India has made large strides in educating its population of more than a billion people, yet a lot remains to be done. It is commonplace now that education is both intrinsically valuable and also instrumental for economic well-being, and this is true for individuals and entire nations. No country in the world has been able to develop without the spread of mass education. An educated population is a prerequisite for take-off into high economic growth. Table 1 in the appendix shows literacy rates for India as a whole and by sex. It also shows the decadal rates of change from 1901 to the present.
2 Literacy rates have increased for both males and females, and though the latter continues to lag behind the former, there has been a narrowing of the male-female gap in literacy: from 24. 8% in 1991 to 21. 7% in 2001. In 2001, the absolute number of illiterates declined historically for the first time by nearly 32 million. In terms of state-wise performance, Kerala continues to occupy first rank as it has done historically; on the other hand, densely populated states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Bihar are yet to overcome their educational inertia. 3
The average figures for India as a whole hide a great deal of variation among states. Table 2 in the appendix provides literacy rates for states for the years 1991 and 2001, for the population as a whole, by sex and also provides the decadal rate of change. In 2001, Kerala, Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh had more than 75% of their population of 7+ years literate. On the other hand, even in 2001, less than half of Bihar’s population of seven years and above was literate with female literacy rate only 33. 6%. In terms of zones, states in the South and West outperform states in the North and East.
2. Primary Education Primary education refers to the education of children between the ages 6-11 years (grades 1-5). Universalization of Primary Education (UPE) is a constitutional provision in India and there has been a steady expansion in the spread of primary education since Indian independence in 1947. The Indian educational system is the second largest in the world after China. In 2001-02, there were nearly 0. 66 million primary schools in India 1 This study has been undertaken as part of the United Nations Millennium Development Goals Project.
2 Before the 1991 census, only those belonging to the age-group 0-4 years were excluded from the population in order to compute literacy rates and the basis of the computation was the entire population. From the 1991 census onward, literacy rates were computed based on the population aged 7+ years and above. 3 In Bihar, Nagaland and Manipur as well as Delhi and Chandigarh, the absolute number of illiterates has increased in the 1990s. 4 providing access to 84% of habitations with a primary school located within a distance of one kilometer.
Between 1997 and 2002, the gross primary school enrolment rate4 for India was 111 for males and 92 for females. The net primary school enrolment rate5 on the other hand was only 78 for males and 64 for females. The net primary school attendance rate between 1999 and 2002 was 79 for males and 73 for females. However, of the children who entered primary school, only 68% reached grade 5 between 1995 and 1999 (UNICEF, 2004). Table 3 provides data on gross primary school enrolments by sex between 1950-51 and 2001-2002.
As can be seen from the table there has been a steady increase in the numbers of boys and girls attending primary school over time. In Table 4, state-wise enrolment of boys and girls as a percentage of their age-group is provided for 1997-1998. Girls’ enrolment has been steadily increasing over time and in 2001-02, nearly 45% of girls in the age-group 6-11 were enrolled in school. These statistics are heartening because at least until the 1990s, one of the most dismal aspects of India’s education system was the large percentage of the population in the younger age groups that were out of school.
Socio-economic disparities Despite the strong constitutional backing for the provision of primary education in India6 and its expansion over time, the system is characterized not only by low achievements but also by large unevenness of achievements. Huge gaps remain between rural and urban areas, and the probability of getting any education at all sharply depends on gender, caste and income. Women, scheduled castes and tribes and the poor are faced with formidable barriers when it comes to getting basic education. Of the 200 million children in the age group 6-14, it is estimated that 59 million are out of school.
Of these 35 million are girls and 24 million are boys (Ministry of Human Development, GOI). Apart from socio-economic determinants, the educational infrastructure and the management and the governance of the educational system in India are far from efficient or sufficient. The government is the largest provider of education in India with only about 10% of primary schools owned by the private sector. 7 The quality of education provided by the public education system is low which translates into low educational abilities even for those who are able to complete primary education cycle.
Moreover, there is a lot of ‘waste’ in the educational system with dropout rates as high as 40% for the country as a whole and in some Indian states, they are as high as 75%. Though the number of primary 4 Gross primary school enrolment rate is computed as the number of children enrolled in primary school regardless of age divided by the population of that age group. 5 Net primary school enrolment rate is computed as the number of children in that age group enrolled in primary school divided by the population of that age group. 6 In 2002, the Supreme Court of India decreed that free primary education was a constitutional right.
7 Around 3% of private schools are aided by the government, which makes government intervention in the education sector even greater. 5 schools in the country increased, more than 1 lakh8 habitations still do not have access to a primary school within a distance of one kilometer. Teacher-pupil ratios are inadequate: less than 2 teachers are available in rural areas to teach a class size of around 100 students. Teacher motivation and teaching incentives are also very weak. India perhaps has the highest rate of teacher truancy in the world. Poverty and Education.
Empirical evidence strongly shows that, both at the level of the household as well as at the level of the country, there is a positive relationship between income (and wealth) and educational attainment. More income simply means more resources available to spend on the acquisition of education. With more than 250 million people in India living on less than a $1 a day, poverty remains a major barrier to educational access. Although education is provided ‘free’ by the government, the cost of uniforms, textbooks and transportation costs are beyond the reach of many households (Tilak, 2004).
Added to these direct costs are the indirect (opportunity) costs of wage/domestic labor which children perform and the costs of acquiring education become considerable for households. Graphs 1 and 2 in the appendix show simple regressions of literacy rates for sixteen states against state poverty rates and state per capita income for 2001. As is expected, literacy rates decline with poverty and rise with per capita incomes. State per capita incomes seem to explain literacy rates better than poverty rates.
Filmer and Pritchett (2001) using Demographic Health Survey data for India find that the gap in enrolment between the highest and the lowest wealth class is as much as 52 percentage points. Gupta (2003) using the 52nd round of National Sample Survey data finds that the percentage of people who have completed five years of schooling declines as one descends consumption deciles. In the lowest consumption decile, the proportion of people who have not completed the primary school cycle is greater than 80%. 9 While poverty status and income class are strong determinants of who goes to school and for how long, they do not make up the whole story.
Indian states of Kerala and Himachal Pradesh even with fewer resources at their disposal have been able to achieve much better educational and health outcomes compared to rich states such as Punjab and Haryana in India. This is true even when we look at cross-country outcomes. For example, Sri Lanka and Botswana do much better in education and health terms than would be predicted based on their level of resources; the Latin American countries do much worse given their resources (Mehrotra and Jolly, 1998). 8 One lakh is equal to 100,000. 9
These graphs are meant to be illustrative of the association between resources and education and do not claim any direction of causality. The relationship between resources and educational attainment is bidirectional. The poor cannot afford schooling. With little human capital, the opportunities to escape persistent poverty are very restricted and the poor can be trapped in a low education, low income vicious cycle across generations. A large literature has analyzed both theoretically and empirically persistence of poverty inter-generationally due to lack of resources to invest in education.