Advertisement

PROSPECTS

, Volume 47, Issue 3, pp 257–274 | Cite as

Literacy achievement in India: A demographic evaluation

  • Vachaspati ShuklaEmail author
  • Udaya S. Mishra
Open File

Abstract

This article evaluates the progress in literacy among the Indian states, from an age-cohort perspective. It argues that age-cohort analysis offers a robust understanding of the dynamics of literacy progress. The article clearly brings out the fact that, despite the accomplishment of universal elementary education, achieving the goal of full literacy is quite difficult, owing to the existence of an out-of-school-age illiterate population. Thus, the study suggests provision of an effective adult-literacy programme along with universal elementary education in order to realize the goal of full literacy. Further, it argues that comparisons based on the average literacy rate have led to a computation of a “literacy deprivation index” adjusted with age structure—and that such adjustment leads us to view the literacy gap across all the states as wider, given that it assumes lower values. This minimal standardization, along with the age structure of the population, offers a valid comparison of this commonly used indicator. Its prospect of progress, too, is largely dependent upon the emerging age structure of the population as a result of the unfolding demographic transition.

Keywords

Literacy Age cohort Group disparity 

Literacy rate, defined as the proportion of population able to read and write any language with understanding, is the most simple and widely used indicator to assess and compare the progress in educational development across regions. The United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognizes literacy as a fundamental right of every individual.

The population census of India, conducted in every 10 years, is a rich and credible source of information on the population’s literacy and overall educational attainment. According to census information, the national literacy level rose from 64.8% in 2001 to 74% in 2011 (RGI 2011a). Notably, this change is greater in underdeveloped states like Bihar, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh, resulting in a decline in inter-state disparity in this regard. Although this is a welcome trend, any observation regarding progress in literacy based on its aggregate level may well be misleading without accounting for the differences across age cohorts. Further, any policy suggestions concerning improving the levels of literacy need to be informed by the distribution of these levels across age cohorts.

With this background, we here attempt an analysis of age-specific literacy rates across Indian states. In the process, we have developed an age-adjusted literacy index. Such age-adjusted index makes an eligible comparison of literacy levels across states in consideration of their differences in the age composition of their populations. In the second section of this article, we discuss India’s literacy policies since independence. We elaborate an analysis of age-specific literacy and its bearing on policy in the third section; in the fourth, we compute age-adjusted literacy deprivation for a robust comparison across the states. Last, we give our findings and offer some insights for policy formulation.

Policy on literacy in India

On the eve of India’s independence, the founders of the country’s constitution fully recognized the role of education in the nation’s socio-economic development. However, providing everybody with basic skills of reading and writing was a herculean task for India, owing to its large number of uneducated citizens. According to the first population census of independent India, conducted in 1951, only 18.3% of the people were literate (RGI 2011a). Policymakers stressed the need to provide elementary education for children between 6–14 years of age and adult education for individuals 15 years and above, in order to achieve full literacy.

Article 45 of the Indian constitution made the provision of free and compulsory education for all children up to 14 years of age. The implicit assumption at the policy level seemed to be that expansion of elementary education would take care of the problem of mass illiteracy. The National Policy on Education, announced in 1986, envisaged universal primary education by 1990. This policy, as revised in 1992, intended two distinct policy initiatives; namely, Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) and the Mid-Day Meal Scheme (MDMS). Parliament has since passed the Constitution’s 86th Amendment Act (2002), to make elementary education a fundamental right (Pt. III, Art. 21A) and to make it a fundamental duty (Art. 15A) of parents and guardians to provide their children aged 6–14 with opportunities for education. The Right to Education Act came into effect in April 2010; all children now have a fundamental right to 8 years of quality elementary education. As a result of a number of policy interventions and constitutional provisions, universal elementary education (UEE) is becoming a reality.

Thus, UEE has come into effect 60 long years—not a decade, as proposed—after independence. Given the lack of an adult-literacy mission in the early stage of literacy planning, UEE has been unable to achieve literacy for all Indians. In the mid-1960s, D. S. Kothari, chair of the Education Commission, emphasized again the need for adult education. The commission aptly observed: “India had more illiterate in 1961 than in 1951, with an addition of about 36 million illiterates” (GOI 1966). The same remarks held good for 1971, 1981, and 1991 literacy figures. Thus, we may conclude that, in terms of absolute numbers, in the year 1991 India was more illiterate than it was before independence. Faster population growth pushed the country further behind in its attempts to reach universal literacy.

The year 1978 was an important milestone in the history of adult education since, for the first time, the country formulated a concerted national policy to educate millions of illiterate adults aged 15–35 years. The National Policy Statement on Adult Education emphatically averred the government’s resolution “to wage a clearly conceived well planned and relentless struggle against illiteracy to enable masses to play an active role in social, cultural and economic transformation of the country” (Biswas and Agrawal 1986, p. 525). To bring about this social, cultural, and economic transformation, the government launched the National Adult Education Programme (NAEP) on October 2, 1978. Then, on May 5, 1988, the Indian government launched a National Literacy Mission (NLM) with an initial target of making 80 million people in the 15–35 age groups literate by 1995. The government later enhanced this goal to 100 million by 1997 with an overall target to achieve a threshold level of 75% literacy by 2007. In addition, the government set 85% literacy target for the eleventh 5-year plan (2007–2012). As in the past, India fell far short of these targets: the literacy rate in 2011 was only 74%. Because of its failure to achieve its literacy targets, India still has a very large illiterate population. The 2011 census found 273 million individuals to be illiterate: 96 million men and 176 million women (RGI 2011a).

