An Alternative to Literacy

Is it possible for community video and radio to play this role? a small experiment by the Deccan Development Society Hyderabad, India

Literacy has become a Holy Grail in the world of development. Development groups working in rural areas suffer from a feeling of inadequacy if they are not pursuing literacy programmes. They maybe doing excellent work through harnessing people's knowledge in the fields of forestry, fisheries, natural farming, land development, natural resource management whatever. But literacy programmes haunt them. The irony is that in most of these activities literacy has very little to offer. People's knowledge and peoples science in all these areas are so strong that they need very little external help in the form of technology. But still the feeling of inadequacy prevails very strong among non-literacy groups. Time has come to question this exaggerated importance given to literacy in development.

I would not like to be misunderstood as an anti-literacy person. I value literacy very much. What I am pointing to is in valuing literacy we should not devalue other capabilities and skills present in non-literate people. By doing so, we might kill all the self-confidence in these people. I am itching to tell a story which I had heard in my childhood. I still cherish it for the message it gives: Three scholars decided to cross a river. They asked a boatman to help them cross the river. The boatman was glad to oblige them. As the boat sailed out, one scholar asked the boatman: Have you read Vedas. The boatman humbly replied "No Sir". He felt very ashamed. The scholar rubbed it in. "A quarter of your life is wasted". After they sailed a little further, the second scholar asked: "Have you read Upanishads?" The boatman felt further small. "No Sir". The scholar said contemptuously: "Half your life is wasted". They sailed halfway into the river. The third scholar asked, "At least have you read Puranas?" The boatman felt totally humiliated. "No sir, not even that". "Then three quarter of your life is a waste". By then they hit a whirlpool. The boat started sinking. The boatman, for the first time, asked the scholars: "Sir, do you people know how to swim?" All the scholars said "No" in total panic. "All your lives are a waste now sir", said the boatman and leapt out of the boat. What I am trying to say is that in our part of the world there is a generation of women and men, people who are in their thirties and above who are not literate. But they have deep reserves of knowledge in farming, forestry, ecology, natural resource management -- areas where survival knowledge, which is paramount for the human race, eludes us the literates. Why should we discount this rich knowledge and skills with which they survive in the harshest of environments and push literacy towards them as THE SKILL ?

This has been one of the key questions that bothers my mind in my work with disadvantaged rural women in Medak District of Andhra Pradesh. Historical background of DDS DDS started in this environment as the commitment of a group of professionals to the people in the Zaheerabad region to continue a rural development project abandoned by an industrial house due to its own compulsions. The earliest objectives of DDS was to combine ecological and employment parameters to regenerate the livelihoods of the people in the area through a string of activities: Ensure 100 days of employment per year per person Use these employment days to work on their lands to enhance the productivity of their soils through bunding, trenching, top soil addition etc. Galvanise communities of women to lease in lands from large farmers and work on it collectively. Green the area through planting in the village commons. An associated objective was to transfer people-oriented technology. This included housing technologies, use of solar energy, permaculture way of organic farming etc. Gradually all these efforts have moved in a reverse direction.

Today we recognise that people have more knowledge than us, more appropriate technologies than we can think of. Therefore our programmes have evolved into three principles: gender justice environmental-soundness and people's knowledge Education at all levels was a very strong component in this string of efforts. Education, for DDS, encompasses a range of activities starting with balwadies to provide a creative learning environment for young children to Pachasaale, a unique school for working children which takes formal learning and life skills under one umbrella and redefines education into an area of relevance for rural children. Within this range are fitted intensive workshops for adult women, village night schools for out of school children etc. Central to these attempts is the relocation of people's knowledge in the areas of health (through revitalising the traditional healthcare systems), agriculture (understanding, documenting and promoting people's knowledge of farming systems and practices) etc.

New forms of expression When the commitment of an organisation is to value peoples knowledge and build its work on their confidence, the need to explore various tools of expression with which people can communicate with the outside world. Because the outside world is a reality and their necessity to communicate with it is also a reality. In this effort, literacy was not the only choice. We felt literacy can actually become a constraint for non-literate people whose aural and visual narratives are so powerful. So what else can one think of ? For me the possibility of providing video and audio technologies as a means of expression for the disadvantaged rural women was an exciting idea. So I have made efforts to equip a group of ten women with the skills to handle this media.

Communicating through video I began a series of video workshops from January this year. Each workshop was for a duration of four days. Spread over eight months these workshops have trained a total of seven women of whom four are non-literate. Of these seven women, two are students and the four are farm labour and one is a DDS worker. All of them are dalits in an age group of 16-35 years. The workshops started with a total of eleven persons, ten women and one man. But of them four dropped out during various phases of the workshops and seven have made it to all the workshops. The women chose to learn video production for various reasons. Their own reasons are as follows: We would like to let our issues known outside(Ippapally Mallamma) Our news must go outside (Zaheerabad Punyamma) We are working on the Gene Bank in our village. Several times you people come to shoot our work. But there are seasons when it is very important to shoot. At that time you people may not be available. Therefore when you people do not come, we can do our own recording and give it to you. (Humnapur Laxmi) So that we can communicate with people in other sanghams. Whenever some events take place in our sanghams, you people come to video it. When you don't come, we have to wait for you. Instead we can do the recording ourselves and take it out.(Pastapur Narsamma) To photograph; marriages etc.(Bopanpalli Nagamma) When big government people come to our village, we would like to record what they tell us. That becomes a document for us. (Eedulapalle Manjula)

Their expectations from the workshops were also varied. How can we tell about the work we are doing? To know whether it (the video) can record what we talk and say To understand what parts it (the video) has To know whether it records from a distance; how to make pictures big and small; how to make sound big and small; The training objective was to familiarise the participants with the grammar of television, with the operation of video cameras and in editing their shoots and make their own stories. These workshops were conducted by three of us: P V Satheesh, a television Producer/Director (who incidentally is Director, Deccan Development Society and is an experienced producer and trainer and familiar with the rural ethos). Vijendra Patil, a Cameraman- producer who has a variety of experiences in training and production. Yesu, an 18-year old rural boy, who had recently apprenticed with a video production house and who was being simultaneously trained on video operations and editing. The training was done with one DV Camera and two VHS video cameras and a makeshift editing set up.