Literacy Rates and Lower Castes: an Indian Case Study

Updated: Jun 3, 2021

By Suyash Kothari | United States

The Literacy Rate is as dull a metric as any, and its study is therefore overshadowed by the volatile climate of today’s politics.

I argue that while we should care about daily pressing issues (not to mention COVID-19), the literacy rate is one of many long-term metrics we should care more about and use to scrutinize government policies.

Low literacy rates not only contribute to a vicious cycle of poverty today but also stunt humankind’s long-run development for the future. In this article I will refer to India’s case; I encourage you to look into your country’s rates as well.

In 1951, India’s adult literacy rate was 17 percent and today it is 74 percent – 4 times higher.

“Yet, [i]f Tagore [20th Century Indian poet and Nobel Laureate] was to see the India of today, half a century after independence, nothing perhaps would shock him so much as the continued illiteracy of the masses.” Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen in the The Argumentative Indian

The sentiment that Sen captures here is that though literacy has increased by 4 times, one would have also expected an increase to universal literacy as British colonizers no longer limit India’s progress like they previously had done for centuries; Indians themselves are in charge of their politics.

The reason that there is still a large illiterate population is not inherent in past colonial rule: Indonesia and Sri Lanka, both of which were also colonized, have similar incomes per capita to India and yet now have literacy rates of above 90 percent.

This suggests that the reason may lie in how India uses its resources for education. In examining this, we see that public expenditures on education have traditionally formed a relatively smaller share of total public spending.

This share has increased in the last decade but because the effects of education can only be realized in the long run, it remains to be seen exactly how much of an effect this increase in spending has had on the literacy rate.

Another fact about the Indian government’s spending on education is that in India’s divisions of power, education is framed as a state subject rather than a national effort.

For example, the state of Kerala’s literacy rate as of 2011 is 93.9 percent, while other states like Punjab, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu, all of which have higher incomes per capita than Kerala, have literacy rates in the 76-81 percent range. Certainly, a lack of a national coordinated effort to increase India’s literacy rate is a reason for why literacy rates are not consistent across all states.

We can also examine why states like Kerala have had more success, given that they also had very low literacy rates at the time of independence from Britain in 1947. Despite India’s reservation system (an affirmative action quota for historically marginalized demographics), many of those in power deciding how much to spend on education for the masses are upper caste and have biases of their own against other lower castes, as political scientist Myron Weiner posits.

Given that Indian democracy has taken a plebeian turn after 1989, with poorer and lower-caste people becoming an increasingly important demographic, pressure is applied to state governments to enact change for them.

In South India on the whole, this has led to increases in state expenditure on education (which helps explain Kerala’s results). In North India however, results are not as strong. This can be explained through the content of lower-caste politics, whose discourse has largely been centered on equal treatment and dignity gains rather than material increases in income or education.

In the case of many northern Indian states, we see that democracy in and of itself does not ensure higher educational outcomes vis-à-vis literacy rates. There needs to be more demands for better education in lower-caste political discourse, so that democracy can effectively pressure politicians into focusing more on education.

To read more about how India is increasingly becoming an illiberal democracy, click here.

This lack of pressure is not necessarily the fault of lower castes, crucially. As suggested by researchers (as in Poulomi Chakrabarti’s 2018 piece), only after the extreme inequalities of being treated as third-rate citizens are significantly reduced, will the lower-caste discourse turn to other pressing issues like health and education.

If lower castes and minorities are increasingly empowered to stand up for healthcare and education, and if deep inequalities are addressed at a greater extent, then perhaps the lower-caste political discourse will shift to education and India’s literacy rates will increase at a faster rate, pre-empting the issues of the future.


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