Anyone who sees Aamir Khan, Abhishek Bachchan, Rishi Kapoor, Neetu Singh, Anil Kapoor, Alok Nath, Helen, Ila Arun and other Bollywood stars interacting with poor children would think it is another charity show.
But the stars were not at the Centaur Hotel in Mumbai's Santa Cruz for a fundraiser. They were part of an initiative: to make Mumbai a 'reading city', to teach every child to read fluently in just 30 days.
The campaign launched by Pratham, a Mumbai-based non-governmental organisation, is named Read India. Pratham's experiments had found that children aged seven and above who can read words or letters but not paragraphs can be taught to read with comprehension in 15 to 30 days, with a low-cost, low-skilled technique.
The experiments followed a survey of children between the ages of three and 14 in more than 130,000 households in the slums of Mumbai and other cities of Maharashtra. The survey found:
- Only about 23 per cent of children can read paragraphs with varied fluency,
- 33 per cent can read words, but not sentences,
- 27 per cent can identify the letters of the alphabet, but not sentences,
- the remaining 17 per cent cannot read at all.
Many children do not drop out of schools because of parental objection, or to work, the survey found. What drives them away are the appalling conditions in primary educational centres.
Pratham's drive is to remedy these. It offers one- to two-hour classes to children in the morning, afternoon or evening, in Hindi and Marathi. Each class has about 20 to 25 students and is conducted at a government school, community space, place of worship, or teacher's home.
The campaign plans to get children proficient in three R's -- namely, read sentences or paragraphs, read words, recognise letters.
It will also provide access to books through 'little libraries' in your locality, insist on government reports at all levels on basic literacy skills in schools, and actively help schools maintain and improve learning skills.
Pratham's goodwill ambassador, actress Waheeda Rehman, is glad her colleagues in Bollywood responded to her call. "Just a phone call and they all agreed to offer their support for the cause," she said. "I was always fond of giving good education to people. I think it's the most important thing, education. Because without education it's difficult to face life."
The film stars were very positive about the project after their interaction with the children. The children, on their part, were excited at their chance to go on stage and read out their witty compositions, which had the audience in splits.
Bachchan said, "I think the work Pratham is doing is unbelievable. They are really setting an example to the country and I hope more and more people wake up to the work Pratham is doing, to help them in whatever way they can."
Aamir Khan said education is one of the key issues any society faces, more so in India.
Popularising primary education is not new to Pratham. An official said its 10,000-odd volunteers have reached out to 116,116 children in 2001-02 alone.
Co-founder and director Madhav Chavan said Pratham was set up in 1994 as a charitable trust. "The idea was to form a platform that unites the corporate will and people's efforts towards the achievement of a literate community and a reading city," Chavan said.
The chief executive officer of Pratham's India Education Initiative, Ujwal Thakar, said Read India allows poor children to work and at the same time build a healthy interest in reading, which he feels will eventually lead them to formal education.
"It's only for a few hours the kids come for learning," he said. "It does not irritate the employers and the parents."
The CEO said his volunteers face less opposition to get the kids to Pratham classes than when trying to enrol them in schools.
Pratham co-founder Farida Lambay said, "Children need quality education. I don't want a single child in the city of Mumbai to work. They should have a choice not to work."
Pratham plans to launch the campaign in Ahmedabad, Bangalore, Delhi, Jaipur and Patna shortly.
Waheeda Rehman said, "Pratham will see to it the whole of India is able to read, is educated. And out of them, some are very brilliant and they can be sponsored privately, we can request people to sponsor them. Because many of the children say they want to become doctors, engineers, cricketers... So they have got those dreams and we can help them."