India’s illiterate population equals all the people in USA

Almost 300 million people in India still can’t read their own name. Of those who manage to study, many struggle due to poor facilities and poor teaching, and end up unemployable.

Subodh Varma presents a report card on education in India

India has one of the biggest education systems in the world. On a typical day, roughly 290 million students are attending classes somewhere. That’s more than the total population of any country in the world, except China, India and the US. Most of these students are in school — there are over 1.2 million schools ranging from pre-primary to senior secondary. Over 1.1 million students attend colleges and universities. Then there are those learning vocational skills in diverse streams. A vast army of teachers — over 6.3 million of them — guides and nurtures the young, on their way to adulthood.

When India became independent, a large majority of people was illiterate, thanks to the policies of the erstwhile colonial rulers. Since then, considerable strides have been made in expanding literacy, though India has still not managed to ensure education for all its people.

In 1961, only about 28% Indians were literate. In 2006, estimates put the literacy rate at about 66%. That’s an impressive jump of nearly 40 percentage points. It has taken 60 years, but the numbers involved are truly enormous.

However, it still leaves over 380 million people illiterate. That is the largest number of illiterates in any one country, more than the total population of India at the time of Independence and would be the third largest country by population.

Even the impressive figure of number of students —290 million — has a similar flipside. The total number of children and youth, in the age group of 6 to 24 years, is about 460 million. This is the age group that should ideally be in the education system. But only about 63% of them are studying. Over 170 million potential students are left in the lurch.

How does this compare with other countries? In high income countries, over 92% of the eligible age group (5-24 years) is studying. In the middle-income countries, this share is about 73%, while in low-income countries it is down to 56%. In China, the ratio is 69%, somewhat similar to India’s. But Brazil with about 88% and Russia with 89% are almost there with the high-income group.

Experts and policy makers cite many reasons to explain why so many have been left behind by the country’s education juggernaut. Apart from the pervasive curse of poverty, which forces young people to quit studying and start working as early as possible, there are also issues of social imbalances.

There are four great divides that slice up Indian society and pervade every aspect of life, including education. They are: rural-urban, men-women, rich-poor and caste. In each case, there is a disadvantaged section, which finds it difficult to get access to educational opportunities, and thus gets left out. Thus, women, scheduled castes and tribes, agricultural labourers and small farmers, all have lower literacy rates, lower enrollment ratios and higher dropout rates at various levels. Although there is vast improvement since 60 years ago, and the striving is there, the system is still not capable of providing equal access.

Then there is the question of relevance of education — after all it is being sought primarily to get a good job. A recent National Sample Survey report found that unemployment among youth was highest among graduates, post-graduates and technical diploma or certificate holders — in the range of 19-20%. This is way above the current unemployment rate of about 6% for this age group. The reasons for this are that in most cases the educational qualifications and job requirements don’t match, and in any case, the number of jobs being created are highly insufficient.

What can be done to improve the spread of education at all levels, and ensure that education for all becomes a reality, rather than a mere dream? While experience the world over shows that general economic advance spurs the spread of education like nothing else, there can be no doubt that a massive effort is required to provide well-rounded education to all our country’s people. Such an effort involves resources as well as people to carry out the task. The major responsibility for such a gigantic enterprise has to rest with the government in terms of providing at least the bulk of resources, as also providing some kind of regulatory framework for both the quantitative and qualitative aspects of education. But, what has been the government’s role on these counts till now?


In 1951-52, the central and state governments put together, spent Rs 64.46 crore on education. This was about 8% of all public expenditure incurred, and just a tiny 0.64% of the gross domestic product (GDP) of that year. Since then the expenditure on education has increased tremendously. In 2006-07, the total expenditure on education at all levels was nearly Rs 1.33 lakh crore. As a share of all public expenditure, this works out to about 13%, and as a share of GDP, it is about 3.6%.

In fact, the peak in educational expenditure occurred in 1999-00, when it was 14.6% of all governmental expenditure. The next year, it hit a peak, as a share of GDP, at 4.3%. Since then, it showed a declining trend till 2004-05, after which it has once again risen slightly.

It is apparent that this scale of expenditure is insufficient to meet the challenge of educating 1.2 billion Indians. How much should the government spend? Forty years ago, the Kothari Commission, set up by the government to recommend ways of improving the education system, argued that at least 6% of the GDP should be allocated for education. But, government spending has always remained below par, creating several of the problems given above. In most of the advanced countries, spending on education remains in the range of 4-6% of GDP.

Even in emerging economies like Brazil and Russia, the share of public spending on education is well above 10%, while as a share of GDP it is similar to India’s. In China, spending on education as a share of GDP appears to be low at about 2.8%, but this is due to differences in accounting methods.

Low spending by the government has led to two harmful consequences — one, growing inequity in education, as those with better resources, get better education, while the majority have to do with mediocre or poor educational standards; and two, a decline in quality of education as management and monitoring becomes more patchy.


A massive and complex machinery manages the Indian education system. Education being on the concurrent list of the Constitution, its responsibility is shared between the Union government and state governments. The predominant bulk of the schooling system lies within the ambit of state governments, while higher education is mostly run by the Union. For the school system, curriculum is largely determined by the National Council of Education, Research & Training (NCERT), a central body. All monitoring and supervision of schools at the grassroots level is carried out by the education departments of state governments, or local bodies. Examinations are conducted by 35 boards.

For professional and vocational streams, there are centralized bodies that grant recognition and lay down functional norms. Thus, the All India Council for Technical Education (AICTE) supervises professional colleges, in collaboration with various professional bodies like Medical Council of India. Some professional institutions are run directly by the central government, including the famous IITs and IIMs. On the other hand, Industrial Training Institutes (ITI), which form the backbone of the vocational stream, are run by the labour ministry.

The National Council of Teachers Education (NCTE), another central body, supervises the training of teachers, and setting up of teachers’ education colleges.

Higher education is largely controlled by the University Grants Commission, which not only funds colleges and universities, but also lays down norms for appointments and recognition.

In this maze of statutory bodies, there are two which are specifically charged with ensuring quality standards — the National Assessment and Accreditation Council (NAAC) for general colleges and universities, and the National Board of Accreditation (NBA) for professional colleges, recognized by AICTE.

It is a measure of just how much importance quality standards are given that these bodies have accredited only a small fraction of the institutions for which they are responsible. For instance, of the over 1400 engineering colleges in the country, only about 8% are accredited by the NBA.

Similarly, only about 20% of the over 14,000 general colleges have been assessed by the NAAC. School education remains unassessed for all practical purposes.

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