By Brij Kothari
Minister for human resource development Prakash Javadekar recently summed up the country’s state of literacy, and made a prediction: “There was a literacy rate of 18% in the post-Independence era. Today it has gone up to 80% and I guarantee that within next five years, it will be 100%.”
Does that imply that 80% today, and everyone in five years, will be able to read and understand simple texts? Not really.
Several studies such as Pratham’s ASER or NCERT’s National Assessment Survey suggest that more than half of India’s so-called “literates” cannot read simple texts. A research study conducted by IIM-Ahmedabad confirms that.
The literacy rate, as we measure it, is a poor indicator of Indians’ “ability to read.” It only indicates how many people self-reported as “literate.” Generally, anyone who has attended one or two years of school, and can sound a few letters or sign one’s name, understandably, self-reports as “literate.”
In addition to asking people “Are you literate?” the Census should follow it up with a specific question: “Can you read a newspaper?” to measure the population’s ability to read. We have found that people who say they can read a newspaper are indeed able to, when tested. Importantly for the Census, the question itself is sufficient and testing, unnecessary, making it a viable proposition.
India’s ability-to-read rate is not measured, hence, remains under the radar. Yet, it is an indicator of greater relevance to Digital India’s readiness, than the literacy rate.
Digital India requires both hard and soft infrastructure. A billion phone subscriptions and rapidly growing digital access on inexpensive smartphones, are signs of India’s laudable advance in hard infrastructure. The market forces underpinning Digital India are on course to achieving ‘hard’ digital access for all. Soft access is another story.
A smart phone with broadband connectivity and data access to the world’s information has severely limited meaning for the non-reader. The ability-to-read rate would capture the soft infrastructure on which we are building our entire educational system, our information and knowledge society, and the promise of a Digital India. Currently, that soft ‘reading’ infrastructure is crumbling for more than half of India.
Policy makers could start seeing quality reading skills as an important component of India’s soft infrastructure. While they do voice the need to transition nearly 300 million illiterates to “literacy,” the story of decades past is that they will achieve weak-literacy at best, on a massive scale.
Long after India achieves “100% literacy,” most Indians will not be able to read. Digital India requires sustained commitment, investments and strategies to upskill lifelong, the reading skills of an estimated 700 million weak-readers.
Quality reading skills are at the core of India’s social infrastructure. Overcoming decades of neglect requires the unleashing of creative and proven solutions, both, in and out of school, and originating within and outside policy.
Hindustan Times, September 13, 2017