A social innovation meets policy

Tags: Op-ed
A social innovation meets policy
SOCIETAL CHANGE: Singing, dancing and reading subtitles on TV in a slum in Ahmedabad. The common thread running through the long incubation of SLS is sustained engagement with policy
Bill Clinton su­m­med it up well, “Ne­arly every problem has been so­lved by someone, somewh­ere. The challenge of the 21st century is to find out what works and scale it up.” Most development challenges are fundamentally governance challenges. So it is germane to ask how the government tends to approach both the search for and scaling up of social innovations. I look at this question through the lens of my work on Same Language Subtitling (SLS) on TV for mass literacy.

The SLS journey began rather innocuously in a fr­iend’s living room in Ithaca, New York, in 1996. As students of Spanish, we were watching “Women on the ve­rge of a nervous breakdown,” an Oscar-winning film is Spanish. The movie on video cassette, yes that dinosaur, had English subtitles. Little did I realise then that a casual thought would take over my life. I wanted the subtitles in Spanish to “catch” the Spanish dialogue better. In the same breath, I voiced an extension from the gut. Maybe if they subtitled Hindi film songs in Hindi, India would become literate.

SLS is simply the idea of subtitling audio-visual media in the ‘same’ language as the audio. Hindi content subtitled in Hindi, Tamil content in Tamil and so on in any and every language. The innovation is 16 years old. Its life can be compressed into two long periods. SLS on film songs was researched rigorously for the first five years at IIM Ahmedabad. The evidence from several studies is that it works, and as Kavita from Ahmedabad’s Gulbai Tekra slum put it, “like magic.”

That feeling of magic stems from the underlying science that it causes inescapable and automatic reading practice. Three to five years of regular SLS-exposure on mainstream TV film songs, already consumed by hundreds of millions, is what it takes to transition most weak-readers, who can barely recognise a few alphabets but whom we call “literate” anyway, to functional-literacy defined by an ability to read a newspaper.

With SLS solidly backed by research, the following decade was spent piloting it on national and state TV programmes in 10 languages. In parallel, we continue to gather evidence on its cost-effectiveness. The cost of guaranteed weekly reading practice for 350 million weak-readers, by the addition of SLS to existing film songs, is a ridiculous 15 paise per person per year.

The common thread running through the long incubation of this social innovation is sustained engagement with policy. Policy never had to find SLS. This innovation has been knocking relentlessly on both the education and broadcast doors, since inception. The institutional credibility of IIM Ahmedabad can largely be credited that the knocks were at least heard and conversations were possible with almost anyone at the top echelons of bureaucracy and even three union ministers.

The majority of responses, though, can be summed up as a mix of rejection, resistance and at least two knock-out punches from ministers, simply because in their opinion, formed in less than two minutes and against the grain of scientific evidence, was that SLS has “nothing to do with literacy”. This view from a Union minister or secretary, born from a feeling and not data, turns out to be more powerful than science. The lower rungs of bureaucracy that I had won over with great time and effort realigned instantly. I learned that in the long run, working with bureaucracy is a surer path than working with ministers.

A consideration of SLS is still alive and kicking in policy. It was presented to the Prasar Bharati Board in 2010 and the board recommended that it could be scaled up on all songs and in all languages. Then the Commonwealth Games happened. In the aftermath, Prasar Bharati and Doordarshan effectively became leaderless for a while and delays were inevitable.

Yet, how does this innovation keep engaging policy? That is because the government is not a monolith. There still are a few good men...and women in the government that social entrepreneurs depend on for strategic facilitation, but, stumbling upon them is somewhat serendipitous.

We stumbled upon a Dr SY Quraishi when he was the director general of Doordarshan (DD) and who went on to become the Chief Election Commissioner. In 2002, it took him minutes to slice through years of resistance within DD to pave the way for SLS on Rangoli and Chitrahaar, two nationally telecast Hindi film song programmes. Years later, in 2010, the chairperson of Prasar Bharati, Mrinal Pande, approved a presentation on SLS to their board which then recommended a national scale up.

More than two and half years after the policy acceptance of SLS, however, the last mile challenge is that there is no budget allocation for the innovation. There cannot be one by definition. A scientifically proven, simple to implement and inexpensive solution has been found, for inescapable and lifelong reading among 700 million TV viewers of this country. How much longer will it take for policy to find it and scale it up?


(The writer is a social entrepreneur and is on the faculty of IIM-Ahmedabad)


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