ABL Srivastava

Chief Consultant (RESU)

Ed. CIL’s TSG – DPEP, New Delhi, INDIA


The literacy rate of the population aged 7+ according to the 2001 population census is 65.4 whereas it was only 52.2 in 1991. The growth has been much faster compared to that of the previous decade since the literacy rate increased by 13.2 percentage points between 1991 and 2001, whereas it had increased only by 8.6 percentage points between 1981 and 1991. In fact, the growth during 1991-2001 exceeded that of every previous decade. Since the growth in terms of percentage points generally slows down as one approaches the ceiling of 100%, the accelerated growth during 1991-2001 can be considered as a great achievement. Another remarkable feature of the results on literacy in 2001 census is that, for the first time, the number of non-literates declined between 1991 and 2001, instead of increasing. Upto 1991, in spite of some increase in literacy rate between two consecutive census years, the number of non-literates did not decline, but continued to increase. This trend was reversed in 2001 because of the rapid rise in the number of literates and some slowing down of population growth rate during 1991-2001. Between 1991 and 2001, while the number of literates increased by 203.6 million (that is, by 56.8%), the number of non-literates decreased by 32.0 million (that is, by 9.7%). It is expected that the trend of decline in the number of non-literates will continue and the size of non-literate population will diminish substantially in the years to come.


Table 1 shows the literacy rate in the age group 7+ for the census years 1981, 1991 and 2001, and Table 2 shows the number of literates and non-literates in 1991 and 2001.

Table 1: Literacy Rate for the population of age 7+ in 1981, 1991 and 2001

Literacy rate Increase
1981 1991 2001 1981-91 1991-2001
Male 56.4 64.1 75.9 7.7 11.8
Female 29.8 39.3 54.2 9.5 14.9
Total 43.6 52.2 65.4 8.6 13.2
Gender gap (M-F) 26.6 24.8 21.7

Table 2: Number of literates and non-literates of age 7+ in 1991 and 2001

1991 2001 Increase 1991-2001 % Increase 1991-2001
Number of literates (in millions)
Male 229.0 337.0 108.0 47.2
Female 129.4 225.0 95.6 73.9
Total 358.4 562.0 203.6 56.8
Number of non-literates (in millions)
Male 128.1 106.6 -21.5 -16.8
Female 200.1 189.6 -10.5 -5.2
Total 328.2 296.2 -32.0 -9.8

The literacy rate of males is 75.85 and of females, 54.16 in 2001. The gender gap has reduced slightly compared to what it was in 1981 and 1991. The highest difference between the literacy rate of males and females of age 7+ was 26.62 in 1981; it reduced to 24.84 in 1991 and further to 21.70 in 2001. Apparently there has been greater progress in improvement of literacy rate of females over the last two decades, since it increased from 29.76 in 1981 to 54.16 in 2001 (i.e. by 24.40 percentage points), whereas the literacy rate of males increased from 56.38 in 1981 to 75.85 in 2001, that is, by 19.47 percentage points. But even with the greater increase in the literacy rate of females, the gender gap is fairly large, since the number of non-literate females is 189.6 million against 106.7 million non-literate males, that is, there are 83 million more non-literate females.

The relatively higher growth in literacy rate of females (14.9 points) compared to that of males (11.7 points) between 1991 and 2001, hides the fact that between 1991 and 2001, the increase in the number of literate females was a little less than the increase in the number of literate males. While the number of literate males increased by 108.0 million between 1991 and 2001, the corresponding increase in the number of literate females was by 95.6 million, which is 88.5% of the former. Since there were 200 non-literate females of age 7+ as against 128 non-literate males in 1991, the gap was too large to bridge. In a way, the gap has widened as the number of non-literate males decreased by 21.4 million between 1991 and 2001, while the number of non-literate females decreased by only 10.5 million over this period. The reason for slower progress made in reduction of the number of non-literate females can be traced to the difference in enrolment ratios and dropout rates of boys and girls at the primary stage. According to the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-2) while 85.2% boys in the age group 6-10 were attending school, only 78.3% girls were doing so in 1998-99. The same survey showed that while the median number of years of schooling was 5.5 for males of age 6+, it was only 1.6 for females of age 6+. Among the total students enrolled in classes I-V in 1999-2000, only 43.6% were girls and the Gross Enrolment Ratio was 104.1 for boys against 85.2 for girls, according to the Ministry of HRD statistical report for 1999-2000. The dropout rate also has been a little higher for girls; while 38.7% of boys entering grade I dropped out before grade V, 42.3% girls did so (according to the same Ministry of HRD statistics for the year 1999-2000).


