India's performance over the past decade on one key development indicator, literacy, is not bad at first glance. Data from the provisional population tables of Census 2011 show the ‘effective literacy rate' (the percentage of the population above seven years that is literate) has increased by 9.21 percentage points over the decade to reach 74.04 per cent. A clear positive is that literacy rates among women grew faster than those for men. This growth in bare literacy reflects the significant steps free India has been taking to create a more literate society. It stands out when one compares the relevant pre- and post-1947 data. In 1901, the crude literacy rate (the number of literates as a percentage of the total population) was an insignificant 5.35 per cent. In 1951, this was a still dismal 16.67 per cent. In contrast with a 11.32 percentage point increase between 1901 and 1951, the crude literacy rate rose by 48.22 points between 1951 and 2011, with the 1991-2001 decade registering the highest growth (11.67 percentage points).

But this encouraging portrait must be understood in context — and also in comparison with what other countries have achieved. Any set of data is only as good as its definitions. By the prevailing Census definition, anyone above the age of seven who can read and write with understanding in any language is considered ‘literate'. The giveaway is that it is not necessary for the literate person to have received any formal education or to have attained any minimum educational standard. This is a huge conceptual weakness that calls for a radical course correction. The rhetorical question before policymakers is this: does the mere ability to read and write ‘with understanding,' albeit no mean achievement, add real value to the self-realisation of the individual and to social development? Conceptually, therefore, rising India must earnestly set about realising the true meaning of literacy by aiming to provide its whole population — male as well as female — a nationally acceptable minimum level of educational qualification. This floor can be nothing other than school education for ten years. This means creating public opinion and developing public action that obliges policymakers to put in place effective measures to solve the problem of school dropouts, especially in the Hindi-speaking States. It also means no-nonsense implementation of the fundamental Right to Education and taking this beyond the primary stage.

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