ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Inconvenient Truth of Illiteracy Inequality

Intersectionality of Socio-demographic Disadvantage

This study analyses adult illiteracy in Lucknow, focusing on inequalities between different geographical regions, castes, age groups and genders. The reading ability of 1.06 million people in the 15–60 age group was tested, and the literacy rate found to be 65%—substantially lower than the census figures of 77% for Lucknow and 68% for Uttar Pradesh. Each socio-demographic dimension measured was a key determinant of literacy—disadvantaged groups had literacy rates substantially below the mean. Socio-demographic determinants also compound each other, highly disadvantaging some subgroups, an aspect that policymakers must take into consideration when developing policies to increase literacy equity.


The authors acknowledge, with heartfelt gratitude, the many government officials without whose enthusiasm and support this survey would have been impossible; most notably Alok Ranjan, then Chief Secretary, Uttar Pradesh and G B Pattanaik, IAS, both co-chairs of Global Dream Literacy Movement of DEVI Sansthan; Raj Shekhar, then DM Lucknow and Yogesh Kumar, then Chief Development Officer of Lucknow. The authors further extend thanks to the 3,957 government primary and anganwadi teachers who formed the enumerator team for this survey. They also warmly acknowledge several colleagues who have given valuable feedback on the manuscript, including Geeta Gandhi Kingdon, IOE, UK, Jean Drèze, honorary Professor Delhi School of Economics, and Jonathan Hakim, Trainer, DEVI Sansthan. Additionally, they thank the anonymous reviewer for their excellent suggestions. Any errors that remain are the authors’ own.

Literacy is a vital skill that enhances dignity, improves health outcomes, empowers people to access their rights, and bolsters educational and employment opportunities (UNESCO 2015). India’s literacy rate has improved drastically, from 18% in the first post-independence census, to 74% in 2011 (GoI 2011a). Yet India has 280 million illiterate adults, which is more than the remaining top 10 nations added together ­(UNESCO 2014). India’s literacy rate of 74% compares unfavourably with its international economic competitors, including China (97%) and Brazil (93%) (UIS 2018a, 2018b). India’s rate of improvement is also comparatively modest: the literacy rate rose by 10 percentage points between 2001 and 2011, while Bangladesh’s literacy rate has reportedly increased by 25 percentage points between 2011 and 2016 (GoI 2001, 2011a; UIS 2018c).

The Indian government recognises the need to promote adult literacy, and has set an ambitious target of 100% adult literacy by 2030 (MHRD 2020). However, for this target to be achieved, we must first understand the substantial inequality in literacy rates between different socio-demographic groups within India. For instance, women are much less literate than men. Dis­advantaged castes, such as Scheduled Castes (SCs) and Scheduled Tribes (STs), and minority religions, particularly Muslims, have lower literacy rates. People living in rural areas are less likely to be able to read than urban residents. Each of these inequalities is reducing among younger age ­cohorts, but remain pronounced among middle-aged and older adults (Shukla and Mishra 2019). Furthermore, while younger generations have relatively high literacy rates, over half of the population above the age of 50 remains illiterate. These socio-demographic literacy gaps are well-documented, as are the harmful impacts on the communities with lower literacy rates (Borooah and Iyer 2005; Ghose 2007; Asadullah and Yalonetzky 2012; Agarwal 2014).

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Updated On : 23rd Aug, 2021
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