Literacy in India is key for socio-economic progress, and the Indian literacy rate grew to 66% in 2007 from 12% at the end of British rule in 1947. Although this was a greater than fivefold improvement, the level is well below the world average literacy rate of 84%, and India currently has the largest illiterate population of any nation on earth. Despite government programs, India's literacy rate increased only "sluggishly," and a 1990 study estimated that it would take until 2060 for India to achieve universal literacy at then-current rate of progress. The 2001 census, however, indicated a 1991-2001 decadal literacy growth of 12.63%, which is the fastest-ever on record.
There is a wide gender disparity in the literacy rate in India: adult (15+ years) literacy rates in 2009 were 76.9% for men and 54.5% for women. The low female literacy rate has had a dramatically negative impact on family planning and population stabilization efforts in India. Studies have indicated that female literacy is a strong predictor of the use of contraception among married Indian couples, even when women do not otherwise have economic independence. The 2001 census provided a positive indication that growth in female literacy rates (14.38%) was substantially faster than in male literacy rates (11.13%) in the 1991-2001 decadal period, which means the gender gap appears to be narrowing.
The table below shows the adult and youth literacy rates for India and some neighbouring countries in 2002. Adult literacy rate is based on the 15+ years age group, while Youth literacy rate is for the 15–24 years age group (i.e. youth is a subset of adults).
|Country||Adult Literacy Rate||Youth Literacy Rate|
|China||93.3% (2007) ||98.9% (2004)|
|Sri Lanka||90.8 (2007)||98.0|
|Burma||89.9% (2007) ||94.4% (2004)|
|Iran||82.4% (2007) ||95% (2002)|
|World Average||84% (1998)||88% (2001)|
|India||66.0% (2007)||82% (2001)|
During the British period, progress of education was rather tardy. Between 1881-82 and 1946-47, the number of primary schools grew from 82,916 to 134,866 and the number of students grew from 2,061,541 to 10,525,943. Literacy rates in British India rose from 3.2 per cent in 1881 to 7.2 per cent in 1931 and 12.2 per cent in 1947. In 2000-01, there were 60,840 pre-primary and pre-basic schools, and 664,041 primary and junior basic schools. Total enrollment at the primary level has increased from 19,200,000 in 1950-51 to 109,800,000 in 2001-02. The number of high schools in 2000-01 was higher than the number of primary schools at the time of independence.
In 1944, the Government of British India presented a plan, called the Sergeant Scheme for the educational reconstruction of India, with a goal of producing 100% literacy in the country within 40 years, i.e. by 1984. Although the 40 year time-frame was derided at the time by leaders of the Indian independence movement as being too long a period to achieve universal literacy, India had only just crossed the 64% level by the 2001 census.
The provision of universal and compulsory education for all children in the age group of 6-14 was a cherished national ideal and had been given overriding priority by incorporation as a Directive Policy in Article 45 of the Constitution, but it is still to be achieved more than half a century since the Constitution was adopted in 1949. Parliament has passed the Constitution 86th Amendment Act, 2002, to make elementary education a Fundamental Right for children in the age group of 6–14 years. In order to provide more funds for education, an education cess of 2 per cent has been imposed on all direct and indirect central taxes through the Finance (No. 2) Act, 2004.
Since independence, the literacy rate grew from 18.33 per cent in 1951, to 28.30 per cent in 1961, 34.45 per cent in 1971, 43.57 per cent in 1981, 52.21 per cent in 1991, and 64.84per cent in 2001.  During the same period, the population grew from 361 million to 1,028 million.
Kerala is the most literate state in India, with 90.86% literacy, followed closely by Mizoram at 88.80%. Bihar is the least literate state in India with 47% literacy. Several other social indicators of the two states are correlated with these rates, such as life expectancy at birth (71.61 for males and 75 for females in Kerala, 65.66 for males and 64.79 for females in Bihar), infant mortality per 1,000 live births (10 in Kerala, 61 in Bihar), birth rate per 1,000 people (16.9 in Kerala, 30.9 in Bihar) and death rate per 1,000 people (6.4 in Kerala, 7.9 in Bihar). Ernakulam district in Kerala was the first district to reach the 100% literacy level in India.
