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Literacy Achievement in India

Across the States and Over the Age Cohort

The progress in literacy among the Indian states is evaluated here from an age cohort perspective. The primary observation relates to literacy deprivation being different across the age cohorts. Interstate comparison reveals that lower levels of aggregate literacy for a state do not mean lower levels of literacy for all age cohorts. Group disparity in literacy is highest among the oldest age cohort and lowest for the youngest age cohort. With an appreciation of the concept of proximate literacy, the literacy pattern is verified in a household perspective. The observations would be helpful to guide policymakers in targeting households for adult literacy programmes.


Literacy is the most essential prerequisite for individual empowerment. It is associated with a wide spectrum of benefits. It enhances the capabilities of individuals, families, and communities in terms of access to health, educational, economic, political, and cultural opportunities. Therefore, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, 1948, recognised literacy as the basic human right and committed to education for all. Indian planners, too, have recognised this role of education in shaping social and economic development of the country. At the time of independence, India inherited a legacy of large-scale illiteracy and lack of proper provision for education, and since then, literacy has been considered as one of the priority areas of focus for development.

The census is the most frequently referred source of information about literacy in India. Therefore, the general comprehension on literacy is limited to the information available in census reports. 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 analyse and comment on the literacy progress. In addition, such progress is also appraised with an inspection of its disparity across characteristic groups (regional, sectoral, gender, and social).

Assessment of educational achievement of any kind, that is, literacy in the current context, need not merely be based on expansion of opportunities. Such an assessment discounts the fact that educational opportunities are exploited at a particular age and stage of life. Hence, any aggregate outcome of literacy presents a mix of outcomes across generations. Given that every older generation experiences lower literacy prevalence than its younger counterparts at any point of time, the aggregate literacy rate tends to improve even without any explicit advantage of greater educational potential of the population in coming years. While it is necessary that analysis of literacy progress should inform about the expansion in educational opportunities, it can alternatively be captured by contrasting the likelihood of being literate among the younger generation vis-à-vis the older ones. Its significance arises from the fact that every young age cohort enjoyed better educational opportunities than older ones as a result of expansion in educational opportunities over the years. The likelihood of a person acquiring literacy skills through the formal schooling system is determined by the schooling opportunities available at their school-going age. In this regard, the analysis of age-specific literacy rate becomes an appropriate means to evaluate literacy progress. Such analysis may be meaningful to plan responsive, feasible, and effective literacy actions, and help to identify the priority target age cohort.

The age cohort aspect of literacy progress remains largely unexplored. Although a few attempts have been made in this direction (Venkatanarayana and Ravi 2013; Shukla and Mishra 2014a; Venkatanarayana 2015), a comprehensive age cohort analysis of literacy in India is still not available. Against this background, this paper evaluates age-specific literacy progress in India. The focus of the study is to examine the group disparity in literacy over the age cohort. It is carried out with an objective to understand the dynamics of group disparity in literacy.

Assessing the Progress in Literacy

Generally, the concept of “literacy” is comprehensive to one and all. But, at the same time, literacy as a concept as regards its assessment has proved to be both complex and dynamic, given its multiplicity of definitions. In the absence of a standard international definition of literacy that captures all its facets, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO 1978) adopted the concept of “functional literacy.” A person is functionally literate when they can engage in all those activities in which literacy is required for effective functioning within their group and community, and also for enabling them to continue to use reading, writing, and calculation for their own and the community’s development. Therefore, literacy refers to a context-bound continuum of reading, writing, and numeracy skills, acquired and developed through process of learning and application, in school and in other settings appropriate to youth and adults.

In India, the general perception about literacy is the census definition, the ability to read and write any one language. Illiterates, according to the census, are those without this ability of reading and writing among the population of age seven years and above. Literacy rate is defined as the proportion of literate in the population of age seven years and above. Based on this definition, literacy rate in India has shown significant improvement over the years, that is, 34.5% in 1971 to 74.0% in 2011 (Table 1). Such improvement is universal across all the states of the country but for the differential pace of progress. Greater improvement for the poorest states (Bihar, Rajasthan, Jharkhand, and Andhra Pradesh [AP]) is another cheering aspect of the literacy progress during 2001–11. However, India remains far from claiming universal literacy. In fact, it also falls short of its own target of 80%, to be attained by 2011, set up by the Planning Commission. In addition, the literacy achievement in India suffers from wide interstate variation. According to the estimate based on Census 2011 data, literacy rate in India varies from lowest in Bihar (63.8%) to highest in Kerala (93.9%).