Literacy progress in India: Need for age-cohort analysis

Generally, “literacy” seems to be a term that everyone understands. But at the same time, literacy as a concept is complex and dynamic, interpreted and defined multiple ways. Thus, no standard international definition of literacy accommodates all its facets; UNESCO (1978) adopted the concept of “functional literacy”. People are said to be functionally literate if they can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required both for effective functioning within their group and community and for their own and their community’s development. Therefore, literacy refers to a context-bound continuum of reading, writing, and numeracy skills, acquired and developed through a process of learning and application, in school and in other settings appropriate to youth and adults.

In India, the general perception about literacy follows the census definition; that is, the ability to read and write any language. Illiterate people, according to the census, do not have this ability to read and write. The census defines “literacy rate” as the proportion of literate people in the population above seven years of age. Under this definition, India’s literacy rate has shown significant improvement. It has almost doubled over a period of 40 years, from 37.3% in 1971 to 74.0% in 2011 (Figure 1). Although this is a commendable achievement, India still remains far from universal literacy. In fact, it falls short of its own target of 80 % by 2011, set up by the Indian Planning Commission.
Figure 1

Literacy rate in India

Source: RGI (2011a).

In addition, literacy in India varies widely from state to state. According to the estimate based on 2011 census data, India’s literacy rate ranges from lowest, in Bihar (63.8%), to highest, in Kerala (93.9%). In 2011, 10 of the 20 states presented in Table 1 had literacy rates that were higher than the national average (74.0%). In comparison to 2001, all the states have registered improvement in literacy. Greater improvement amongst the poorest states (Bihar, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, and Andhra Pradesh) is another cheering aspect of literacy progress during 2001–2011.
Table 1

Statewise literacy rate in India, 2001–2011

State

All

Rural Male

Rural Female

Urban Male

Urban Female

2011

2001

2011

2001

2011

2001

2011

2001

2011

2001

Kerala

93.9

90.9

95.3

93.6

90.7

86.7

96.8

95.9

93.3

90.6

Himachal Pradesh

83.8

76.5

90.5

84.5

75.3

65.7

93.7

92.0

88.7

85.0

Maharashtra

82.9

76.9

86.4

81.9

67.4

58.4

93.8

91.0

85.4

79.1

Tamil Nadu

80.3

73.5

82.1

77.2

65.5

55.3

91.8

89.0

82.7

76.0

Uttarakhand

79.6

71.6

87.6

81.8

66.8

54.7

89.8

87.1

80.0

74.8

Gujarat

79.3

69.1

83.1

74.1

62.4

47.8

92.4

88.3

82.1

74.5

West Bengal

77.1

68.6

79.5

73.1

66.1

53.2

89.2

86.1

81.7

75.7

Punjab

76.7

69.7

77.9

71.1

66.5

57.7

87.3

83.1

79.6

74.5

Haryana

76.6

67.9

83.2

75.4

61.0

49.3

89.4

85.8

77.5

71.3

Karnataka

75.6

66.6

77.9

70.5

59.6

48.0

90.5

86.7

81.7

74.1

Odisha

73.5

63.1

80.4

72.9

61.1

46.7

91.8

87.9

80.7

72.9

Assam

73.2

63.3

76.5

68.2

64.1

50.7

91.8

89.7

85.7

80.2

Chhattisgarh

71.0

64.7

78.2

74.1

55.4

47.0

91.6

89.4

77.7

71.1

Madhya Pradesh

70.6

63.7

76.6

71.7

53.2

42.8

90.2

87.4

77.4

70.5

Uttar Pradesh

69.7

56.3

78.5

66.6

55.6

36.9

81.8

76.8

71.7

61.7

Jammu & Kashmir

68.7

55.5

75.5

61.7

53.4

36.7

84.9

80.0

70.2

62.0

Andhra Pradesh

67.7

60.5

70.2

65.4

52.1

43.5

86.0

83.2

75.0

68.7

Jharkhand

67.6

53.6

74.6

60.9

49.8

29.9

89.8

70.0

76.2

79.1

Rajasthan

67.1

60.4

77.5

72.2

46.3

37.3

89.2

86.5

71.5

64.7

Bihar

63.8

47.0

71.9

57.1

50.8

29.6

84.4

79.9

72.4

62.6

India

74.0

64.8

78.6

70.7

58.8

46.1

89.7

86.3

79.9

72.9

Source: RGI (2011b).

The disparity in literacy persists across various subgroups of the populations within the states. Generally, these subgroups are identified in terms of gender, social group (SC/ST-Others), and sector of origin. Given that such disparity in all of these stated dimensions varied widely across states, comparisons based on average literacy rate—without accounting for the vast group of disparities—might be misleading. The literature, as well as government documents, clearly recognizes the group disparity in literacy. Even the census reports present literacy rate at national, state, and district levels with the disaggregation by gender, sector of origin, and social groups (RGI 2011d). The recent works of Shukla and Mishra (2014a) incorporate such group disparities in the reading-literacy differential.