Rajasthan had the biggest percentage decadal (1991-2001) increase in literacy of all Indian states, from about 38% to about 61%, a leapfrog that has been termed "spectacular" by some observers. Aggressive state government action, in the form of the District Primary Education Programme, the Shiksha Karmi initiative and the Lok Jumbish programme, are credited with the rapid improvement. Virtually every village in Rajasthan now has primary school coverage. When statehood was granted to Rajasthan in 1956, it was the least literate state in India with a literacy rate of 18%.
Every census since 1881 had indicated rising literacy in the country, but the population growth rate had been high enough that the absolute number of illiterates rose with every decade. The 1991-2001 decade is the first census period when the absolute number of Indian illiterates declined (by 32 million), indicating that the literacy growth rate is now outstripping the population growth rate. Bihar, Nagaland and Manipur were the only states in the 1991-2001 period where the absolute number of illiterates rose, although even there the percentage of illiterates fell.
Bihar was the only remaining Indian state in the 2001 census where the majority of the population (53%) was illiterate. It was also the only state where less than 60% of the male population was literate. Six Indian states account for about 70% of all illiterates in India: Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal. Slightly less than half of all Indian illiterates (48.12%) are in the six Hindi-speaking states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh.
Large variations in literacy exist even between contiguous states. While there are a few states at the top and bottom, most states are just above or below the national average.
Several states in India have executed successful programs to boost literacy rates. Over time, a set of factors have emerged as being key to success: official will to succeed, deliberate steps to engage the community in administering the program, adequate funding for infrastructure and teachers, and provisioning additional services which are considered valuable by the community (such as free school lunches).
Bihar has the lowest literacy rate in India and, in the 2001 census, was the only Indian state where the majority of the population (53%) was illiterate. Even in Bihar, however, the literacy rate is rising: from 39% in 1991 to 47% in 2001. The Government of Bihar has launched several programs to boost literacy, and its Department of Adult Education even won a UNESCO award in 1981.
Extensive impoverishment, entrenched hierarchical social divisions and the lack of correlation between educational attainment and job opportunities are often cited in studies of the hurdles literacy programs face in Bihar. Children from "lower castes" are frequently denied school attendance and harassed when they do attend. In areas where there is no discrimination, poor funding and impoverished families means that children often cannot afford textbooks and stationery. When children do get educated, the general lack of economic progress in the state means that government jobs are the only alternative to farm labor, yet these jobs, in practise, require bribes to secure - which poorer families cannot afford. This leads to educated youths working on the farms, much as uneducated ones do, and leads parents to question the investment of sending children to school in the first place. Bihar's government schools have also faced teacher absenteeism, leading the state government to threaten withholding of salaries of teachers who failed to conduct classes on a regular basis. To incentivize students to attend, the government announced a Rupee 1 per schoolday grant to poor children who show-up to school.
Kerala undertook a "campaign for total literacy in Ernakulam district in the late 1980s," with a "fusion between the district administration headed by its Collector on one side and, on the other side, voluntary groups, social activists and others." On February 4, 1990, Ernakulam was certified as being 100% literate. The Government of Kerala then replicated the initiative on a statewide level, launching the Kerala State Literacy Campaign. First, households were surveyed with door-to-door, multistage survey visits to form an accurate picture of the literacy landscape and areas that needed special focus. Then, Kala Jathas (cultural troupes) and Saksharta Pad Yatras (Literacy Foot Marches) were organized to generate awareness of the campaign and create a receptive social atmosphere for the program. An integrated management system was created involving state officials, prominent social figures, local officials and senior voluntary workers to oversee the execution of the campaign.
