Vijay S. Jodha on his film “Pedalling to Freedom”.
The drive was so successful in empowering women that it was later replicated in other states as well
We often run down bureaucracy for bloating budgets and extending government plans as per its whims and fancies. But here is a film which tells us that all is not bad with government planning, one just needs the right persons to execute it.
Directed by accomplished documentary filmmaker Vijay S. Jodha, “Pedalling to Freedom” is the story of Pudukottai, a small town in Tamil Nadu, which earned the distinction of the first district in the state to have 100 percent literacy.
But wasn’t that more than a decade back? According to Jodha this has something to do with the support documentary filmmaking gets in this country. “I had my research ready and was waiting for somebody to produce it. Finally PSBT commissioned it under the freedom theme.”
The film tells us how in the space of one year, more than two lakh people learnt to read and write and around a lakh women learnt to cycle at a cost of just Rs.65 per person.
“Through the film I have tried to give face to ideas which we often talk in abstraction sitting in Delhi. We often debate the role of government, civil society and private sector in literacy campaigns. The way the literacy mission was run in Pudukottai answers the whole debate as to how such campaigns should be run,” says Jodha.
The film centres around two women. One is Kannammal who was the Central Coordinator, Total Literacy Campaign, Pudukottai, and the other is Sheela Rani, the District Collector at that time.
Kannammal’s life is the story of an ordinary woman doing something extraordinary. She is an assistant with LIC, takes care of her family but at the same time is one of the chief volunteers in the campaign. “These volunteers didn’t charge anything for their services keeping the cost of teaching at zero. Similarly, villagers offered rooms in their houses for teaching, bringing down the cost of classrooms. Sheela on her part managed to percolate the message that people need literacy for leading a better life, through different means like street theatre.”
Another innovative step on Sheela’s part was including mobility as the fifth objective of the campaign besides literacy, numeracy, functionality and awareness.
“Traditionally, in Indian families women are not encouraged to drive the vehicle, be it a cycle or a car. This drive was so successful in empowering women that it was later replicated in other states as well. Corporates also started giving free driving lessons to promote their product.”
Jodha has also featured the impact of the campaign. With the women starting to earn, the income of the quarry workers went up substantially. “Earlier quarry licences were given only to private people who used to exploit the workers. Sheela introduced licences to the cooperatives, which were given only to workers. As running of cooperatives needs a lot of paper work and bookkeeping, the literacy campaign helped. The incomes of households doubled, and seeing women in the workspace embarrassed men into giving up drink. The children started looking for different options. I know a daughter of quarry workers who is a microbiologist. You know, it is a cycle.” Indeed it is.