A case study of literacy and its development in India
Literacy is the ability to make and communicate meaning from and by the use of a variety of socially contextual symbols. Within various levels of developmental ability, a literate person can derive and convey meaning, and use their knowledge to achieve a desired purpose or goal that requires the use of language skills, be the spoken or written. A literate person can mediate their world by deliberately and flexibly orchestrating meaning from one linguistic knowledge base and apply or connect it to another knowledge base. For example, knowing that letters symbolize sounds, and that those sounds form words to which the reader can attach meaning, is an example of the cognitive orchestration of knowledge, a literate person conducts. Literacy is "not in isolated bits of knowledge but in students’ growing ability to use language and literacy in more and broader activities"1
Post -Independent India inherited a system of education, which was characterized by large scale and intra-regional imbalances. The system educated a select few, leaving a wide gap between the educated and illiterate. The country‘s literacy rate in 1947 was only 14 per cent and female literacy was abysmally low at 8 per cent. Only one child out of three had an opportunity for enrolment in primary schools. Educational inequality was aggravated by economic inequality, gender disparity and rigid social stratification.
India's performance over the past decade on one key development indicator, literacy, is not bad at first glance. Data from the provisional population tables of Census 2011 show the ‘effective literacy rate’ (the percentage of the population above seven years that is literate) has increased by 9.21 percentage points over the decade to reach 74.04 per cent. A clear positive is that literacy rates among women grew faster than those for men. This growth in bare literacy reflects the significant steps free India has been taking to create a more literate society. It stands out when one compares the relevant pre-and post-1947 data. In 1901, the crude literacy rate (the number of literates as a percentage of the total population) was an insignificant 5.35 per cent. In 1951, this was a still dismal 16.67 per cent. In contrast with an 11.32 percentage point increase between 1901 and 1951, the crude literacy rate rose by 48.22 points between 1951 and 2011, with the 1991–2001 decade registering the highest growth (11.67 percentage points).
But this encouraging portrait must be understood in context — and also in comparison with what other countries have achieved. Any set of data is only as good as its definitions. By the prevailing Census definition, anyone above the age of seven who can read and write with understanding in any language is considered ‘literate’. The giveaway is that it is not necessary for the literate person to have received any formal education or to have attained any minimum educational standard. This is a huge conceptual weakness that calls for a radical course correction. The rhetorical question before policymakers is this: does the mere ability to read and write ‘with understanding’, albeit no mean achievement, add real value to the self-realization of the individual and to social development? Conceptually, therefore, rising India must earnestly set about realizing the true meaning of literacy by aiming to provide its whole population - male as well as female - a nationally acceptable minimum level of educational qualification. This floor can be nothing other than school education for ten years. This means creating public opinion and developing public action that obliges policymakers to put in place effective measures to solve the problem of school dropouts, especially in the Hindi-speaking States. It also means no-nonsense implementation of the fundamental Right to Education and taking this beyond the primary stage2.
Literacy, India’s Literacy Rate, Literacy Development, Census 2001, Census 2011, Right to Education.