(October 2008) The percentage of adults who are literate is a frequently used measure of development in less developed countries, a benchmark to evaluate just how far a country's society and economy is moving into the modern world. Literacy is also used as an indicator of the progress women have made to gain control over their lives because it is an obvious prerequisite for continuing their education.

Literacy is generally measured by responses recorded in population censuses ("census literacy").1 Between 1981 and 2001, census literacy in India rose from 53 percent to 75 percent for males and from 28 percent to 54 percent for females. While the total population continues to grow by more than 18 million annually, the number of illiterate Indians actually dropped between 1991 and 2001, from 479 million to 468 million.

Those are impressive advances in such a large and predominately rural population. But what does census literacy really tell us? Does it actually measure the ability to read with understanding? To address these questions we need to look at how census literacy is determined. The census enumerator asks whomever responds for the household (normally the male head of household) whether each household member is literate.2 Normally, a positive response is given if the individual has had any schooling at all. In India, the census enumerator is instructed, when there is doubt, to see whether a person listed as literate can read any part of the enumerator's manual and write a simple sentence. How often this is done in practice is not known. After all, literacy is just one of many questions the enumerator must ask. The census also solicits details about employment, family size, housing, and many other topics.

Educational Levels of Literate Indians

The educational attainment of literates (educational attainment is not asked about people who are counted as illiterate) also offers insights into India's literate population (see table). In India, education is free and compulsory through age 14 (grade 9), as guaranteed in the constitution. But the praiseworthy goal of universal education is, as is said about many things in India, a "distant dream." One-third of females listed as literate in the census had not completed primary education (up to the 5th grade), nor had 28 percent of males. Taken together, 61 percent of females and 52 of males dropped out of school between the 5th and 8th grades, yet are counted as literate.

How does educational attainment relate to "functional" literacy? Functional literacy can be defined as the ability to read with true comprehension as well as to advance to higher levels of education. One study found that, by administering a practical test, only 26 percent of people classified as literate by the census method could, in fact, read.

For the many who did not complete primary school, functional literacy is likely to be absent, either because it was never really achieved or was lost through lack of use. Those who did complete primary school and spent some time in middle school (up to the 8th grade) undoubtedly did achieve the ability to read and write at some level. But they would also be candidates to lose their literacy later in life if they did not use it in their jobs or household activities.

India's Census-Literate Population by Educational Attainment, 2001

Level of School Completed Male (%) Female (%)
All educational levels, literate population
No education
Below primary (below grade 5)
Primary (grades 5-7)
Middle school (grades 8-9)
Lower secondary (grades 10-11)
Higher secondary (grade 12)
Beyond secondary school

Source: 2001 Census of India.

Literacy Not Always Required in Village Life

In the villages of rural India, where 72 percent of the population lives, there is little call for reading and writing skills in the course of daily life. In 2001, census literacy rates were 71 percent for males and 46 percent for females. The gender gap is staggering and it reflects the different roles men and women play. Men, it should be noted, account for a large proportion of the workforce for which some literacy is required, for example, small-business owners, police, local government workers, and shopkeepers. Women’s economic activity is usually confined to such tasks as cooking, unpaid agricultural tasks, or making cow dung cakes for cooking fuel, all of which can be accomplished without reading and writing.

Gauging Progress in Literacy

While census literacy may be a poor indicator of reading and comprehension levels, it can at least be used to gauge whether or not a country is making progress when literacy of the younger generation is compared with that of the older generation who grew up with fewer educational opportunities and fewer reasons to learn to read. In the 2001 Census, 65 percent of men and 34 percent of women ages 35 and over were listed as literate. But the figures were much higher among 10-to-14-year-olds: 86 percent of boys and 77 percent of girls were listed as literate. Not only has census literacy increased dramatically among young people, the male-female gap has been closing.

This higher literacy among the young suggests real progress in India on an important indicator of socioeconomic development. In a future article, we will further investigate this progress by looking more closely at functional literacy. That is, what share of the census-literate population can read, write, and comprehend without much difficulty?

O.P. Sharma is a PRB consultant in India. Carl Haub is senior demographer at PRB.


  1. In India, census literacy is reported for the population ages 7 and over.
  2. Literacy is defined as the ability to read and write with understanding in any language, such as Hindi, Kannada, Marathi, or Tamil.