“Education is regarded as the most crucial investment in human development. It significantly contributes to make improvement in health, hygiene, demographic profile, productivity and practically all that has a bearing on the quality of life”. Our awareness notwithstanding, our ranking in the annual HRD (Human Resource Development) report (educational status is an integral part of this report) issued by the UNDP is somewhere nears the rock bottom. This is indeed not surprising for our country, which has the largest number of illiterates in the world and a mind boggling290 million adult illiterates.

The inevitable question arises up how is that, even after 60 years of independence, we are still far away from the goal of universal literacy? Why have we come to such a sorry pass? The reasons are not far to seek. India has been investing much less than many other Asian countries in terms of educational expenditure. As a nation, not only do we spend too little on education, the efficiency of resource utilization has also been very poor. Improper planning and poor implementation have dogged our educational system. Without mincing words, we can say that we lack the political will to take the right step to secure total literacy.

Anyone aged seven years or above, who can both read and write with understanding in any language, is treated as literate. According to the Census 2001, the literacy rate in the country is 65.38 percent 75.85 for males and 54.16 for females. Kerala comes on the top with90.92 per cent literacy. The state also occupies the premier position in both male literacy (94.20 percent) and female literacy (87.86 per cent). Kerala is closely followed by Mizoram (88.49 per cent) and Lakshadweep (87.52 per cent). Bihar with a literacy rate of47.53% ranks last in the country preceded by Jharkhand (54.13 per cent) and Jammu & Kashmir (54.46 per cent). Bihar has also recorded the lowest literacy rates both in case of male literacy (60.32 per cent) and female literacy (33.57 per cent).

According to the data provided by the government, for the first time since independence, the absolute number of illiterates has declined by over 31.9 million in the last decade. A significant milestone reached as per the figures of census 2001 is that while the 71 population increased by 171.6 million persons during 1991-2000, about 203.6 million additional persons have become literate during the decade.

A comparison of the census figures of 1991 and 2001 indicates that (1) the literacy rates recorded an increase of 13.17 percentage points from 52.21 in 1991 to 65.38 in 2001, the highest rate since independence; (2) the female literacy rate increased by 14.87 percentage points (from 39.29 per cent to 54.16 per cent) as against 11.72 per cent (from 64.1 per cent to 75.8 per cent) in case of males; (3) the gap in male-female literacy rates has decreased from 24.84 in 1991 census to 21.70 percentage points in 2001;

(4) all the states and Union Territories, without exception, have shown increase in literacy rates, the male literacy rate now being over 60 percent; (5) the states and Union Territories which have moved forward by more than fifteen percentage points during the decade are Rajasthan (22.48), Chhattisgarh (22.27), Madhya Pradesh (19.44), Dadra and Nagar Haveli (19.33) Andhra Pradesh (17.02) and Uttar Pradesh (16.15). Bihar has registered a minimum increase of 10.04 percent points from 37.49 percent to 47.53 percent.

Literacy is the base of a nation’s development. India can ill-afford to remain a house divided; a house where you find the best skilled manpower in the world juxtaposed with largest number of illiterates in the world. The yawning-gap between the ‘haves’ and ‘haves not in terms of education attainments has to be narrowed down. Let us not forget that ignorance leads to greater exploitation and lack of empowerment leading to perpetuation of poverty, ill-health and a host of other social problems, eradication of illiteracy should be on a war footing. Delay means disaster.