One of the specific and important characteristic aspects of literacy that remains overlooked in interpreting aggregate literacy rates relates to its association with age cohorts. Although a few scholars have made attempts in this direction (Shukla and Mishra 2014b; Venkatanarayana 2015; Venkatanarayana and Ravi 2013), we are still missing a comprehensive age-cohort analysis of literacy in India. For a typical age profile, at one point in time we observe higher proportions of literates in the younger age cohort than in the older ones. This is primarily due to the greater access to education amongst the most recent cohorts compared to the older ones. In the social sciences, this is called a “cohort effect” (or a “generation effect”). We here define a “cohort” (generation) as a group of people born in the same year or period. In almost every country, people in older cohorts are less educated than those in younger ones because education is concentrated in the younger age groups and most education systems have expanded over time.

Figure 2 below presents the literacy rate across the age cohorts for India estimated from data we obtained from the 2011census. It reflects a negative relationship between age cohorts and literacy rate. The literacy rate is the highest for age group 10–14 and lowest for age group 80+, confirming the principle of cohort effect in literacy progress (Literacy in India is defined for the population of age 7 and above, but for age-cohort categorization, we consider the population age 10 and above for our analysis.) It is 91.1% for the (10–14) age cohort and 39.0% for the 80+ age cohort, as against the 74.0% for the aggregate literacy rate. The differential achievement in literacy across age cohorts has important policy and welfare implications, as the individuals belonging to a specific age cohort has an impact on that cohort’s social and economic activities.
Figure 2

Age-specific literacy rate in India, 2011

Source: Computed from RGI (2011c).

Therefore, the age-cohort analysis of literacy serves as an appropriate way to understand the dynamics of literacy progress over a longer period of time, despite using information from various censuses. Our analysis of the literacy rate, focused on age cohorts 70–74 and 10–14, reveals literacy progress over a period of 60 years. The age cohort 70–74 constitutes individuals born during the period 1937–1941; the age cohort 10–14, those born during 1997–2001. Age-cohort dynamics indicate the changes in the likelihood of being literate for individuals born at intervals of every 5 years. It reveals a trend: over a period of 60 years, the literacy rate in India improved from nearly 40% for the age group 70–74 years to more than 90% for the age group 10–14.

Interstate analysis of the age-specific literacy rate

The analysis of the age cohort–specific literacy rate reveals wide variation across states for any specific age cohort. For instance, the literacy rate for the age cohort 10–14 is highest for Kerala (98.79%) and lowest for Bihar (60.02%). Four other states—namely, Himachal Pradesh (96.89%), Maharashtra (94.71%), Tamil Nadu (94.46%), and Uttarakhand (90.85%)—have a literacy rate over 90% for that age cohort. Similarly, for the age cohort 70–74, literacy rates vary—from the lowest, in Jammu and Kashmir (22.2%), to the highest, in Kerala (76.9%).

In the absence of age cohort analysis, interstate comparisons based on aggregate literacy rates could very well offer misleading conclusions regarding progress in literacy. The higher literacy rate of one state over another need not necessarily imply that the former dominates the latter across all the age cohorts. For instance, the aggregate literacy rate in Uttar Pradesh (69.7%) is higher than in Andhra Pradesh (67.7%); but, for the 10–14 age cohorts, Andhra Pradesh (94.2%) has a higher literacy rate than Uttar Pradesh (87.7%). Contrary to this, the literacy rate for the 70–74 age cohort is lower in Andhra Pradesh (29%) when compared with that of Uttar Pradesh (32.7%). The state of Bihar presents another case that underlines the importance of considering age cohort when comparing interstate literacy. Looking at Table 2, Bihar registered the lowest literacy rate (83.3%) for the youngest age cohort (10–14); however, it ranked eighth for the oldest age cohort (70–74). Table 2 presents the details on the age-specific literacy rate for 20 major states of the country.
Table 2