Himachal Pradesh underwent a "Schooling Revolution" in the 1961-2001 period that has been called "even more impressive than Kerala's." Kerala has led the nation in literacy rates since the 19th century and seen sustained initiatives for over 150 years, whereas Himachal Pradesh's literacy rates in 1961 were below the national average in every age group. In the three decadal 1961-1991 period, female literacy in the 15–19 years age group went from 11% to 86%. School attendance for both boys and girls in the 6-14 year age group stood at over 97% each when measured in the 1998-99 school year. A key factor that has been credited for these advances is Himachal's cultural background. Himachal Pradesh is a Himalayan state with lower social stratification than many other states, which enables social programs to be carried out more smoothly. Once the Government of Himachal Pradesh was able to establish a social norm that "schooling is an essential part of every child's upbringing," literacy as a normal attribute of life was adopted very rapidly. Government efforts in expanding schools and providing teachers were sustained after the 1960s and communities often responded very collaboratively, including with constructing school rooms and providing firewood essential during the Himalayan winters.
Mizoram's literacy rate rose rapidly after independence: from 31.14% in 1951 to 88.80% in 2001. As in Himachal Pradesh, Mizoram has a social structure that is relatively free of hierarchy and strong official intent to produce total literacy. The government identified illiterates and organized an administrative structure that engaged officials and community leaders, and manned by "animators" who were responsible for teaching five illiterates each. Mizoram established 360 continuing education centers to handle continued education beyond the initial literacy teaching and to provide an educational safety net for school dropouts.
Tamil Nadu is the most literate state of India according to the HRD ministry of India's 2003 statistics. Starting in 1982, Tamil Nadu took an approach to promoting literacy based on free lunches for schoolchildren, "ignoring cynics who said it was an electoral gimmick and economists who said it made little fiscal sense." The then chief minister of Tamil Nadu, M G Ramachandran launched the program, which resembled a similar initiative in 19th century Japan, because "he had experienced as a child what it was like to go hungry to school with the family having no money to buy food". Eventually, the program covered all children under the age of 15, as well as pregnant women for the first four months of their pregnancy. Tamil Nadu's literacy rate rose from 54.4% in 1981 to 73.4% in 2001. In 2001, the Supreme Court of India instructed all state governments to implement free school lunches in all government-funded schools, but implementation has been patchy due to corruption and social issues. Despite these hurdles, 120 million receive free lunches in Indian schools every day, making it the largest school meal program in the world.
In his essay on Social Infrastructure As Important As Physical Infrastructure published in India Development Report 2002, Kirit S. Parikh had pointed out, “With a literacy rate of 65, we have 296 million illiterates, age seven years and above, as per the 2001 census. The number of illiterates today exceeds the population of the country of around 270 million at Independence, age seven and above.”
In his book The Argumentative Indian, Amartya Sen notes, on the basis of investigations by Pratichi Trust, set up with the proceeds of his Nobel award, carried out in West Bengal and Jharkhand, that absenteeism of comparatively well-paid teachers, particularly where bulk of the students come from scheduled castes and tribes, poses a major problem. Students are circumstantially forced to go in for private tuitions. He concludes, “Sometimes the very institutions that were created to overcome disparities and barriers have tended to act as reactionary influences in reinforcing inequality… The teachers’ unions, which have a very positive role to play in protecting the interests of teachers and have played that part well in the past, are often turning into an influence that reinforces the neglect of the interests of children from desperately underprivileged families. There is evidence of hardening of class barriers that separate the newly affluent teachers from the impoverished rural poor.”
The right to education is a fundamental human right, and UNESCO aims at education for all by 2015. India, along with the Arab states and sub-Saharan Africa, has a literacy level below the threshold level of 75%, but efforts are on to achieve that level. The campaign to achieve at least the threshold literacy level represents the largest ever civil and military mobilization in the country. International Literacy Day is celebrated each year on 8 September with the aim to highlight the importance of literacy to individuals, communities and societies.
