A country hailed internationally for its engineers is also home to about a third of world’s illiterates (UNESCO, 2000).
Indian government defines literacy as the ability to read and write, which is similar to UNICEF’s definition. The 2001 census put India’s literacy rate at 65.4%, leaving over 250 million (counting only people older than 7) people who can’t read and write. The female literacy levels were worse. “In 1991, less than 40 percent of the 330 million women aged 7 and over were literate, which means [then] there are over 200 million illiterate women in India.”
While these figures are bad enough, the picture looks distinctly worse when one surveys the literacy attainment of people classified as literate.
“A recent study by ORG-CSR (2003) conducted in rural villages across five states – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Gujarat – confirms the low skill attainment levels of many literates in India. To share some key findings on reading, print awareness, writing, and functional aspects of ability with the written word in Hindi: 68.2% perceived themselves to be literate.
- Based on their reading of an extremely simple paragraph from textbooks at 2nd to 3rd grade level, the field surveyors classified the sample as: 12% who can read with ease, 36.3% who made mistakes or read with a range of reading difficulties, and 51.7% who could not read at all.
- Faced with a square block of Hindi text printed centered on a square piece of paper with no other graphical indicators of beginning, ending, or page orientation, 37.4% could not hold the printed matter in the proper orientation for reading. After this was shown (or known), 42.5% could not point to the end of the text. Half the sample could not move their finger to delineate the left to right direction of print and a nearly equal proportion could not move from the end of one line to the beginning
of the next line immediately below.
- Only 37.5% could write their full name correctly, 15.1% could write it partially or with mistakes, and 47.4% could not write it at all.
- Reading the bus board, one of the most common encounters with print in village life, was, by their own admission, not possible for 51.9%. Self-reports on other functional aspects inform us that 56% could not read a newspaper, 54.8% could not read letters, and 56.7% could not write a letter themselves.
“A nation’s literacy rate is determined, to a great degree, by the definition of literacy and the method used to measure it. Countries struggling to achieve higher rates often tend to lower definitional bars, which then makes progress that much easier. India is no exception, and this raises simple but unanswered questions. How many of India’s literate people—literate according to the Census—can read the headlines of a newspaper?
If a demonstrated “ability to decode the simplest of passages were operationalized” as the definition of literacy, not necessarily with understanding, then only 10–15% would be fully literate.”
Source: Brij Kothari and others
In short, there are near half a billion people who cannot decode simple passages. Given the importance of literacy in improving important things like health and access to jobs, it is critical that India invest more money in literacy programs. But where to invest? Brij Kothari believes that literacy can be increased by providing Same Language Subtitling (SLS)—subtitling the lyrics of popular song-based television programs like Chitramala in the same language as the audio. Initial tests of SLS in Gujarat have been successful. The novel approach to increasing literacy leverages the fact that a lot of Indians have access to television and watch a bunch of it.
Voice technologies such as speech recognition, text to speech, and auto-correction make the ability to write and read the written word increasingly optional. Thus, one way to move forward is to make such technologies more widely available. Another way would be to make essential information more broadly available in a non-textual format. Until now, these ideas have been considered as fallback options. But to continue to think of them as that would be a mistake. They may simply reflect the future of humanity.
p.s. An article on inequality in achievement in maths in India: India Shining, Bharat Drowning: Comparing Two Indian States to the Worldwide Distribution in Mathematics Achievement (pdf) by Jishnu Das et al.