The literacy rate varies considerably across the states. While Kerala remains on the top with 90.9% literacy rate, Bihar is at the bottom with 47.5% literacy rate. In 1991 also, it had the lowest literacy rate of 37.5% among the states and Union Territories. Except Bihar, all the states and Union Territories which had literacy rate below 50% in 1991, are now in ‘over 50%’ bracket. Of the states and Union Territories which were close to or below all India literacy rate of 52.2 in 1991, some have made tremendous progress while in others the progress has been rather tardy. Table 3 shows the literacy rate of these states and UTs in 1991 and 2001.

Table 3: Literacy rate of the below average states for the population of age 7+ in 2001

1991 2001 Increase 1991-2001 Gender gap
States Male Female Total Male Female Total 1991 2001
Rajasthan 55.0 20.4 38.6 76.5 44.3 61.0 22.4 34.6 32.1
Uttar Pradesh 54.8 24.4 40.7 70.2 43.0 57.4 16.7 30.4 27.3
Bihar 51.4 22.0 37.5 60.3 33.6 47.5 10.0 29.4 26.8
Arunachal Pradesh 51.5 29.7 41.6 64.1 44.2 54.7 13.1 21.8 19.8
Meghalaya 53.1 44.8 49.1 66.1 60.4 63.3 14.2 8.3 5.7
Assam 61.9 43.0 52.9 71.9 56.0 64.3 11.4 18.9 15.9
Jharkhand 55.8 25.5 41.4 67.9 39.4 54.1 12.7 30.3 28.6
Orissa 63.1 34.7 49.1 76.0 51.0 63.6 14.5 28.4 25.0
Chhatisgarh 58.1 27.5 42.9 77.9 52.4 65.2 22.3 30.6 25.5
Madhya Pradesh 58.5 29.4 44.7 76.8 50.3 64.1 19.4 29.1 26.5
Dadra & Nagar Haveli 53.6 27.0 40.7 73.3 43.0 60.0 19.3 26.6 30.3
Andhra Pradesh 55.1 32.7 44.1 70.9 51.2 61.1 17.0 22.4 19.7
INDIA 64.1 39.3 52.2 76.0 54.3 65.5 13.3 24.9 21.7

Incidentally, these are the States and UTs, which are even now below the all India literacy rate of 65.4. The literacy rate in Assam is close to the all India figure in both 1991 and 2001.Bihar and Jharkhand are the only states in the above group in which the decadal increase is the lowest. The most significant increase has taken place in Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh, Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, which are known to have been backward in education. Orissa and Meghalaya also made significant progress, though not to the same extent as some other states. In Rajasthan, there have been some noteworthy initiatives in education during the late eighties and nineties such as Lok Jumbish and Shiksha Karmi projects, which have apparently made visible impact.In Madhya Pradesh also, the Education Guarantee Scheme, the District Primary Education Programme and programmes like Mahila Samakhaya have apparently made some impact. Among the new states, Jharkhand and Chhatisgarh are both ahead of the states from which they were carved out, in respect of both male and female literacy rates. These are the tribal parts of the original states which are generally more backward, but it seems that in literacy they have benefited significantly from the educational activities of the missionaries and state Departments of Tribal Welfare. Uttaranchal is also far ahead of Uttar Pradesh from which it was carved out, showing that the hilly and tribal areas even though economically backward, have been relatively better off in education.