Age-specific literacy rates in India in 20 major states

States

10–14

15–19

20–24

25–29

30–34

35–39

40–44

45–49

50–54

55–59

60–64

65–69

70–74

75–79

80+

All

Kerala

98.9

99.2

98.9

98.5

98.1

97.0

95.8

93.7

92.1

89.6

85.7

79.9

76.9

73.8

69.4

94.0

Tamil Nadu

97.9

97.5

94.7

90.3

85.9

77.5

72.6

67.7

65.5

61.9

54.5

49.5

46.0

47.9

42.1

79.5

Himachal Pradesh

97.2

97.3

95.6

93.2

90.5

86.0

79.8

74.8

70.0

65.7

53.7

46.7

36.8

32.9

24.9

82.3

Maharashtra

95.6

94.9

92.5

89.7

86.1

81.6

77.1

73.6

71.4

68.8

59.4

53.2

48.3

50.2

47.0

82.0

Karnataka

95.3

93.0

88.7

83.0

77.7

70.0

64.5

60.1

57.1

55.8

47.2

44.0

39.8

42.5

37.9

74.5

Uttarakhand

94.7

93.8

90.0

85.0

79.6

73.9

69.5

66.3

63.4

58.5

50.3

48.5

43.3

41.9

38.1

78.2

Andhra Pradesh

94.2

91.1

83.0

73.5

66.5

58.8

52.2

47.4

43.8

41.7

33.7

32.2

29.0

32.7

31.5

65.9

Gujarat

94.0

91.5

86.8

83.4

79.0

74.3

69.6

66.6

63.7

61.8

54.9

51.1

45.7

47.5

41.5

77.4

Chhattisgarh

93.4

90.2

84.4

77.8

70.0

61.9

54.3

49.2

46.5

44.2

37.1

33.4

29.3

29.6

29.6

69.3

Haryana

93.3

91.8

88.0

84.0

78.2

70.9

63.7

59.8

56.8

53.7

43.4

40.4

33.7

31.0

26.4

74.8

Punjab

92.9

91.4

88.1

84.0

78.5

73.2

68.9

66.5

63.7

61.6

48.7

42.9

35.9

34.1

28.2

75.2

West Bengal

92.7

89.8

84.6

80.1

76.6

71.7

67.0

64.7

63.1

62.4

55.9

54.0

50.6

51.8

50.4

75.6

Madhya Pradesh

92.0

87.7

79.3

71.8

65.6

60.1

55.4

51.9

50.0

46.5

40.1

36.1

31.0

31.4

30.4

68.2

Odisha

91.8

88.2

83.8

79.4

74.7

69.1

64.1

60.4

57.9

55.5

46.7

44.1

39.9

42.1

40.4

72.3

Jharkhand

90.0

84.6

74.0

67.3

61.7

56.7

51.6

47.7

45.0

42.8

36.8

35.2

32.3

34.2

33.7

65.2

Rajasthan

89.4

85.9

77.0

68.9

61.6

55.5

50.0

45.8

43.3

39.8

33.7

29.9

24.8

25.0

22.2

64.9

Assam

88.1

85.3

79.4

74.4

71.3

67.0

62.4

59.6

57.0

56.7

50.3

49.9

43.0

45.3

39.9

71.7

Jammu & Kashmir

87.9

86.5

79.6

73.4

67.0

60.1

53.9

48.8

44.8

41.6

33.1

29.6

22.2

22.9

21.9

66.4

Uttar Pradesh

87.7

84.9

77.2

68.4

61.5

57.0

53.8

51.1

49.4

44.1

38.3

35.8

32.7

33.2

35.4

66.7

Bihar

83.3

77.5

66.2

59.8

56.0

52.4

49.0

45.2

43.0

39.7

36.4

35.7

33.6

35.3

35.7

60.5

India

91.1

88.8

83.2

77.7

72.5

67.3

63.0

59.8

57.6

54.8

46.9

43.9

39.8

41.9

39.0

72.3

Source: Computed from RGI (2011c).

We can very well comprehend this nonuniformity of literacy dominance amongst the states by plotting the cumulative literacy rate over ages for different states. Such an exposition particularly highlights literacy dominance until a certain age—or the lack of it beyond a certain age. Such exposition also exposes the illusion of an overall literacy level, which masks the age-specific picture. We can see this in Figure 3a, which presents the cumulative literacy rate for the four states Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Odisha, and Rajasthan. The comparison based on average literacy rate (for the age group 10+) puts Odisha, with a literacy rate of 72.3%, as the best performer among the states, followed by Assam (71.7%), Andhra Pradesh (65.9%), and Rajasthan (64.9%). But this dominance does not hold over all the ages. Comparing the literacy rate for the 10–29 age cohort makes Andhra Pradesh the best performer; it becomes second-best, if we compare the 10–39 age cohort. Similarly, Rajasthan becomes the worst performer, when we take into account the 10–29 age group.
Figure 3

a Commulative literacy rate for selected Indian states. b Commulative literacy rate for selected Indian states

Source: Computed from RGI (2011c).

Figure 3b presents a similar exposition for another group of four states—Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and Himachal Pradesh—where Himachal Pradesh performs best and Maharashtra second-best, through all the age cohorts. The same is not true between Karnataka and Gujarat. Karnataka stands better than Gujarat until the age cohort 10–39, after which it lags behind Gujarat.

In consideration of the age-specific dynamics of literacy, one could make an alternative evaluation of literacy progress based on the comparison of literacy incidence between the two extremes of the age cohorts. The comparison of literacy rates between the 70–74 and the 10–14 age cohorts offers an index of progress for a period of 60 years. We present, in Figure 4, the percentage-point differences between the literacy rates of these two age cohorts. Since progress measured in terms of percentage-point difference has lot to do with the initial level, we need to compare these differences with caution. It is suggestive, in this case, to compare the group of states with the same rates of initial literacy (70–74 age cohort). In this regard, the states with the lowest rates of initial literacy (all less than 30%)—Jammu & Kashmir, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh—registered the highest improvement in literacy rate. We observe no significant variation in the performances of these states in terms of percentage-point differences. Among the states with mid-level rates of initial literacy (30–40%)—Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Karnataka, and Odisha—Himachal Pradesh registered the highest improvement and Bihar the lowest. Consequently, Himachal Pradesh improved its ranking from fourteenth to third while ranking of Bihar declined from tenth to lowest. The states of Odisha and Uttar Pradesh also registered reductions in their rankings, while the rankings for Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, and Haryana improved.
Figure 4

Percentage-point difference of (70–74) and (10–14) age cohorts’ literacy rates

Source: Computed from RGI (2011c).

