Kerala was the first state in India to declare total literacy in one town in 1989 and subsequently, India’s National Literacy Mission declared total literacy in the whole state of Kerala on April 18, 1991. Today, the literacy rate of the state is 91 percent which puts it closer to the United States than any other Indian State.
Kerala’s achievements in social development and quality of life are also outstanding. The state has achieved a human development index comparable to the developed countries of the World. All these achievements of Kerala are largely due to the fact that the state has understood the value of Education. The high priority is given to education. The society attaches so much importance to education that the school in Kerala is really the nucleus of the social microcosm.
The roots of Kerala’s literacy culture can be traced back at least to the Hindu rulers of the 19th century. Education was traditionally the domain of the higher castes – the Namboodiris, Nairs and Syrian Orthodox Christians. But with the Europeans came missionaries who set up church schools to instruct and convert members of the lowest castes – especially in Travancore.
The progressive Hindu rulers of Travancore retaliated by setting up their own schools. The Queen of Trivandrum called for a state education system and issued a royal decree in 1817 that said, “The state should defray the entire cost of the education of its people in order that there might be no backwardness in the spread of enlightenment.” She hoped education would make her people “better subjects and public servants.” The kings of Cochin also built public schools and promoted elementary education.
The Christian missionaries gave a further boost to education by setting up schools for the poor and oppressed, bypassing traditions that had allowed only high-caste Indians to attend school. Radicals saw literacy and education as a key to social change. In the early 20th century, the social reformers in the region continued the drive for education for the lower castes and for girls. The caste-improvement associations led the way, but soon trade unionists and Marxists were using literacy to awaken consciousness.
Reading and writing circles were set up in villages. Workers were encouraged to write in union-sponsored publications. The right to literacy became a popular mass movement. In the 1970s the Kerala People’s Science Movement (the KSSP) set up study classes, medical camps and literacy classes in villages. All of this gave Kerala a head start and by the turn of the century Kerala already had a literacy rate double that of the rest of India, had begun a small programme of grants for low-caste children, and was in its fourth decade of female education.
By the early 1980s, there were nearly 5,000 village libraries. Today, the state has over 400 newspapers and journals, a writers’ co-operative that publishes 450 books a year in the local Malayalam language and a literacy rate that at 87 per cent for females and 94 per cent for males is higher than that of any Low-Income Country.