In respect of female literacy, it is again Bihar and Jharkhand, which are at the bottom (33.6% in Bihar and 39.4% in Jharkhand). The states where the gender gap is quite large (25% points or more) are Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Orissa, Chhatisgarh and Madhya Pradesh, the gender gap in these states being in the range of 25 to 32 percentage points. In 1991, the state with lowest female literacy rate was Rajasthan (20.4) followed by Bihar (22.0) and Uttar Pradesh (24.4). Rajasthan, Chhatisgarh and Madhya Pradesh have achieved maximum decadal growth in female literacy (23.9, 24.9 and 20.9 respectively). However, Uttar Pradesh, Uttaranchal, Orissa and Andhra Pradesh are not far behind, as the decadal increase in their female literacy rate is in the range of 16 to 19 percentage points. Even though the states with very low female literacy have made good progress in bridging the gender gap, they require some more concerted efforts to reduce the gap further in the future. The enrolment and retention of girls in these states must increase and there should be more emphasis on adult literacy programmes for females.


Having presented some of the significant features of literacy data available at this stage from the 2001 census, let us now examine the trend in literacy over the period 1961-2001. The literacy rate was as low as 28.3 for the age group 5+ in 1961; it has now more than doubled to 65.4 for the age group 7+ in 2001. Table 4 shows the literacy rate for the age groups 7+ and 15+ for the census years 1961 to 2001 and for the years 1995/96, 1997 and 1998 based on NSS data. For 2001, the literacy rate for age 15+ is obtained by simple extrapolation.

Table 4: Literacy rate of the population in the age groups 7+ and 15+, 1961 to 2001

Year Literacy Rate (Age 7+) Literacy rate (Age 15+) Gender difference (M-F)
Male Female Total Male Female Total Age7+ Age15+
1961[a] 40.4 15.4 28.3 41.5 13.2 27.8 25.0 28.3
1971a 46.0 22.0 34.5 47.7 19.4 34.1 24.0 28.3
1981 56.4 29.8 43.6 54.9 25.8 40.9 26.6 29.1
1991 64.1 39.3 52.2 61.3 34.1 48.2 24.8 27.2
1995-96[b] 67.3 40.7 54.3 26.6
1997[c] 73 50 62 70 43 57 23 27
1998[d] 73 51 62 22
2001[e] 75.9 54.2 65.4 71.1 47.1 59.4 21.7 24.0

The growth in literacy rate was almost linear between 1961 and 1991, but there was a clear shift from the linear trend after 1991. There was a spurt in growth rate of literacy after 1991; however, the reduction in gender gap was rather slow.


Whether the sharp increase in literacy rate after 1991 was more due to the progress made towards universalisation of primary education or to the adult literacy programmes, can be decided only when the literacy data by age becomes available. As this stage, only some conjectures can be made on the basis of the available data on literacy by age from the 1991 census and certain assumptions that may or may not prove to be true eventually. Table 5 shows the literacy rate of the population in the different age groups for the years 1961 to 1991.

Table 5: Literacy rate in different age groups, 1961 – 1998/99

Age group 1961 1971 1981 1991 NFHS-2 1998-99
10-14 42.3 49.6 56.3 68.5 81.8
15-19 38.4 51.3 55.5 65.7 76.9
20-24 33.6 44.7 52.0 57.9 67.0a
25-34 28.5 34.8 45.0 50.9 56.9b
35+ 22.2 25.2 30.3 38.0 45.2c
15+ 27.8 34.1 40.9 48.2 58.6

a) Age group: 20-29; b) Age group: 30-39; c) Age group: 40+

It seems reasonable to assume that the literacy rate for the age group 15-19 will increase by about 12 percentage points between 1991 and 2001. Thus it should become about 78 in 2001. This assumption is supported by the data of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-2) conducted in 1998-99, which reports the literacy rate for the age group 15-19 as 76.9. The literacy rate in the different age groups in 2001 will be as shown in Table 6, if there is no impact of adult literacy programmes during 1991-2001. Actually the literacy rate of any given age group, say 15-34 in 2001 will be the same as that of the 10 years younger age group, 15-24 in 1991 if it is assumed that no one found literate in 1991 lapsed into illiteracy by 2001, no one became literate because of adult literacy programmes and there was no significant impact of migration on literacy. The difference between the literacy rate of the age group 15+ so estimated and that obtained by extrapolation can be attributed to the impact of adult literacy programmes.

