An Indian project meant to strengthen reading skills among neo-literates in a cost-effective manner has found favour with the Google Foundation.
"This is not just any corporation supporting the Same Language Subtitling (SLS) project. It's Google!" exclaimed Ahmedabad-based academic Brij Kothari.
The US-educated Kothari, who teaches at the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad (IIM-A), has developed the SLS, an amazingly simple but effective way of spreading literacy.
Yet it could be critical to India that has only 562 million literates in a population of over one billion, according to the 2001 census. Surveys indicate half the 'literates' cannot read a newspaper.
The SLS method leverages the reach of TV and a "national passion for songs" of Hindi cinema as well as folk and devotional music.
Existing TV song programmes are subtitled in the same language as the audio. As villagers read along the lyrics they hum - and without realising it themselves - their literacy skills are growing.
Kothari said the support from the world's most preferred search engine on the Internet "lends tremendous credibility and visibility" to the project and "allows us to dream about its implementation in all languages in India and in other countries too".
The Google Foundation supports selected organisations whose work "addresses the challenge of global poverty in ways that are effective, sustainable, and scalable".
The Foundation awarded Kothari's PlanetRead website (www.planetread.org) a grant to increase the number of same-language subtitling programmes available.
Google is also supporting PlanetRead with free advertising through the Google Grants programme and content hosting on Google Video.
The Google Foundation grant enables PlanetRead to scale up nationally by matching the government's support, programme for programme.
"It's an honour to be among the first few Google Foundation grantees," Kothari told IANS.
"When a billion people are illiterate - two-thirds of them women, and nearly half of the world lives on less than $2 a day - we believe it is important to examine the link between literacy and poverty," the Google.org team announced.
The PlanetRead project, operating in Mumbai and Pondicherry, uses the SLS method to provide reading practice to individuals who are excluded from the traditional educational system or whose literacy needs are otherwise not being met.
Kothari got involved with the literacy movement almost by accident.
In 1996, he was watching a Spanish film on video with English subtitles. A Spanish enthusiast, he wished for subtitles in Spanish as well. Then he thought, why not subtitle Hindi film songs in Hindi, on TV back home, to spark a literacy revolution?
Kothari, an alumnus of the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT), Kanpur, has already won a sizeable grant from Development Marketplace, a global innovation competition conducted by the World Bank.
At Stanford as a Reuters Digital Vision Fellow, he also launched PlanetRead to take SLS to other countries.
"We also managed to spin off SLS into a social venture around children's animated 'books' at bookbox.com," he adds.
Three to five years of the SLS exposure, without any other educational inputs, can move a person from alphabet recognition to functional literacy, while neo-literates without any follow-up practice tend to relapse into illiteracy.
But Kothari's dreams are nowhere close to becoming part of a national broadcasting policy.
"Am I happy with its growth? Considering that we're making 200 million early-literate people read, yes, even if it has taken at least eight years longer than it should have."