Literacy is an effective instrument for social and economic development and national integration. It is defined in Census operations, as the ability to read and write with understanding in any language. Any formal education or minimum educational standard is not necessary to be considered literate. The latest census report (2001) reveal that at the beginning of new millennium literacy rate in India stands at 65.38% with male literacy level at 75.85%and female literacy level at 54.16%. There has been only marginal increase in literacy level from the last census in 1991 (literacy level was 52.2%).
The pace of progress in literacy rates, as revealed by decennial censuses, is very slow in India. Between 1961 and 1991, a span of thirty years, literacy rate has gone up by a mere 23.9 percentage points, from 28.3 in 1961 to 52.2 in 1991.From 1991 to 2001 there is 13.36%increase. However the literacy scenario in India is characterized by wide inequalities among different sections of the population. The female literacy rate is still low in comparison to male population. Country's half of the female population is still illiterate even after so many years of independence. No less disturbing is the rural-urban disparity in literacy rates that again differ by ever a wider margin the disparity has persisted over the years. The scheduled castes and scheduled tribes form two other specially disadvantaged population groups in India and disparity in their case too is equally wide and persisting. Finally, there again exists a wide disparity among the various regions/states in India vis-à-vis their literacy rates. At the top of the hierarchy, lies the state of Kerala that has an exceptionally high literacy rate of 90.92 %. This is basically because of strong social movements in this state even during the pre-independence period. For Bihar (the least literate state) the rate is merely 47.53 %.In Bihar, Kishanganj district has the lowest literacy rate (31% for males and 18.49% for females)
When illiteracy begins to impinge upon livelihoods issues it becomes critical. Illiteracy often results in missed opportunities. Women usually receive lower wages than men. In Kishanganj district of Bihar women and girls work in the tea gardens and brickklins but as they are illiterate they often get exploited and do not get proper wages. Both men and women often earn less than the minimum wage but they are often unaware of the Minimum Wages Act. Illiteracy and lack of information can adversely affect human rights. In an era when technology has shrunk the world into a global village and when information has been brought to the fingertips of a small section of society, it would be unfortunate if the masses were denied access to basic information due to the inability to read and write.
During the first Five Year Plan, the program of Social Education, inclusive of literacy, was introduced as part of the Community Development Program 1952. The National Policy on Education in 1968 not only endorsed the recommendations of the Education Commission but also reiterated the significance of universal literacy and developing adult and continuing education as matters of priority. While the formal elementary education program was supplemented by a Non-formal Education system, it was also decided to undertake Adult Literacy programs culminating in the Total Literacy mission approach.
(a) A multi-pronged approach of universalization of elementary education and universal adult literacy has been adopted for achieving total literacy.
(b) A systematic program of non-formal education in the educationally backward states.
(c) The National Literacy Mission that aims at making 100 million adults literate.
The major thrust of these programs is on promotion of literacy among women, Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes particularly in the rural areas. The Adult Education Program consists of three components: basic literacy (including numeracy), functionality and civic awareness. The third component is obviously literacy. The National Adult Education Program (NAEP) was inaugurated on October 2, 1978. Then came the National Literacy Mission (NLM). In 1989, the district-based Total Literacy Campaigns (TLC) emerged as a program strategy for the National Literacy Mission against this background. In the budget of 1999-2000, the total allocation of resources (both Plan and non-plan) for the four programs of Elementary Education, Operation Black board, Non-formal education and Adult Education was 3037, 400, 350 and 113.4 crores respectively. The Total Literacy campaign districts had been set the optimistic goal of achieving 80% literacy amongst the target age-group of 15-35 years. Now Sarva Shikha Abiyan is doing rounds in all the districts in most of the states for which there is huge fund allocation under 9th and 10th Five year plans.
In spite of the enormous expansion of adult education, nonformal and elementary education in India, the problem of illiteracy has been lingering on. It is both colossal and complex given the size of the country, its huge population, wide regional and gender disparities, economic and other cultural factors such as poverty, communalism, casteism etc. It needs action from people, communities Government agencies, NGOs and international organizations such as UN bodies to totally eradicate illiteracy from India.