy has three components: establishing a uniform mass oriented and universal system of education; extending free and compulsory education to all children; and relating education to the needs of society and removing illiteracy. Keeping in view the constitutional directives, Bangladesh committed itself to implement the recommendations of the World Conference on Education for All (1990), The World Summit on Children (1990) and the Summit Declaration on Education for All (1993).

Primary education was recognised as the foundation of preparing literate citizens of the country in all national documents, reports of the commissions, and committees on education. But this stage of education got a momentum only after the enactment of the Compulsory Primary Education Law of 1990. Compulsory primary education under this Act was introduced in 1992 in 68 thanas, and all over the country in 1993. Measures such as satellite schools, community schools, and Food for Education Programme were taken up to increase enrolment and decrease dropout. The new primary curriculum based on terminal competencies was implemented in 1992. These steps resulted in some improvements in various efficiency indicators of primary education such as in gross enrolment ratio and the completion rate and raised the participation of girls in primary education. In addition to state intervention, from the second half of 1980's, the government allowed NGOs to experiment with a variety of delivery mechanisms to cater to the basic educational needs of the disadvantaged population.

According to the Report of Bangladesh Education Commission of 1974, the number of adult men and women illiterates in the country at the time of independence was 35 million. The Report recommended adoption of non-formal and mass education programmes for them. Accordingly, the First Five-Year Plan (1973-78) launched a massive functional literacy programme through non-formal education and allocated Tk 400 million for this subsector. The Second Five-Year Plan (1980-85) attached high priority to eradication of mass illiteracy. Side by side the Universal Primary Education Project, a Mass Education Programme (MEP) was implemented in 1980 for people of the 11-45 years age group. But the programme was abandoned in 1982, when its achievement in terms of the number of people made literate was an estimated 700,000 against a target of 10 million.

In the Third Five-Year Plan (1985-90) the programme was revived with an allocation of Tk 250 million and a modest target of making 2.4 million adults literate by June 1990. Information from the office of the Integrated Non-Formal Education (INFE) project (former MEP Office) show that only 27 upazilas were covered in this project out of a target of 71 upazilas. A total of 291,600 adults were made literate in five years. In the Fourth Five-Year Plan (1990-95) Tk 235.70 million was allocated. During the Plan period MEP was continued as a spillover under the project and total of 367,660 adult illiterates of 11-45 years age were made literate. In addition, another new project, Expansion of INFE Programme, was initiated to institutionalise a comprehensive non-formal education system in the country. The programme was implemented in 68 thanas of the country. Moreover, under the aegis of the district administration a programme named Total Literacy Movement (TLM) was started in 1995 in lalmonirhat and bhola districts. It was later extended to 15 other districts. Preparatory work is now under way to extend TLM to 22 more districts.

The Fifth Five-Year Plan (1997-2002) adopted an ambitious objective to achieve the goal of Education for All (EFA) by the end of Plan period 2002. The major objectives are to increase gross enrolment in primary schools to 100 percent with particular emphasis on enrolment of girls and on increasing completion rate of primary education to at least 75 percent by the year 2002. The literacy rate in Bangladesh rose to 56.5% in 2009 whereas 53.5% in 2007. There is some gender disparity, though, as literacy rates are 62% among men and 51% among women, according to a 2008 UNICEF estimate. According to another report of UNICEF the literacy rate of men and women was 51% and 31% respectively in 2004.

The Fifth Plan also set up some important objectives of mass education consistent with the overall objectives of achieving the goal of EFA and fulfilling the educational needs of 30 million adult illiterates. These objectives are to increase literacy rate of adults (15 years and above) to 80% by the year 2002, to empower learners with technical skills, entrepreneurial traits and leadership skills, to empower skills related to literacy, numeracy and communication, to reduce gender gap in literacy rates in both rural and urban areas, and to develop continuing education programme for neo-literates. [Sharifa Khatun]