Brij Kothari's Planetread uses same language subtitling of film songs on Doordarshan to help 152 million early literates develop reading skills, writes Sangeeta Barooah Pisharoty

Really, there is no end to inventive thinking. Any place, any time, can hand you a life-changing idea. It happened to Brij Kothari, and 15 years after that watershed moment the idea is changing the lives of as many as 152 million people across 10 States today.

Brij, while watching the Oscar-winning Spanish film Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown as a student of Cornell University in the U.S., wished its English subtitles were in Spanish. “As a student of Spanish, I wished it reproduced the dialogue word for word in the ‘same' language. I then made a casual comment to some friends that maybe India would become literate if we subtitled the lyrics of our film songs in the same language,” he recalls.

Testing his thoughts

Brij soon got a chance to test his thought. “The same year (1996) I was offered a faculty position at the Ravi J. Matthai Centre for Educational Innovation at IIM-Ahmedabad. We began showing film songs with and without same language subtitling (SLS) in villages, slums, railway stations and bus stands in and around Ahmedabad. When we found the preference was overwhelmingly for film songs with SLS, the first battle was won,” says Ahmedabad-based Brij in an e-mail interview.

Interestingly, though every 10 years our Census reports count a certain percentage of people as literate, their level of literacy varies. Some are just early literates who can barely read, and they became Brij's target. After a “controlled study” in a municipal school in Ahmedabad, he says, “We ran a year-long pilot project by subtitling a Gujarati song on the local DDK channel. “It again showed that SLS works. DDK received letters from the audience appreciating it. Even the fully literate liked it; since they could sing along, SLS enhanced the entertainment value of the songs. It increased DD's viewership,” says the IIT Kanpur alumnus.

Brij later pursued the initiative by starting Planetread as a Reuters Digital Vision Fellow at Stanford University. Planetread's big stride came when it used SLS in the ever popular film show on DD1, Chitrahaar, in 2002. But here Brij is categorical: “DD Directorate in New Delhi was not excited about SLS during 2000-2002 despite the successful pilot project.” After the initiative won a global innovation competition — Development Marketplace at the World Bank, and a 2,50,000 dollar grant to take it forward, things began to roll. Brij relates the sequence of events. “S.Y. Quraishi, the then Director General of Doordarshan, allowed SLS for the first time on Chitrahaar. Thereafter, the CEO of Prasar Bharati, K.S. Sarma, gave permission for the implementation of SLS in different languages and States.”

Limited exposure

Since 2006, SLS has been implemented in eight weekly programmes on the DD network in different languages. “It means that we are only able to give 30 minutes of weekly reading practice in any language. Even with such limited exposure, our research in the Hindi belt has found that regular exposure at home over three to five years more than doubles the number of functional readers among primary school children. Newspaper reading among adults went up from 34 per cent to 70 per cent with SLS exposure over five years, as compared to a baseline increase to only 42 per cent among those who did not see SLS regularly.”

Besides the WB aid and 10 per cent of its funding coming from the HRD Ministry, Planetread's major funders, in different phases, have been the Google Foundation, Sir Ratan Tata Trust, Dell, and an anonymous donor. Brij says even after its success, the onus of finding funds for SLS services has remained on Planetread. “So we are continuing to run it as a project while making every effort to move it in policy. In this regard, the Prasar Bharati Board finally heard us in July, 2010, and is considering the scaling up of SLS nationally. We are quite hopeful,” he says. “At an average of 10 paise per person per year, to give 30 minutes of weekly reading practice, SLS is definitely viable,” he states.

At present, the service covers 50 million early literates in Hindi-speaking States; 17 million in Maharashtra, 8 million Gujaratis, four million Punjabi speakers, 21 million Tamil speakers, 16 million Kannada speakers, 11 million Telugu speakers and 25 million Bengali speakers.

“The science is clear, it guarantees inescapable reading,” underlines Brij. Taking the idea forward, Planetread has now started BookBox, a social venture that creates animated stories with SLS for children in several languages. “We are then able to put a children's ‘book' on any screen: TV, mobiles, etc.”