Figure 1 presents the literacy rate for India over the age cohort based on Census 2011. It is clearly evident that the literacy rate is the highest (91.1%) for the youngest age cohort (10–14 years) and the lowest (39.8%) for the oldest age cohort (70–74 years), as against the average literacy of 74.0% (age seven years and above). Literacy rate up to the age cohort 25–29 years is higher than the overall literacy rate while it is lower for other age cohorts. Higher literacy rate for younger age cohorts than for the older ones is primarily due to greater access to education among the most recent cohorts compared to those who are older. The increasing emphasis on raising literacy levels through various policy measures seems to result in increasing level of literacy as one moves from older age cohort to younger age cohort. This is called a cohort effect (or a generation effect) in social sciences. Here, a cohort (generation) is defined as a group of persons born in the same year or period that therefore gets older with the passage of time. In almost every country of the world, older cohorts are less educated than younger cohorts because education is concentrated in the younger age groups and most education systems have expanded over time.

Measuring literacy patterns over the age cohort is, therefore, much more valuable and informative. It is the most appropriate tool to understand the evolution of the literacy progress over a longer period of time using information collected at one specific point of time—the population Census of India 2011 in the present case. In the present analysis, 70–74 is considered as the oldest age cohort and 10–14 as the youngest one. The age cohort provides the dynamics of literacy progress for a period of 60 years. The age cohort 70–74 years is composed of those individuals born during the period 1937–41, and age cohort 10–14 years is composed of those born during the period 1997–2001. These dynamics of age cohorts provide information about the changes in the likelihood of being literate for individuals born at the interval of every five years. It reveals that in a period of 60 years, literacy rate in India improved from nearly 40% for the age cohort 70–74 years to more than 90% for the age group 10–14 years.

Interstate Analysis of Age-specific Literacy Rate

The analysis of age cohort-specific literacy rates reveals wide variations across states for any specific age cohort. For instance, the literacy rate for the age cohort 10–14 years is highest for Kerala (98.9%) and lowest for Bihar (83.3%). Four other states, namely, Tamil Nadu (TN) (97.9%), Himachal Pradesh (HP) (97.2%), Maharashtra (95.6%), and Karnataka (95.3%) have a literacy rate more than 95% for the 10–14 years age cohort. Similarly, for the age cohort 70–74 years, literacy rate varies from the lowest in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) (22.2%) to the highest in Kerala (76.9%) (Appendix Table A.2, p 52).

Therefore, interstate comparison based on aggregate literacy rate—ignoring the age cohort aspects of literacy—could very well offer misleading conclusions as regards the progress in literacy. Higher literacy rate in one state compared to another need not necessarily imply that the former dominates the latter over the entire range of age cohorts. For instance, the overall literacy rate in Uttar Pradesh (UP) (69.7%) is higher than in AP (67.7%), but for the age cohort 10–14 years, AP (94.2%) has a higher literacy rate than UP (87.7%). Contrary to this, the literacy rate for the age cohort 70–74 years is lower for AP (29.0%) than for UP (32.7%). Bihar presents another case that underlines the importance of age cohort consideration in the analysis of interstate literacy comparison. It can be observed from Appendix Table A.2 that Bihar registered the lowest literacy rate (83.3%) for the youngest age cohort (10–14 years); however, it ranked eighth for the oldest age cohort (70–74 years).

The change in the relative ranking of a state over the age cohort implies the relative pace of progress in educational opportunities, especially elementary education. The decline in the ranking is indicative of relatively slow progress. Therefore, it is necessary that interstate comparison is made in recognition of the age cohort distribution and not merely based on the aggregate literacy rates. This can be accomplished by plotting the cumulative literacy rate over ages for various states. Such an exposition particularly highlights the literacy dominance till a certain age or the lack of it beyond a certain age. Alternatively, this also exposes the illusion of overall literacy level, which masks the age-specific picture. Such an exposition is made in Figure 2.1 for a group of states. It presents the cumulative literacy rate for four states—AP, Assam, Odisha, and Rajasthan. The comparison based on average literacy rate (for the age group 10+) positions Odisha with a literacy rate of 72.3% as the best performer among these states, followed by Assam (71.7%), AP (65.9%), and Rajasthan (64.9%). However, this dominance does not hold over all the age cohorts. Comparing the literacy rate for the age cohort 10–29 years positions AP as the best performer, but it becomes second best if we compare the 10–39 age cohort as against the third position in the comparison of aggregate literacy rate. Similarly, Rajasthan becomes the worst performer after the 10–29 years age group. Figure 2.2 presents a similar exposition for another group of states: Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, and HP, where HP is the best performer followed by Maharashtra through all the age cohorts. The case of Karnataka and Gujarat is different. Karnataka fares better than Gujarat for the age cohort 10–34 years, after which it lags behind Gujarat (see Appendix Table A.3 [p 53] for age-cumulative literacy rates across states).


