10 facts on illiteracy in India that you must know

10 facts on illiteracy in India that you must know

Literacy constitutes the backbone of development in a progressing country like India. It enhances the quality of life, awareness, and skills of people.

What is literacy?

Literacy is the ability to read, write and comprehend information in order to communicate effectively. From reading the newspaper to understanding road signs, literacy is the only tool that helps you make sense of your surroundings. It is empowering and fuels social and human development.

Literacy serves as the foundation of basic education for all. The knowledge of social conventions combined with problem-solving capacities of people is what determines them as being literate. In India, while the adult literacy rate is measured for people aged above 15 years, the rate of youth literacy is measured for people aged between 15-24 years.

How to calculate the literacy rate in India?

Divide the number of literates of a given age range by the corresponding age group population and multiply the result by 100.

Alternatively, apply the same method using the number of illiterates to derive the illiteracy rate; or by subtracting the literacy rate from 100%.

(Source: UNESCO)

Literacy in India

According to the 2011 Census, any person aged seven and above and has the ability to read and write is considered literate. The average literacy rate in India stands at 74.04%. While Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India at 93.91%, Bihar has the least literacy rate in India of 63.82%.

The Ministry Of Home Affairs conducts a census every 10 years in India. According to the last Census, which was conducted in 2011, the literacy rates of the top and bottom five states are as follows:

literacy rate

India’s literacy growth over the years

According to Census 2011, India managed to achieve a literacy rate of 74.04% as opposed to 64.80% in 2001. This notable shift also highlights an increase in female literacy over the years. While the female literacy rate in India as per Census 2001 was 53.7%, Census 2011 recorded it at 65.5%. Though not radical but some progress has been made in improving literacy in India especially after the implementation of free education in rural areas for both men and women.

States and Union Territories like Mizoram, Tripura, Goa, Kerala, Puducherry, Chandigarh, Lakshadweep, Daman and Diu, National Capital Territory of Delhi and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands have shown massive or great improvement in the last one decade. These states have a literacy rate of almost 85% according to the 2011 Census.

Census 2011 was the 15th official survey conducted in India. After the end of the British Rule in India in 1947, the literacy rate of India stood at 12%. Since then, the country has advanced economically, socially and globally but a lot is yet to be done.

The Constitution of India recognizes the importance of education for all. Therefore, it lays down several provisions to ensure proper and effective implementation of educational rights in the country. These provisions include:

• Education of Minorities: Article 30 of the Indian Constitution gives all minorities the right to establish and administer institutions of their own choice.

• Free and Compulsory Education: The Constitution of India (u/a 41, 45 and 46 of the Directive Principles of State Policy) instructs the state to ensure that all citizens receive free education.

• Equality of Opportunity in Educational Institutions: The fundamental right of equality clearly signifies that in the eyes of law no one can be discriminated on the basis of status, caste, sex, class or creed. Equal opportunities should be provided to everyone in the country including those related to education.

• Article 21 (A) of the Constitution of India was amended to provide free and compulsory education as a fundamental right to all children aged between 6-14 years.

• Education of Weaker Sections: Article 15, 17, and 46 of the Indian Constitution safeguard the educational interests of weaker sections of the society.

These comprise socially, economically, and educationally backward families including those belonging to scheduled castes (SCs), and scheduled tribes (STs).

In the censuses prior to 1981, the literacy rate in India was calculated by taking into account the entire population. This method was modified in 1991 after finding out a more precise and accurate way of calculating the literacy rate in India.

It involved excluding people aged between 0-6 years from the calculating process. Therefore, from 1991, the literacy rate in India was calculated for people of or above seven years of age.

Literacy in India has embedded in it the problem of gender disparity for many years. Despite the government’s effort to ensure equality for both men and women in our society, the literacy rate of women in India, especially in rural areas still remains very poor.

The reason behind this gap is improper or lack of education for women, and deep-set patriarchal norms that is discriminatory towards women.

Steps were taken by the government to improve literacy standards in India

• The government conducts various scholarship examinations and provides school uniform, textbooks and stationery in order to encourage students and adults to take up studying.

• The Mid Day Meal Scheme was launched by the government in 1995 to provide students free food grain so as to improve enrolment, attendance, and retention in government schools.

• Samagra Shiksha Programme was launched by the government with the broader goal of improving school effectiveness. This will be measured in terms of equal opportunities for schooling and equitable learning outcomes.

• Awareness campaigns were launched in rural areas to create awareness among people about the importance of education. They were encouraged to attend or send their children to schools.

Facts on literacy and education in India

1. India is home to the largest population of 287 million illiterate adults in the world. This amounts to 37% of the global total.

2. 47.78% out of school children in India are girls. They will be calculated as illiterate women in the next census and this will have an impact on the education of their children.

3. Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh are amongst the bottom five states in terms of literacy of Dalits in India.

4. India’s literacy rate has increased six times since Independence. Though the literacy rate has increased from 12% in 2001 to 74% in 2011 yet India has the world’s largest population of illiterate adults.

5. The literacy rate of female Dalits in Bihar was 38.5% in 2011. It is far behind India’s progress trend. It is still 30 years behind India’s national literacy Rate which was 43.7 in 1981.

6. 60 lakh children in India are still out-of-school.

7. 92% of government schools are yet to fully implement the RTE Act.

