17 Apr 2014

India and Literacy

As we argued in the previous article: In a non-communist economic set-up we can't rely on averages to assess whether the wealth creation has flown through to the masses or has it been concentrated in the hands of a few. We would have to gauge the improvement in standard of living of the society as a whole by looking at several socio-economic metrics at a disaggregated level, and not as an average. 

Education perhaps is the most important tool that an older generation can give to the younger generation. Education of course opens up many avenues of job opportunities, directly improving economic condition of an individual - that connection is of course too obvious and well known. However, it is not merely about the technical / quantitative / science knowledge - education also makes a person more aware; more aware in terms of evolution of the society he lives in, lessons mankind should have learnt from the past, as well as it moulds him as a person better fit in the civilized world of tomorrow. Schools do often impart some of the first lessons on morality and ethics as well, that education of course best starts at home. Folklore is rich with tales of college drop-outs making fortunes (Bill Gates and Steve Jobs are oft-quoted examples), that shouldn't be used to trivialize basic school education. College comes much later, ABCD pehle aata hai (Alphabet comes first).

In our assessment of economic upliftment of the Indian masses over the last decade, as well as benchmarking various states with each other, we have looked at availability of basic essential commodities such as Water, Electricity and Cooking Fuel at a household level in previous posts. We also looked at availability of toilet and kitchen facilities to the general Indian populace across states. There are several other metrics on which socio-economic improvement of society should be gauged at a disaggregated level as had been mentioned - literacy being a key indicator of those, and hence being picked up for this exercise. This article would look at literacy levels prevalent in India, and would attempt a benchmarking of various states with each other as well as with themselves over a timeline.

(We endeavour to base our analyses on reliable, 3rd party, public data as well as ensure completeness of the data. Devil lies in the detail, and we do not hesitate to get our hands dirty while digging in our pursuit for truth. We explain this in more detail here)

Census does a wonderful job of capturing data at an individual level. We like it since it doesn't rely on samples and hence is largely immune to data collection methodology issues. It is conducted once every decade, and hence provides very good data to compare the state of our country over every 10 years. We have used it for several past analyses, and would be using it for this piece as well. The graph below compares the literacy rates of India as well as top 12 states, both in 2001 and 2011. (We use top 12 states for ease and relevance, these states cover 83% of Indian population.)

Population Growth and Literacy rate  (India & Top 12 states, 2001-11)

Note: Pop Growth for population of 7 years and above, rationale explained below

Source: Census 2001 and 2011

It would be pertinent to note the definition of literacy here.

"A person aged 7 years and above who can both read and write with understanding in any language has been taken as literate. ...All children of age 6 years or less, even if going to school and have picked up reading and writing, are treated as illiterate." Source: Census Website (Please see point 9 and point 20). Hence, to calculate literacy rate, we have taken the number of literates as reported by Census, divided by total population after subtracting child population (age 0 - 6), also reported by Census. Based on this, India improved its literacy by 8.1% points (73.0% in 2011 vs. 64.8% in 2001). A few states in our inference have delivered better goods than the Indian average, which are highlighted in the table itself, and are discussed below:

1. UP & Bihar: These two states have delivered highest increase in literacy rates (11-15% points). Both these states start from a very inferior position in 2001 (56% and 47% respectively, compared to India average 65%). Hence, while the small base effect needs t be considered, it is hearty to see these states are trying to catch up now. Still, more needs to be done - their literacy rates in 2011 (62-68%) is still somewhat same as where India was 10 years back in 2001. More needs to be done.

2. Gujarat, Odisha and Karnataka: All these three states deliver 9-10% points improvement in literacy rates over 2001-11. Gujarat started off with the highest base in 2001 than Karnataka, and delivered similar improvement. Odisha starts off with a lower base and delivers slightly higher improvement.

3. A special mention to Kerala, which improved its very high literacy rate of 91% in 2001 to 94% in 2011, a commendable achievement. However, it needs to be noted that Kerala also didn't have to contend with a high population growth rate [~7% pop (7+years) growth during 2001-11 compared to 21% all-India avg] 

The remaining states post either average or below-average performance. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh especially need to up their game.

We need to further check whether such literacy rate improvement is benefiting both the male and female section of the society. As a famous saying goes, "You educate a man; you educate a man. You educate a woman; you educate a generation." The table below splits the literacy rate and compares just that.

Literacy rate  by sex (India & Top 12 states, 2001-11)

Source: Census 2001 and Census 2011

Both UP and Bihar seem to be getting it right, with improvement on women literacy much more than men literacy improvement, which is required give the low levels of female literacy prevalent in our country, especially in these two states. Similarly, Gujarat, Odisha and Karanataka which were noted earlier to be delivering good performance overall are also improving more on female literacy. The effect is more pronounced in Odisha and Gujarat.

Further, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Maharashtra deserve a mention since despite high female literacy rates in 2001, these states still manage to post 9 - 11% points improvement. Kerala remains an example for all other states to follow, be it overall literacy or just the female literacy.

Overall conclusions:

  1. Kerala remains an outlier with 90%+ literacy rates and still improving! 
  2. UP and Bihar seem to be catching up, having delivered double digit % points improvement over 2001-11, but there is still a long road ahead of both states and they still lag other states by 10-15 years.
  3. Gujarat and Odisha outperform, closely followed by Karnataka. These states delivered higher-than average improvement in literacy rates (9-10% points), across both the male and female population. However, differences in performance for these states versus other states isn't as stark as we have seen in benchmarking exercise done on other metrics
  4. Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Maharashtra post an average performance, though impress on female literacy rate improvement given the high base that these states had in 2001. 
  5. Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Andhra Pradesh are clear under-performers, and remain at the bottom.
As always, this analysis stops at 2011, there might be further improvements beyond 2011, hopefully significant. Mahatma Gandhi famously said: "Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever."

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