TARA Akshar -
Towards Literacy in 35 Days

To address the issue of illiteracy in a meaningful manner and in a remarkably short time period, TARAhaat, the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) arm of Development Alternatives Group has developed an ICT-based literacy tool: TARA Akshar. TARA Akshar is one of the fastest literacy programmes in the world that teaches a completely illiterate Hindi-speaking individual to read and write fluently and coherently in 35 days. All it needs is a computer and a willing instructor who has undergone one week’s training.

TARA Akshar has achieved unprecedented success in barely two years from its rollout. The success of the programme can be judged from the fact that by June 2009, over 54,000 rural women have been made literate through its TARA Akshar centres in six states - Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Haryana and Rajasthan. The programme has achieved an average success rate of 97 per cent and the dropout rate is less than 1 per cent.

TARA Akshar has been financed by the Department for International Development (DFID) under its Poorest Areas Civil Society (PACS) programme, Connect for Change, UK, Suzlon Foundation, Oxfam India Trust, Telecentre.org, a consortium of the Canadian and Swiss Governments, in association with Microsoft, TARAhaat and Seva Mandir.


The economic boom in India has ensured a lavish life to some people. But even after 62 years of independence, India is home to the largest number of illiterates on earth. A whopping 400 million people still cannot read and write the language they speak. Illiteracy is one of the major causes of the country’s socio-economic backwardness. Poverty and under-development are the associated ills of illiteracy. Literacy forms the cornerstone for ensuring equality of opportunity to all. It leads to increased self-confidence, self-esteem and awareness levels among the neo-literates.

Literacy allows people, especially women, to participate much more effectively in the development and decision-making processes at the grassroots. It also helps to increase the status of women in the family as well as in the society, and leads to gender equity. Without any concerted action, illiteracy can impede growth and development of any country.

Valiant attempts have been made to increase the literacy level in India but the number of illiterates in the country is still enormous. Over one-third of Indians above the age of seven are illiterate (World Bank Development Policy Review).

Facts About Illiteracy

• According to the UNESCO, there are about 1 billion non-literate adults in the world1

• 98 per cent of the illiterate population lives in the developing countries2

• 34 per cent of the illiterate population in the world lives in India3

Stumbling Blocks

Illiteracy can be attributed partly to the ever-growing population and partly to the failure of the governments’ literacy programmes. Currently, in India, it takes between 6 months to 2 years to teach people to read and write. The poor and the marginalised, who constitute the majority of the illiterates in India, either fail to muster the courage to enroll into a literacy programme, or lose steam midway and drop out because of the staggering amount of time and effort it takes to become literate through conventional methods. Most of the illiterates, especially adults, work as wage labourers, domestic household workers and farm labourers. They are often forced to migrate to towns and cities in search of work; so, they fail to complete a literacy programme. Thus, TARA Akshar seeks to bring literacy to the doorstep of the poor and marginalised in a short time and at an affordable cost.

TARA Akshar: The New Way of Learning

TARA Akshar trains the students to recognise the sound of the letter. It is followed by training them in syllables, and then letting them loose on words and sentences. The conventional wisdom is that the hardest part of learning is to recognise the combination of letters. But if the student has an instantaneous, instinctive, intuitive recognition of all the letters that he or she is reading, all the subsequent stages of learning to read become very easy. The astounding success that the TARA Akshar programme has met proves this point.

TARA Akshar has come up with a method of teaching this first step of learning letters in a revolutionary way, by the use of memory associations embedded in animated movies. Learning is reinforced with other memory techniques, together with video gaming techniques. In TARA Akshar, students do not have to memorise anything; rather, he or she simply watches and plays which, in turn, takes care of the memorising.

TARA Akshar is a Flash-based software that has been developed in-house by TARAhaat. The software uses morphing and memory techniques to teach completely illiterate people to learn, read and write Hindi (Devanagri) in 35 days. For example, the letter ‘d’ in Hindi is associated to one’s memory by a morphed image of two ears joined together. The entire alphabet is taught in this manner. This technique is also supplemented with audio-visual and voice-based content.

TARA Akshar uses a combination of different media in order to attack the problem from as many media angles as possible. Students watch animated cartoon movies featuring the letters of the alphabet, who turn into characters that have adventures with each other. Students also play card games with special cards featuring letters of the alphabet. A hundred minutes like this constitutes one day’s lesson. Students are required to attend one lesson a day, 6 days a week, until the 35 days are up.

A Symbiotic Approach

A three-tier system has been devised. It is a computer-based model of delivery and involves participation of the Civil Society Organisations (CSOs), Community Based Organisations (CBOs), and Self Help Groups (SHGs). The first level of monitoring is done by the Head Office team based in New Delhi. The second level of monitoring is through Master Trainers, who provide the requisite support, passage of information and monitor the implementation processes. Finally, instructors and Quality Controllers implement the programme at the village level.

At present, TARA Akshar is being offered through TARA Akshar centres located in small villages. As people become literate, they aspire for higher education and employable skills. TARA Akshar centres each have a laptop computer and an instructor.

‘It’s not just the software; it’s the whole administration of the project that is making it a success’, says Colonel Ahluwalia, the Chief Project Officer for TARA Akshar. ‘We train the instructors with a very intensive and thorough training course. An instructor trained by us really knows how to hold a class together.’ The instructors are not just left to get on with it. They are monitored by Master Trainers, who are their technical mentors and also Quality Controllers, who spend their weeks appearing at random, at different centres to carry out spot checks on the quality of instructor training.

What Next?

TARA Akshar has provided literacy to over 54,000 women and girls, and the number is continuously mounting. TARAhaat and Development Alternatives are keen to help these women translate literacy into some kind of socio-economic benefit for them. For this, TARAhaat has already planned to bring the benefits to TARA Akshar learners. Some of the initiatives taken in this direction are as follows:

• A financial literacy module is being developed to enable TARA Akshar learners to do mathematical calculations

• The customisation of multimedia-based Enterprise Development Module for neo-literates is being done. It will help train TARA Akshar learners, especially SHG members on the entrepreneurship skills and, thus, translate their literacy into income generation


Anecdotal evidence from our 54,000 plus graduates shows a dramatic increase in self-esteem and consequent improvement in intra-family dynamics. More and more new literates are coming forward and demanding more reading material. In most centres, reading clubs have been organised voluntarily by the respective Sarpanch or CSO, who provide the reading material. The Panchayats or Pradhans support this endeavour by providing a room for the centre’s building space, generator and extra reading material. There is a long waiting list of learners in most centres.

The model adopted for TARA Akshar has not only helped in acquiring scales in a relatively short period of time, but has also made the delivery of the programme more effective. Today, over 54,000 women have become literate in two years, spread across six states in India. While the usage of multimedia and short-time duration has ensured a low dropout rate, the unique delivery model has helped it to achieve a high success rate.

It’s not only about providing reading and writing skills but also about transforming lives and transforming the nation. TARA Akshar has an answer to the plight of a person who can speak and understand a language but cannot read and write. The programme has a huge potential to scale and transform the lives of people by bringing them through a journey of ‘Angoothe se kalam tak’ (From thumb to pen). For more information, visit www.taraakshar.com and www. tarahaat.com q

Colonel MS Ahluwalia

3http:/timesofindia.indiatimes. com/articleshow/916814.cms 2003)


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