8. India is ranked at 123 out of 135 countries in female literacy rate.

9. India ranks fourth in the South Asian region behind Sri Lanka with a female-male ratio of 0.97 and Bangladesh with a female-male ratio of 0.85.

10. The percentage of women to the total number of school teachers has gone up from 29.3% in 1991 to 47.16% in 2013-14.

Ways to boost literacy development at a personal level

There are many things that you can do to increase your literacy levels. These include:

  • Indulge in knowledge sharing sessions with peers
  • Expose yourself to different kinds of reading material like newspapers, novels, comics, magazines, websites, etc.
  • Multi-dimensional writing using different mediums
  • Indulge in debates, conversations, and discussions with friends and family on important political issues
  • Explore more on things that interest and fascinate you. This can include researching on films, music, art, history, etc.

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Written by: Oxfam India staff

Photo credit: Vivek M


FAQs About Literacy in India -


How many are illiterate in India?

India has the largest population of illiterate adults in the world – 287 million, which is 37% of the global total.

Why is illiteracy a problem in India?

Illiteracy affects an individual in all areas of their life. An illiterate individual cannot read and write, and thus cannot join the workforce or may work as unskilled labour, lack awareness to make an informed decision which affects them and their community. Further, children of illiterate parents do not receive the same education as children of educated parents. Even if they go to the same school, children of illiterate parents lack the kind of awareness educated parents can give to their children. Hence, illiteracy becomes a vicious cycle affecting the social and economic development of India.

What is the main cause of illiteracy?

Illiteracy in India is because of a complex web of social and economic divide in the country. Economic disparities, gender discrimination, caste discrimination, and technological barriers lead to illiteracy in India. India has the largest population of illiterate adults, which further contribute to this vicious cycle of illiteracy in India.

Which state has lowest literacy rate in India?

Bihar has the lowest literacy rate in India, at 61.80%, while India’s literacy rate is 74.04%. Female literacy rate in Bihar stands at 51.5%, while the male literacy rate is much higher, at 71.2%.

What is India’s rank in literacy?

According to the 2005 UNESCO Global Education Monitoring Report, which incorporates the 2001 census, India ranked 106 out of 127 countries surveyed in terms of literacy. India ranks 123 out of 135 countries in terms of female literacy rate.

What is the literacy rate in India?

Literacy rate in India stands at 74% as per Census 2011. There is a stark difference between male and female literacy rates, which stand 82% and 65% respectively. There is a wider gap in literacy rates of different castes. The literacy rate of Scheduled Tribes stands at 58.96%, while the Scheduled Castes is at 66.10%

Is illiteracy the cause of poverty?

There is a strong relationship between illiteracy and poverty. Literacy is defined as the “ability to read and write”. Thus, an illiterate person, who cannot read or write, is unable to get a skilled job and is forced to take up an unskilled job. This has an impact on his wages, the standard of living and ultimately his ability to provide proper education to his children. This would also mean that his children will not be able to improve their skills and get a better job and eventually come out of poverty. An unlettered person is unable to access proper healthcare, understand their fundamental rights and demand for the same.

Which state has the highest literacy in India?

Kerala has the highest literacy rate in India, at 94%, with male literacy rate at 96.1% and female literacy rate at 92.1%.

What does literate mean in India?

The Census 2011 defines a literate person as, “a person aged seven and above who can both read and write with understanding in any language, is treated as literate. A person, who can only read but cannot write, is not literate.” [1]This definition is similar to that of UNESCO.

UNESCO defines literacy as “the ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate and compute, using printed and written materials associated with varying contexts.”

[1] http://www.censusindia.gov.in/2011-prov-results/paper2-vol2/data_files/AP/Chapter_VI.pdf

How can we end illiteracy?

Illiteracy creates several hurdles in the development of a country and affects every person in that country. Here are five ways by which we can end illiteracy in India:

1. Inclusive Education
The RTE Act (2009) has resulted in increased enrolment of children in schools, but the Act is applicable for children between 6-14 years of age. Children, especially girl children, who drop out of school after 14 years of age, find it almost impossible to continue their education. The purview of the Act must be increased to make education accessible to every individual.

2. Increased investment in government schools
Due to lack of funds, the government schools are unable to invest in providing basic facilities to children. Lack of functioning toilets, hand-washing area, and drinking water compels children, especially girl children to drop out of school. On the other hand, private schools with high-end facilities charge exorbitant fee making it impossible for those from the marginalised communities to access services. Increasing government expenditure in public schools will make them more accessible.

3. Vocational Training
Often school education alone does not provide the skills required to enter the workforce. The current system of rote learning without practical training affects the quality of education and fails to develop employable skill sets. Thus, vocational training is important to fill this gap. Carpentry, plumbing, stitching, and nursing are some of the skills which can help individuals seek fulfilling employment.

4. Teacher training
The education system cannot be enhanced without trained and educated teachers. Lack of qualified teachers in both public and private schools impact learning outcomes of children. There is a need for drastic changes to ensure that schools hire qualified teachers, availability of qualified teachers, and opportunities for individuals to be trained as teachers.

5. Changing social norms
Social norms play a huge role in determining the growth of a country. Regressive social norms result in girls dropping out schools or children not being sent to school at all, and this creates a vicious cycle of illiteracy and patriarchal norms for even future generations.



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