Mainstream Weekly

Home > 2024 > Unveiling India’s Literacy Journey When Census Data Isn’t Available | (...)

Mainstream, VOL 62 No 14, April 6, 2024

Unveiling India’s Literacy Journey When Census Data Isn’t Available | Vachaspati Shukla

Saturday 6 April 2024



In the absence of the 2021 census, the NSS 78th round survey shows a modest increase in literacy rates from 2011 to 2021. Notably, the youngest age group (10-14 years old) achieved nearly 97% literacy. India’s path to full literacy relies on the replacement of older age cohorts with educated younger ones. However, achieving full literacy sooner requires effective educational programs for the older illiterate population.

Recognized as a fundamental human right, literacy stands as the cornerstone of individual empowerment, facilitating access to a multitude of opportunities across health, education, economy, politics, and culture.

Enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948), literacy is central to the goal of education for all, a commitment echoed by Indian policymakers. The most frequently referred source of information about literacy in India is the Census. It presents the literacy rates as the share of literates in the population aged seven years and above and a change in the literacy rate over the Census years is often used to analyze and comment on the literacy progress.

The latest available data on literacy dates back to the 2011 census, which is now a decade old. Unfortunately, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the anticipated census for 2021 was not conducted. As a result, we lack updated information on literacy rates. However, in the absence of the 2021 census, we can turn to the NSS 78th round survey on ‘Multiple Indicator Survey (MIS)’. Originally planned for January-December 2020, the fieldwork for this survey was extended until August 15, 2021, also due to the pandemic. The MIS survey provides valuable insights into educational attainment, allowing us to estimate literacy rates comparable to those defined by the census. What makes this round of survey particularly advantageous is its significantly larger sample size compared to previous NSS surveys. Across the nation, a total of 276,409 households were surveyed, with 164,529 in rural areas and 111,880 in urban areas. This extensive coverage extends to 1,163,416 individuals nationwide, with 713,501 in rural areas and 449,915 in urban areas.

Chart 1 illustrates the literacy rates from the census years starting in 1961, with the literacy rate for 2021 estimated from the NSS 78th round survey. It’s evident that from 2011 to 2021, the literacy rate has seen a modest increase of 4.4 percentage points, rising from 74% in 2011 to 78.4% in 2021. This marks a considerably slower growth compared to the 10-percentage-point improvement observed during the previous decade, from 2001 to 2011.

Similarly, Chart 2 depicts the literacy rates for four subgroups of the population: rural males, rural females, urban males, and urban females. It’s evident that all these groups experienced improvements in literacy rates from 2011 to 2021. The most significant improvement was observed among rural females, with an 8-percentage-point increase from 58.8% in 2011 to 66.9% in 2021. The other three groups, urban males, urban females, and rural males, saw more modest improvements of 2 to 3 percentage points.

This lower rate of improvement can be attributed to the fact that these groups already had relatively high levels of literacy. While it’s encouraging that rural females, the most disadvantaged subgroups, showed significant improvement, it’s concerning to note that a considerable disparity still exists between urban males and rural females, amounting to 25 percentage points.

One specific and crucial aspect of literacy often overlooked when interpreting aggregate literacy rates is its correlation with age cohorts. Typically, we observe higher proportions of literates in younger age cohorts compared to older ones at any given point in time. This discrepancy is primarily due to greater access to education among more recent cohorts compared to older ones—a phenomenon referred to as a "cohort effect" or "generation effect" in the social sciences. Here, we define a "cohort" (or "generation") as a group of individuals born in the same year or period. In nearly every country, individuals in older cohorts tend to have lower levels of education compared to those in younger cohorts, as education tends to be concentrated in younger age groups and educational systems generally expand over time.

In this context, Chart 3 presents the literacy rate for the year 2021 across different age cohorts. It’s evident that literacy rates increase as we move from the oldest age cohorts to the youngest. The literacy rate is notably high, at 97.4%, among the youngest age cohort (10-14 years old), while it is lowest at 45% among the oldest age cohort (65-69 years old). This clearly illustrates that achieving the goal of full literacy in the immediate future may not be realistic due to the presence of an older, illiterate population. Without adult literacy programs, improvements in literacy can only be observed through the replacement of age cohorts. It’s only when the youngest age cohort becomes the oldest that a nation achieves full literacy.

Similarly, upon examining group disparities across age cohorts in Chart 4, it becomes apparent that disparities do not exist in the youngest age cohorts. The group disparity evident in the aggregate literacy rate primarily stems from differences in the older age cohorts. A particularly positive trend is the elimination of disparities between males and females and between rural and urban populations within the youngest age cohorts. Over time, as younger age cohorts replace older ones, this trend suggests that disparities in aggregate literacy rates will diminish.

Achieving full literacy will take time due to the significant number of illiterate individuals in older age groups. However, targeted investment in educational programs for older adults can expedite this process. Full literacy requires ongoing efforts to improve access to education and address historical disparities across age groups. Additionally, literacy programs should expand beyond traditional skills to include those necessary for today’s service-led economy, such as proficiency in technology and financial literacy, facilitating broader social and economic transformation.

(Author: Vachaspati Shukla is Assistant Professor , Sardar Patel Institute of Economic and Social Research, Thaltej, Drive-in-Road,
Ahmedabad-380054, Gujarat, India Email: vachaspatishukla[at]

Chart 1: Literacy Rate in India Over the age cohorts
Source: Census and NSS 78th round

Chart 2: Literacy Rate in India by residence and gender
Source: Census and NSS 78th round

Chart 3: Literacy Rate in India over the age cohorts
Source: Estimated from NSS 78th round survey unit record data

Chart 4: Literacy Rate in India over the age cohorts by residence and gender
Source: Estimated from NSS 78th round survey unit record data

ISSN (Mainstream Online) : 2582-7316 | Privacy Policy|
Notice: Mainstream Weekly appears online only.