Under the consideration of the age-specific dynamics of literacy, an alternative evaluation of progress in literacy could be made based on the comparison of the incidence of literacy between the two extreme age cohorts. Comparison of the literacy rate between the 70–74 years age cohort and 10–14 years age cohort offers an index of progress for a period of 60 years. The percentage point difference in the literacy rate of the 70–74 years and 10–14 years age cohorts is presented in Figure 3 (p 46). Since progress is measured in terms of percentage points, and the difference has a lot to do with the initial level, it needs to be compared with caution. It is recommended that in this case, a comparison is made between the groups of states with same level of initial literacy for the 70–74 years age cohort. In this regard, the states (J&K, Rajasthan, AP, and Chhattisgarh) with lowest level of initial literacy (all less than 30%; Appendix Table A.2) registered the greatest improvement in the literacy rate. No significant differences are observed in the performances of these states measured in terms of percentage point differences.

Among the states (Madhya Pradesh [MP], Jharkhand, UP, Bihar, Haryana, Punjab, HP, Karnataka, and Odisha) with a moderate level of initial literacy rate (30% to 40%; Appendix Table A.2), HP registered the highest improvement and Bihar the lowest. Due to this slow progress, Bihar has been pushed to bottom for the 10–14 years age cohort from the 13th position for age cohort 70–74 years. Similarly, HP improved its ranking from the 10th position to the third position. Odisha and UP also registered reduction in their ranking, while ranking improved for Karnataka, MP, and Haryana (Appendix Table A.2).

TN registered the highest and West Bengal (WB) the lowest improvement in the group of states—WB, Maharashtra, TN, Gujarat, Uttarakhand and Assam—with highest level of initial literacy rate (all more than 40%, but Kerala is excluded because of very high level of literacy rate). Because of slow progress in literacy, WB registered a dramatic decline in its relative ranking. It declined from second position for the 70–74 years age cohort to 12th position for the 10–14 years age cohort. Assam also experienced a huge downward shift in its ranking due to the slow progress in literacy improvement. It shifted from seventh position for the 70–74 years age cohort to 17th position for the 10–14 years age cohort.

Age-specific Analysis of Group Disparity in Literacy

Rural–urban and male–female differences are frequently discussed axis of group disparity in the development literature of which education and literacy is no exception. These two aspects of group disparity in literacy rate have a prominent place in the census report as well. The reports published by the Office of the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India present the group disparity in these stated dimensions by simply taking the percentage point differences of the overall literacy rate of the two groups over the years. The scholarly works, some recent ones being Shukla and Mishra (2014b) and Katiyar (2016), except for methodological variations, also use the overall literacy rate to analyse group disparity in literacy.

Figure 4 presents the literacy rate for the rural and urban sectors during 1971–2011. Although the urban sector maintains an advantage over the rural sector in literacy outcomes, the gap between these two subgroups of the population narrowed down over the years. The rural–urban gap in literacy reduced from 34.3 percentage points in 1971 to 16.1 percentage points in 2011, which is an outcome of greater progress in the literacy rate of the rural sector. Nevertheless, there still remain large differences in the literacy outcomes between the rural and urban sectors. Similar to rural–urban dichotomy, male–female gap in literacy rate too registered a secular decline over the years (Figure 5). It fell from 25.9 percentage points in 1971 to 16.6 percentage points in 2011.


The classification of literacy rate across age cohorts reveals higher group disparity in literacy rate for the older population than for the younger one. The group disparity continuously declines as one moves from the oldest age cohort to the youngest age cohort. In 2011, the group difference in literacy rate nearly disappeared for the youngest age cohort (10–14 years). This pattern is observed for both the dichotomies—gender and residence (Figures 6 and 7, p 47). The bridging of characteristic differences in the literacy rate is in keeping with the overall improvement in literacy. Faster expansion in school education that provides greater schooling opportunities for the deprived subgroups of the population narrowed the differences among the groups. The fact that group difference in literacy is the feature of the older age cohorts can be explicitly understood through the age cohort analysis. Overall, the present discussion reveals the fact that every older age cohort suffers from a high degree of group disparity than the younger ones. In this setting, removal of overall group disparity in literacy outcomes cannot be realised merely by providing equal opportunities to the younger generation. This again justifies the need for examining the literacy progress over the age cohorts to delineate the exact differentials that might be getting masked when read in the aggregates. Apart from these two stated dimensions—gender and residence—differences across social groups are another aspect of group disparity, which is widely discussed in the development literature. Similar to the gender and residence dichotomy, differences among the social groups too narrow down as one moves from the oldest age cohort to the younger ones (Figure 8). It disappears for the youngest age cohort (10–14 years).