Tamil Nadu registered highest and West Bengal, lowest, improvement amongst the states with the highest rates of initial literacy: that is, amongst West Bengal, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Uttarakhand, and Assam. (All of these states had an initial literacy rate of over 40%, but we exclude the state of Kerala because of its very high literacy rate.) Two states in this group, West Bengal and Assam, declined dramatically in their relative ranking; West Bengal declined from second place for the 70–74 age cohort to twelfth place for the 10–14 age cohort; Assam declined from seventh for the 70–74 age cohort to seventeenth position for the 10–14 age cohort.

Age-specific analysis of group disparity

The development literature, including that of education and literacy, frequently discusses male-female and rural-urban differences as axes of group disparity. Considering these two binary classifications, we can obtain four disjointed and mutually exclusive groups: the rural male, rural female, urban male and urban female. Figure 5 presents the aggregate literacy rate for the four subgroups of the population stated above, for the five census years. It is apparent from Figure 5 that group differences in the literacy rate are narrowing over the years as a result of faster improvement amongst disadvantage groups. However, we still see large differences amongst the groups. These vary from the highest literacy rate, for urban males (89.7%), to the lowest rate, for rural females (58.8%); this gap is greater than 30 percentage points—quite a large number. The data in Figure 5 also show a clear dominance of the urban over the rural sector over the years, as both urban groups (male and female) enjoy higher literacy than both rural groups. Although females remain the disadvantaged gender in both the rural and urban sectors, males do not show a clear dominance over females: while urban males have a higher literacy rate than the two female groups, rural males have a lower rate than urban females.
Figure 5

Literacy rate in India across group

Source: RGI (2011b).

Our analysis of the aggregate literacy rate finds group disparity in all the states (see Table 1). Similar to the national pattern, urban males form the best-off group and rural females, the worst-off. However, the gap between the best-off and worst-off groups varies widely across the states; it is highest for Rajasthan and lowest for Kerala. Moreover, females form the disadvantaged group relative to their male counterparts in both sectors for all the states.

Contrary to the aggregate literacy rate, the age-cohort analysis provides evidence of convergence amongst all four groups (Figure 6). Movement from the oldest to the youngest age cohort reduces the group disparity in literacy rate amongst these groups; it nearly disappears for the 10–14 age cohort. Thus, group disparity in literacy is not of concern for every age cohort. The same is evident from the statewise analysis as well: there is tremendous reduction in group disparity once we move from the older age cohort to the younger one. In most of the states, group disparity for the younger (10–14) age cohort either vanishes or stands very low. The states with higher levels of literacy experience this convergence in a relatively older age cohort than to states with lower literacy levels.
Figure 6

Age-specific literacy rate in India

Source: Computed from RGI (2011c).

Figures 7ad present the age-cohort literacy rate for the four stated subgroups in four states (Bihar, Odisha, Gujarat, and Kerala). We selected the states of Bihar and Kerala, to represent the lowest and highest levels of literacy, and Odisha and Gujarat to present the mid-levels of literacy. In Kerala, disparity amongst the four subgroups of the population disappears for the age cohorts 30–34 and younger. In the cases of Bihar and Odisha, disparity amongst the subgroups is heading toward convergence. In the state of Gujarat, it has nearly disappeared for the 10–14 age cohort. This convergence in the subgroups’ literacy rates is the result of faster progress among disadvantaged groups. In all the states before the point of convergence, urban males form the best-off group and rural females, the worst-off. The remaining two subgroups—rural male and urban female—lie between and have nearly equal literacy. We observe this for all four states.
Figure 7

a Age-specific literacy rate in Bihar. b Age-specific literacy rate in Odisha. c Age-specific literacy rate in Gujrat. d Age-specific literacy rate in Kerala

Source: Computed from RGI (2011c).

Toward realizing universal literacy

The discussions above make it clear that the age-cohort analysis is the appropriate means to assess progress in literacy and evaluate disparity across various sub groups of a population. It enlightens one’s understanding about the dynamics of literacy improvement. This analysis shows that age cohorts are not equally deprived as regards literacy: the deprivation is greater for older age cohorts when compared with younger ones. In addition, group disparity in literacy, too, is minimal within the younger age cohort. Although it offers hope, it poses some challenges as well. Literacy is the basic human skill required for a better life, and, to make it universal, India will have to strive long and the programme on literacy improvement must target the entire population. From a policy perspective, literacy improvement in India is brought about through two initiatives: one is universal elementary education for the children of the age group 6–14 years; the other is the adult-literacy programme for people aged 15 to 35. Given this, Table 3, below, presents literacy achievement across Indian states separately for the age groups 7–14 and 15–35; it gives these rates for the year 2011.
Table 3