The National Literacy Mission, launched in 1988, aimed at attaining a literacy rate of 75 per cent by 2007. It imparts functional literacy to non-literates in the age group of 15–35 years. The Total Literacy Campaign is the principal strategy of the NLM for eradication of illiteracy. The Continuing Education Scheme provides a learning continuum to the efforts of the Total Literacy and Post literacy programmes.
The Sarva Siksha Abhiyan (Hindi for Total Literacy Campaign) was launched in 2001 to ensure that all children in the 6–14 year age-group attend school and complete eight years of schooling by 2010. An important component of the scheme is the Education Guarantee Scheme and Alternative and Innovative Education, meant primarily for children in areas with no formal school within a one kilometre radius. The centrally sponsored District Primary Education Programme, launched in 1994, had opened more than 160,000 new schools by 2005, including almost 84,000 alternative schools.
Of the estimated 205 million child population in the age group 6–14 years on March 1, 2002, nearly 82.5% were enrolled in schools. However, the drop-out rate in 2002-03 was 34.9% at the primary level and 52.8% at the upper primary level. The high drop-out rate has been a matter of major concern. One of the most popular schemes adopted to attract children to schools is the Mid-day Meal Scheme, launched in 1995. Several other special programmes have also been launched with varying degrees of success.
The bulk of Indian illiterates live in the country's rural areas, where social and economic barriers play an important role in keeping the lowest strata of society illiterate. Government programmes alone, however well intentioned, may not be able to dismantle barriers built over centuries. Major social reformation efforts are sometimes required to bring about a change in the rural scenario.
Sandeep Pandey won a Ramon Magsaysay Award in 2002 in recognition of "the empowering example of his commitment to the transformation of India’s marginalized poor." While pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley, he co-founded Asha for Education to support education for poor children in India by tapping the resources of Overseas Indians, raising ten thousand dollars in the first year. The organization has since expanded to 36 North-American chapters and disbursed nearly one million dollars for programs in India.
Pandey has returned to India and works full-time towards Asha’s stated mission of bringing about socio-economic change in India through education. Asha's teachers are unpaid volunteers and support themselves with side-occupations, such as making candles and greeting cards from handmade paper. While working with impoverished low caste families and dalits in Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh, Pandey discovered that few children went to school and those that did remained unemployed. With local volunteers, Pandey established schools in the villages of Reoti and Bhainsaha focused on instilling self-reliance and the value of social justice among students. He has also established an Asha Ashram in the predominantly Dalit village of Lalpur, outside Lucknow, where students live and study among traditional artisans, and learn the crafts of bee-keeping, vegetable gardening and cottage industries.
Shantha Sinha won a Magsaysay Award in 2003 in recognition of "her guiding the people of Andhra Pradesh to end the scourge of child labour and send all of their children to school." As head of an extension program at the University of Hyderabad in 1987, she organized a three-month-long camp to prepare children rescued from bonded labour to attend school. Later, in 1991, she guided her family’s Mamidipudi Venkatarangaiya Foundation to take up this idea as part of its overriding mission in Andhra Pradesh. Her original transition camps grew into full-fledged residential "bridge schools." The foundation's aim is to create a social climate hostile to child labour, child marriage and other practices that deny children the right to a normal childhood. Today the MV Foundation’s bridge schools and programs extend to 4,300 villages.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has drafted a definition of literacy as the "ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society."
The National Literacy Mission defines literacy as acquiring the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic and the ability to apply them to one's day-to-day life. The achievement of functional literacy implies (i) self-reliance in 3 R's, (ii) awareness of the causes of deprivation and the ability to move towards amelioration of their condition by participating in the process of development, (iii) acquiring skills to improve economic status and general well being, and (iv) imbibing values such as national integration, conservation of environment, women's equality, observance of small family norms.