In order to obtain a more comprehensive picture of the inequitable distribution of literacy across various subgroups of the population, groups with multiple advantages/disadvantages were created. Given a binary classification of the population by gender (“male” and “female”) by sector of origin (“rural” and “urban”) and by social groups (“Scheduled Castes [SCs]/Scheduled Tribes [STs]” and “others”), we reconstruct a set of eight mutually exclusive and completely exhaustive subgroups, denoted as: urban, male, others (UMO); urban, female, others (UFO); urban, male, SCs/STs (UMS); urban, female, SCs/STs (UFS); rural, male, others (RMO); rural, female, others (RFO); rural, male, SCs/STs (RMS); rural, female, SCs/STs (RFS). The literacy rate of these subgroups over the age cohort is illustrated in Figure 9. It provides clear evidence of convergence in the literacy rate among all the subgroups towards the younger age cohort. Though the group differences in literacy rate exist for the youngest age cohort (10–14 years), these differences are too small. Therefore, the movement of literacy rate depicted across population groups seems to indicate that differentials will disappear sooner than expected.

The subgroups UMO and RFS represent two extremes of the literacy rate. While the UMO forms the subgroup that is the best off, the RFS is the worst off. The remaining six subgroups represent two different clusters. Subgroups UFO, UMS, and RMO form the first cluster. Each of these subgroups contains only one deprived identity. The second cluster includes the subgroups UFS, RFO, and RMS, and each of these contains two deprived identities. It is clearly evident from Figure 9 that the first cluster dominates the second one. It is also to be noted that subgroup UMO does not contain any deprived identity and subgroup RFS contains all the three deprived identities. There is a clear hierarchy in literacy outcome conditioned by the numbers of the deprived identities a subgroup contains.

The convergence in the literacy rate among these subgroups is the result of the greater progress made by the highly deprived groups. The RFS (the worst-off subgroup) made the fastest progress while UMO (the best-off subgroup) made the least. The line that represents the UMO is more or less horizontal given the high level of literacy even among the oldest age cohort. It can be argued that in the best-off subgroup (UMO), literacy is a privilege equally enjoyed by all the people, irrespective of age. On the other hand, in the worst-off group (RFS), the privilege of literacy is enjoyed largely by the younger population. From this, it can be inferred that the initial phase of educational expansion benefits the most privileged subgroups of the population.

The process of convergence in the literacy rate among the subgroups of the population is evident for all the states in the country. For the state with high level of aggregate literacy rate, equalisation in literacy rate occurs for the relatively older age cohorts, while for the state with a lower level of literacy rate, it occurs for the relatively younger age cohorts. This is evident through the comparative analysis of Kerala (Figure 10) and Bihar (Figure 11). These states present two extremes of the literacy rate—Kerala with the highest literacy rate and Bihar with the lowest. In Kerala, all the subgroups achieved an equal literacy rate in the 15–19 years age cohort, while for Bihar, there is still quite a large gap (15 percentage points) between the best-off and worst-off groups for the youngest age cohort (10–14 years).

The literacy rate over the age cohorts is presented for three other states also, namely, WB (Figure 12), Gujarat (Figure 13), and AP (Figure 14). In all these states, the literacy rate almost equalised for the youngest age cohorts. Similar to the national pattern, the UMO and RFS represent two extremes of the literacy rate. Moreover, clustering of the subgroups also somehow follows the national pattern. The literacy rate for these eight disjoint subgroups over the age cohort is presented for some major states of the country in Appendix Table A.1 (p 52). It is observed from the state-specific analysis that for Kerala, HP, TN, Uttarakhand, and WB, group disparity disappears for the youngest age cohort (10–14 years).