Statewise literacy rate for the (7–14) and (15–35) age groups

State

All

Rural Male

Rural Female

Urban Male

Urban Female

7–14

15–35

7–14

15–35

7–14

15–35

7–14

15–35

7–14

15–35

Kerala

97.1

98.6

96.9

98.5

97.0

98.1

97.3

98.9

97.3

98.9

Tamil Nadu

95.3

91.1

95.1

92.7

94.7

83.5

95.8

96.0

95.5

92.5

Himachal Pradesh

95.2

93.9

95.5

95.9

94.9

91.7

95.0

94.8

94.3

93.6

Karnataka

93.1

84.7

93.3

86.6

91.6

73.8

94.4

93.0

93.9

88.7

Maharashtra

92.8

90.3

93.0

92.3

91.9

83.6

93.5

94.1

93.2

91.0

Uttarakhand

92.0

87.1

92.8

91.9

91.9

81.2

91.3

91.0

90.3

85.5

Gujarat

91.6

84.8

92.2

88.1

89.8

72.3

93.2

92.8

91.6

86.6

Haryana

90.9

85.2

92.4

89.7

89.3

76.5

91.4

91.2

89.7

84.6

Andhra Pradesh

90.7

77.4

90.8

80.8

89.3

64.3

92.3

90.0

91.7

83.0

Punjab

90.3

85.1

91.0

85.6

90.0

80.8

90.4

89.5

89.3

86.0

West Bengal

90.3

82.4

89.6

83.5

89.8

75.4

92.0

90.2

92.0

86.5

Chhattisgarh

89.3

80.4

89.1

85.8

87.3

68.2

93.6

94.1

93.3

86.5

Madhya Pradesh

88.6

76.2

88.3

81.5

87.0

59.9

91.6

91.2

91.2

84.1

Odisha

88.2

81.0

88.6

86.4

86.3

71.6

92.8

93.1

92.0

86.9

Rajasthan

86.1

73.8

89.3

85.4

81.2

52.7

89.8

90.6

86.7

77.6

Jharkhand

86.0

71.7

86.4

78.9

82.9

52.8

91.4

90.9

90.4

82.0

Uttar Pradesh

84.3

73.9

86.7

82.5

83.6

60.8

81.5

82.7

79.7

75.4

Assam

84.3

77.1

83.4

79.4

83.0

69.8

93.5

93.5

92.8

89.5

Jammu & Kashmir

83.8

76.2

85.1

83.1

79.7

60.9

88.9

90.0

87.1

79.6

Bihar

79.4

64.7

81.2

73.1

76.4

50.7

84.9

84.5

83.3

75.5

India

87.9

80.2

88.2

84.0

85.6

67.5

91.0

91.3

90.2

85.8

Source: Computed from RGI (2011c).

Based on Table 3’s data, literacy progress in India seems encouraging, as 11out of 20 states achieved a literacy rate of more than 90% for the age group 7–14. Higher literacy rates among that age group reflect the success of India’s free and compulsory elementary educational policy. However, evaluating these data from the lens of universal literacy, it still seems challenging, as 12% of the children from that age group are illiterate. Even most developed states—like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Himachal Pradesh—are unable to realize 100% literacy for the 7–14 age group. In addition, in 9 states more than 10% of the children in that age group are illiterate—Bihar, Jammu and Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, Assam, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, Odisha, Madhya Pradesh, and Chhattisgarh. Since the states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are highly populated, their progress has significant bearing on the improvement in the country’s overall literacy rate.

As shown in Table 3, literacy deprivation amongst the 7–14 age group is nearly uniform across all 4 sub groups of the population. The states with a very high literacy rate in that age group—like Kerala, Tamil Nadu, and Himachal Pradesh—have equal rates of literacy among the 4 population sub groups. For the states with low literacy rates, disparity amongst the 7–14 age groups still remains, albeit low. For these states, “rural female” remains the most disadvantaged subgroup of the population.

The failure of the policy on free and compulsory elementary education is solely to blame for the literacy deprivation of the 7–14 age group. The most crucial and significant step toward universal literacy is to prevent fresh entrants into the pool of those who cannot read or write. Universal implementation of the free and compulsory elementary education programme is the only way to accomplish this. The states with a lower literacy rate for the 7–14 age group must make more efforts in this direction.

As expected, individuals belonging to the 15–35 age group have higher rates of illiteracy than do those aged 7–14. Nearly 20% of those in the older group in India do not have basic literacy skills. This deprivation is not uniformly distributed across Indian states. Four states (Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, and Maharashtra) have an over-90% literacy rate; and four states (Bihar, Jharkhand, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh) have an under-75% literacy rate. In the 15–35 age group, rural females have the lowest rates of literacy. At the national level, over one third of the rural females in the 15–35 age group do not have basic literacy skills. For 4 states (Bihar, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh) this proportion goes beyond 40%; for another 2 states (Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir), it is close to 40%.

The effective implementation of adult-literacy programmes could improve literacy rates for the 15–35 age group. Adult education in India aims at extending educational options to those adults, who have lost the opportunity for and are beyond the age of formal education. Indian adult-literacy programmes need to ensure that all people become literate before they turn 35 years old because India has no specific programme to promote literacy beyond that age. Literacy deprivation among 10–35-year-olds deserves serious attention as these individuals have longer to live than those in the older age cohort. Even if India achieved universal literacy for age groups 7–14 and 15–35, the goal of full literacy cannot be realized in the near future due to the large number of illiterate Indians in the 35+ age group; one expects that it will take a long time for them to be replaced by young, educated people. Broadening the scope of adult-literacy programmes beyond the 15–35 age cohort will speed up the achievement of universal literacy.

