United Nations Under Secretary General Shashi Tharoor extolled the work done by non-governmental organizations like Pratham that have helped raise literacy levels in India.
Tharoor, at the world body, was delivering a keynote address at a New York fundraiser the tristate chapter of Pratham USA, organised October 14.
"South Asia now has the lowest literacy rate in the world, lower than even the sub-Saharan region," Tharoor told the 800 invitees. "So Pratham's work has never been more needed [than now]."
Conceived 12 years ago in Mumbai, Pratham's activities have now spread to several states in India and provides for children's primary education. Its overseas efforts, almost exclusively in the United States, had raised about $7.5 million in seven years. A target of $3.5 million has been set for 2006 and it was not immediately clear how much was raised October 14, when a number of donated articles were also auctioned off.
"India is a land of paradoxes," Tharoor said. It has the second-largest pool of trained scientists and engineers, but 35 million of its children have not seen the inside of a school."
As a senior official defined it, an illiterate is one who cannot read or write a short, simple statement. In India, the current literacy rate is 64 percent, which includes many who can simply sign their names, as the norm for literacy is somewhat lower there, Tharoor explained.
The 50-year-old Tharoor, who waged a spirited campaign for the post of UN secretary general, withdrew from the race before the Security Council officially conducted a voted for the post earlier this month. In his short speech, laced with humour and punctuated by rounds of applause, including a standing ovation, Tharoor did not refer to any UN issues or his future career.
The South Asian region is also the most malnourished and least gender-sensitive. India has the worst teacher-pupil ratio, but the country has the largest primary school system in which 150 million children are currently enrolled.
He drew a comparison between states within India, saying Kerala (from where he hails) has nearly 100 percent literacy while Bihar has 44 percent of which only 29 percent of girls and women are educated.
"The key is to pass on basic education to all children," Tharoor, who was born in London and educated in India and the United States, said. "I have a two-word mantra: Educate girls. Sixty percent of our illiterates are women."
He pointed out, quoting studies, educating a girl is nothing but educating a family, then a community and the nation at large. In this context, Tharoor cited such benefits as increased hygiene, cut in infant mortality, higher labor productivity, more political awareness and empowerment, and greater democracy.
Tharoor acknowledged that literacy has tripled in India since 1951, but the progress has been "inexcusably low."
"No illiterate country has ever become an industrial tiger of any stripe or color. We want to become a third or fourth economy in purchasing power. And we're not going to get there as long as our population is illiterate," he said.
Ujwal Thakar, chief executive officer, Pratham India Education Initiative, also spoke at the event.
Pratham, recognised for launching 'the most innovative development project,' reaches about 400,000 children in India on a daily basis through its current primary programs. It has a library network that reaches an additional 2 million children.