Literacy in Household Perspective

Generally, the literacy rate of the population is measured in terms of the proportion of literate people in the population aged seven years and above. However, from a welfare perspective, the literacy outcome of an individual benefits not just that individual but also the other members of his/her household. According to K Basu and J E Foster (1998), having a literate member in the household can make a substantial difference for each illiterate person when it comes to accessing information and accomplishing tasks that require literacy skills. An illiterate person with access to a literate person benefits in many ways. Such a person is termed a “proximate illiterate” and is much better off than an “isolated illiterate;” an illiterate who lives in the company of persons who are all illiterates. Hence, literacy outcome and its bearing on welfare needs to be household-centric rather than individual-centric as the composition of educational attainment among individuals within a household may best indicate the welfare implications of literacy. In this framework, households without any literate members need to get priority while formulating policy for literacy improvement.

According to the estimate based on population Census 2011, there are 9.6% households without any literate members (illiterate households), which is far lower than the proportion of individuals deprived of literacy (Figure 15). The proportion of illiterate households is 12.1% in rural sector, while it is 4.6% in urban sector. This deprivation of the household widely varies across the household sizes. This is true for both the rural and urban sectors. In the rural sector, the proportion of illiterate households is 44.6% for households with size 1–2, 7.6% for households with size 3–6, and 4.3% for households of size 7 and above (Table 2). In the urban sector, the corresponding proportions are 17.1% for households with size 1–2, 2.6% for households with size 3­­–6, and 2.9% for households with size 7 and above. It can be inferred from Table 2 that it is the small rural households that are largely deprived of literacy skills. In the rural sector, the proportion of illiterate households is higher in Bihar (18.7%) and AP (17.5%). There are nine other states with more than 10% illiterate households in the rural sector. Thus, ensuring universal literacy for the new entrants will benefit the adult illiterates through positive externality. However, this is not going to solve the problem of literacy deprivation for the illiterate household with only elderly members.


Evaluation of progress in literacy is commonly made based on the change in its aggregate level, ignoring its differential likelihood across ages and characteristic identities. This exercise demonstrates an exposition of progress assessment of literacy accounting for age structure dynamics of literacy alongside its characteristic differential. Literacy mapping across age cohorts offers a better understanding of the literacy progress as it informs about the changes in the likelihood of being literate for every younger age cohort in comparison to older ones. The primary observation made here relates to literacy deprivation being quite different across the age cohorts. Interstate comparison reveals the fact that lower level of aggregate literacy for a state does not necessarily mean lower level of literacy for all the age cohorts. This clearly illustrates the fact that despite achieving universal elementary education (UEE), achieving the goal of full literacy does not seem realistic in immediate future owing to existing stock of out-of-school-age illiterate population. It is also systematically observed that characteristic differences in literacy are the highest among the oldest age cohort and lowest for the youngest age cohort. In some states—Kerala, HP, TN, and Uttarakhand—characteristic differences nearly disappear for the youngest age cohort. Thus, it suggests that along with UEE, an effective adult literacy programme is needed in order to realise the goal of full literacy. An assessment of spread of literacy is made here with a household perspective to differentiate isolated illiterates from proximate ones. In this regard, an encouraging observation is that there are only a few households with isolated illiterates. Of these, a large share is of small-sized households that need to be specifically targeted with regard to literacy programmes. On the whole, this exercise offers optimism regarding improvement in literacy and bridging of characteristic disparities in this regard.


Basu, K and J E Foster (1998): “On Measuring Literacy,” The Economic Journal, Vol 108, No 451, pp 1733–49.

Katiyar, S P (2016): “Gender Disparity in Literacy in India,” Social Change, Vol 46, No 1,
pp 46–69.

Shukla, V and U S Mishra (2014a): “Age Composition and Literacy Progress in India: An Inter-state Analysis,” Journal of Educational Planning and Administration, Vol 28, No 3, pp 223–34.

— (2014b): “Literacy Progress in Uttar Pradesh: A District-level Analysis,” Indian Journal of Human Development, Vol 8, No 1, pp 171–82.

UNESCO (1978): Literacy in Asia: A Continuing Challenge, Report of the UNESCO Regional Experts Meeting on Literacy in Asia, Bangkok, 22–28 November 1977, United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Regional Office for Education in Asia and Oceania.

Venkatanarayana, M (2015): “When Will India Achieve Universal Adult Literacy: Status and Prospects,” Journal of Educational Planning and Administration, Vol 29, No 2, pp 177–204.

Venkatanarayana, M and C Ravi (2013): “Achieving Universal Literacy in Andhra Pradesh: Status and Prospects,” Indian Journal of Human Development, Vol 7, No 1, pp 1–38.
















Updated On : 21st Mar, 2020
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