Literacy deprivation can have serious implications for employability. Further, it poses a major hurdle for individuals in terms of benefitting from government welfare programs, since it often prevents them from being aware of such benefits. Lack of basic skills has an influence on individuals’ resilience to setbacks and stress, on their feelings of well-being, and on the extent to which they feel in control of their lives. Moreover, in light of service sector–led economic growth, which demands relatively skilled labour, mere basic literacy might not be sufficient for earning a livelihood. Expanding learning abilities in the literacy programme, therefore, becomes all the more important in modern systems where access to banking services, reliance on information technology, and other such demands are becoming almost unavoidable.

Age-structure–adjusted literacy rate

In the above discussion, we point out a systematic negative relationship between age cohorts and literacy rate. This negative relationship holds true for all the levels of education and is not exclusive to literacy. Even in some of the educationally advanced countries, younger people are relatively better educated than older ones; this disadvantage for the older residents is primarily because of limited schooling opportunities when they were school age. Assessment of the state of educational development is often based on improvement in the literacy rate, which is defined as the proportion of literate people in the population aged seven years and above. In light of the inverse relation between age cohort and literacy, and of the variation in age composition of the population across states in India, average literacy may not be an appropriate indicator to compare educational progress across states.

In this section, we compute the age-structure–adjusted literacy rate, following two different approaches. In the first approach, literacy rates for all the states are deflated with a reference age of the population. And in the second, it is deflated with a reference structure of age distribution. In the first method, we divided the average age of the population of all the states by the reference age. Then we multiplied the average literacy rate of the state with this ratio to obtain a literacy rate adjusted for age. Let A be reference age; ai is the average age of the population for the ith state; and H i is the literacy rate for the ith state.Then the following formula gives the adjusted rate of literacy for the ith state:
$$ H_{i}^{*} = H_{i} \frac{{a_{i} }}{A}, $$
where H i * is the age-adjusted literacy rate.
For the purpose of the present analysis, median, defined as the value of the variable that divides the distribution into two equal parts, represents the age-structure dimension. In Table 4, below, we present the median age for all the states. Kerala, with a median value of 36 years, has the population with the highest average age; and Bihar, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, with 28 years, have populations with the lowest average age. In other words, Kerala has the oldest population; and Bihar, Rajasthan, and Uttar Pradesh, the youngest population. For the purpose of index computation, we consider the median age of Kerala’s population as the reference age, and we rescaled the literacy rate of all the states on that basis.
Table 4

Age-structure–adjusted literacy rate in India

State

Median Age

Literacy Rate

ALR1

ALR2

Kerala

36

94.0

94.0

94.0

Tamil Nadu

34

79.5

75.1

77.7

Himachal Pradesh

32

82.3

73.1

79.9

Andhra Pradesh

31

65.9

56.8

62.1

Karnataka

31

74.5

64.2

71.3

Maharashtra

31

82.0

70.6

79.7

Punjab

31

75.2

64.8

72.6

West Bengal

31

75.6

65.1

73.0

Chhattisgarh

30

69.3

57.8

63.8

Gujarat

30

77.4

64.5

74.1

Haryana

30

74.8

62.3

70.0

Odisha

30

72.3

60.2

69.4

Assam

29

71.7

57.8

67.7

Jammu &Kashmir

29

66.4

53.5

60.5

Jharkhand

29

65.2

52.5

59.6

Madhya Pradesh

29

68.2

54.9

62.9

Uttarakhand

29

78.2

63.0

74.0

Bihar

28

60.5

47.1

55.3

Rajasthan

28

64.9

50.5

58.4

Uttar Pradesh

28

66.7

51.9

60.7

India

30

72.3

60.3

68.6

Source: Estimated from RGI (2011c).

Therefore, we multiplied the literacy rate of the ith state with a value that is the ratio of the median age of the ith state’s population and the median age of Kerala’s population. Hence, we get a different literacy rate for all the states, which we term the “age-adjusted literacy rate (ALR1)”. In Table 4, we give the value of ALR1for the major Indian states. It is clear that the adjusted literacy rate is lower than the unadjusted literacy rate for all the states. But the difference between the adjusted and unadjusted literacy rates varies across states. In general, differences are higher for the states whose median age is far from the median age in Kerala, and vice versa. ALR1, with respect to the median age in Kerala, suggests that, if all the states had a similar age composition as that of Kerala, this would have been their literacy rate. Contrary to the above analysis, the literacy rate can also be adjusted by rescaling it, taking the lowest age as the reference. In that case, all the states would reflect an increase in their literacy rates.