Table 6: Estimated literacy rate and number of literates in different age groups in 2001, assuming no impact of literacy programmes

Age-group Literacy Rate Estimated population (millions)a Estimated no. of literates (millions) 2001
1991 2001
10-14 68.5
15-19 65.7 78.0 110.3 86.0
20-24 57.9 68.5 91.2 62.5
15-24 62.0
25-34 50.9 62.0 142.1 88.1
25+ 42.5
35+ 38.0 42.5 246.2 104.6
15+ 48.2 57.85 589.8 341.2

a) Based on population projections made y RGI for 2001

Since the estimated literacy rate for the age group 15+ in 2001 is 59.4, the number of literates in this age group should be 350.3 million out of the total estimated population of 589.8 million in this age group. Thus only 350.3-341.2 = 9.1 million persons in the age group 15+ in 2001 are those who apparently acquired literacy between 1991 and 2001, as they were not already literate in 1991. Others were either already literate in 1991 or had acquired literacy by attending formal schools and programmes of non-formal / alternative schools. This provides rather a disturbing picture of the impact of adult literacy programmes, since according to the 1998-99 report of the Directorate of Adult Education, the number of persons made literate between 1988 and March 1999 is 79.5 million (59.4 million through TLC and 20.1 million through other schemes).

Even if we assume that the literacy rate in the age group 15+ in 2001 is 61.4 (just 4.0 percentage points more than that of age group 7+), the number of literates in the age group 15+ would be 362.1 million, which would imply that 362.1-341.2=20.9 million persons in the age group 15+ in 2001 were those who became literate as a result of adult literacy programmes between 1991 and 2001. It is again much less than the number of those who should have become literate because of TLC and other literacy schemes. One possible reason for such discrepancy is that some of the adults reported to be literate in 1991 were actually not literate enough to be excluded from the literacy imparting programmes of TLC and the like. They were included among those covered in these programmes.


While it is necessary to give all the importance that is at present being given to Universalisation of Elementary Education through DPEP and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan, it is also important to pay greater attention to the adult literacy programmes for the vast population of non-literate adults. They constitute about 40% of the total adult population (of age 15+), which means population of 236 million non-literate adults. The target originally fixed for adult literacy programmes was to make 100 million non-literate adults literate by 1999; not only this target was not achieved, but the census data show that the impact was much below the expected achievement. Let us hope that the situation is not so bad as it appears at present, and the detailed data on literacy by age as and when become available, will show a better impact of adult literacy programmes.

So far as the literacy scenario of the different states is concerned, the states with low literacy level have improved greatly over the period 1991-2001, with the exception of Bihar and Jharkhand. Among the most populous states of India, there are six, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, which account for 46% of the country’s population. All these states except Bihar have made tremendous progress in improving their literacy rate. These hold the key to further progress in eradication of illiteracy in the future. Apart from the programmes of National Literacy Mission for adults, the Universalisation of Elementary Education through programmes like District Programme Education Programme (DPEP) and Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan will play a key role in achieving another significant rise in literacy rate during the current decade. These educational programmes aim at providing universal access, enrolment of all children in the age group 6-13, reduction of dropout rate and improvement of quality of education. With the financial resources and other inputs that are being provided to make these programmes successful, we can certainly hope that the literacy rate will increase to at least 75% or so by the year of 2011, that is, when the next census takes place.


1. Census of India 2001: Provisional Population Totals, Paper 1 of 2001, Series 1, 2001.

2. Selected Educational Statistics, 1999-2000 Ministry of Human Resource Development, 2001.

3. National Family Health Survey (NFHS-2), 1998-99, International Institute of Population Sciences, 2000.

4. NSS Report: Attending an Educational Institution in India: Its level, nature and cost, NSS 52nd Round (1995-96), 1998.

5. Literacy Campaigns in India – National Overview (status as in March 1999), National Literacy Mission, Directorate of Adult Education, MHRD, 2000.

[a] Literacy rates shown for age 7+ are actually for the age 5+ in 1961 and 1971

[b] Source: NSS 52nd Round

[c] Source: NSS 53rd Round

[d] Source: NSS 54th Round

[e] Literacy rates for age 15+ are obtained by simple extrapolation. The difference between the literacy rates of age groups 7+ and 15+ is assumed to be 6 percentage points in 2001, whereas it was 4 percentage points in 1991 and 5 percentage points in 1997.