We have also followed an alternative method to compute an age-structure–adjusted literacy rate, using a reference-age structure. First, we classified the overall population into a definite number of groups, then computed the age-group–specific literacy rate for all the states. Thus, we can express the overall literacy rate as the weighted sum of the age-specific literacy rate and share of the specific age group in the population. If we divide the total population in the n groups, α i is the share of population of ith age group and H i is the literacy rate among ith age group, then we can express the average literacy rate for the population as
$$ H = \sum\limits_{i = 1}^{n} {\alpha_{i} } .H_{i}. $$
we computed the age-structure–adjusted literacy rate by replicating the age-specific literacy rate in a reference-age structure of the population. If β i is the share of ith age group in the population of the reference-age structure and H ji is the literacy rate of ith age group in jth state, then the age-structure–adjusted literacy rate for jthstate is
$$ H_{j} = \sum\limits_{i = 1}^{n} {\beta_{i} } .H_{ji}. $$

For the purpose of the present analysis, we have classified the overall population in the 15 age groups (10–14, 15–19, 20–24, 25–29, 30–34, 35–39, 40–44, 45–49, 50–54, 55–59, 60–64, 65–69, 70–74, 75–79, and 80+).While literacy is defined for the population 7+, for the sake of convenience we consider only the population of age 10 and above for this analysis. In the last column of Table 4, we present the age-structure–adjusted literacy (ALR2) for all the states. Like the previous method, this method also records a reduction in the literacy rate after adjustment in all the states. The extent of reduction using this method is smaller relative to the earlier method. We consider the result obtained from this method as more accurate, as it is based on the distribution not on the average—contrary to the earlier result. After this adjustment, our findings show India’s literacy rate as 68.6% (down from its preadjusted rate of 72.3%), which would have been India’s literacy rate if it had followed the age structure of Kerala. The comparison of unadjusted and adjusted literacy rates across states changes the ranking of some of the states. The states of Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, and Karnataka improved their ranking, while some states—Haryana, Jammu & Kashmir, Uttar Pradesh, and Uttarakhand—had a worse ranking. The above illustration tells us that the literacy rate may be lower than what the average literacy rate reveals without calculating the differences in age structure. It also reaffirms the fact that states with a higher share of younger age population progress faster than states with a lower share, if the same efforts for literacy are made.

Conclusions

In the present study, we highlight the importance of population age structure in assessing progress in literacy. Despite India’s achieving universal elementary education, reaching the goal of full literacy is rather difficult owing to the out-of-school-age illiterate population. Thus, we suggest that India needs an effective adult-literacy programme in order to realize the goal of full literacy. We also propose broadening the scope of basic literacy programmes and their coverage beyond the 15–35 age group. Further, we here raise the question of the reliability of comparisons made on the basis of the average literacy rate. Such apprehension has led us to compute a “literacy-deprivation index adjusted with age structure”. This index situates the literacy levels of all the states lower, using Kerala’s age structure as reference. Further, an alternative revision based on the median age of the population does lead to findings of lower literacy levels and recast the interstate differences.

References

  1. Biswas, A., & Agrawal, S. P. (1986). Development of education in India: A historical survey of educational documents before and after independence. New Delhi: Concept Publishing Company.Google Scholar
  2. GOI [Government of India] (1966). Report of the Education Commission (1964–1966): Education and National Development. New Delhi: Government of India.Google Scholar
  3. RGI [Registrar General of India] (2011a). State of literacy (chapter 6), Provisional Population Totals Paper 1 of census 2011. New Delhi: Office of Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India. http://www.censusindia.gov.in/2011-prov-results/data_files/india/Final_PPT_2011_chapter6.pdf.
  4. RGI (2011b). Rural urban distribution of literacy (chapter 3), Provisional Population Totals, Paper 2 of census 2011. New Delhi: Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India. http://www.censusindia.gov.in/2011-prov-results/paper2/data_files/india/paper2_3.pdf.
  5. RGI (2011c). Single-year age returns data of census 2011. New Delhi: Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India. http://www.censusindia.gov.in/2011census/Age_level_Data/C13/DDW-0000C-13SCA.xlsx.
  6. RGI (2011d). Socio-cultural series of census. New Delhi: Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India. http://www.censusindia.gov.in/DigitalLibrary/TablesSeries2001.aspx.
  7. Shukla, V., & Mishra, U. S. (2014a). Literacy progress in Uttar Pradesh: A district level analysis. Indian Journal of Human Development, 8(1), 171–182.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Shukla, V., & Mishra, U. S. (2014b). Age composition and literacy progress in India: An inter-state analysis. Journal of Educational Planning and Administration, 28(3), 223–234.Google Scholar
  9. UNESCO (1978). Literacy in Asia: A continuing challenge. Report of the UNESCO Regional Experts Meeting on Literacy in Asia (Bangkok, 22–28 November 1977). Bangkok: UNESCO.Google Scholar
  10. Venkatanarayana, M. (2015). When will India achieve universal adult literacy: Status and prospects. Journal of Educational Planning and Administration, 29(2), 177–204.Google Scholar
  11. Venkatanarayana, M., & Ravi, C. (2013). Achieving universal literacy in Andhra Pradesh: Status and prospects. Indian Journal of Human Development, 7(1), 3–38.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© UNESCO IBE 2018

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Sardar Patel Institute of Economic and Social ResearchAhmedabadIndia
  2. 2.Centre for Development StudiesTrivandrumIndia

Personalised recommendations