Information on literacy has been collected during Indian Census operations since 1872. For the first three censuses ending with the 1891 census, three categories were used to classify the population according to literacy status: learned, literate and illiterate.
This classification was obviously faulty for educated persons, who were still students, as reported them selves as being just literate. From 1901 onwards, the population was dichotomously classified as literate and illiterate.
From 1901 to 1931, the definition of literacy varied to some extent, though the basic criterion was the ability to read and write. While interpreting this definition, some difficulties were experienced. From 1931 onwards, the definition of literacy was more or less uniform.
For the 1971 Census, literacy was defined as follows: A person, who can both read and write with understanding in any language, is to be taken as a literate.
The progress of male and female literacy in India from 1901 to 2001 is presented. It is evident that this progress has been very slow. Though from 1951 to 1961, general literacy increased by almost 44 per cent, during the period from 1961 to 1971, and 1971 to 1981 it has increased by only about 23 per cent.
The literacy rate for the country as a whole in 2001 was 65.4 per cent for the total population aged 7 years and above, 75.9 per cent for males and 54.2 per cent for females.
It can be observed those three-fourths of the male population of age 7 years and above and a little more than half of female population aged 7 years and above was literate in 2001.
It is also observed that during 1991- 2001 the total literacy has increased by 13.2 percentage points (25.3 per cent), male literacy by 11.8 percentage points (18.4 per cent) and female literacy by 14.9 percentage points (37.9 per cent).
This increase in literacy rates recorded between 1991 and 2001, in respect of total population, males and females, is the highest recorded compared to earlier decades since independence, except in the case of males during 1851-61.
The gap in male and female literacy rate was 24.8 percentage points (63.1 per cent) in 1991; it was slightly reduced to 21.7 percentage points (40 per cent) in 2001.
The results of the 2001 census also indicated that there has been a decline in the absolute number of illiterates, for the first time since independence during 1991-2001. This has been considered as a major shift in improving the literacy in India.
The rural-urban differential in the rates of various States and Union Territories is also very marked in India. In 1971, the crude literacy rate for rural India was 23.5 per cent 33.8 per cent for rural males and 13.2 per cent for rural females. In urban areas, the crude literacy rate was 52.5 per cent 61.3 per cent for males and 42.7 per cent for females.
The rural-urban differences in the literacy rates still persist in 2001 also, as can be seen in the Table presented below.
Literacy Rates by sex and Residence, 2001 (Per cent literate among 100 persons aged 7 and above)
The States and the Union Territories are arranged in descending order of the literacy rate as recorded in the 1981 census. Also given are the corresponding rates according to the 1971 census, the percentage increase in literacy and ranks which the States and Union Territories held with regard to literacy rates in 1971.
It may be observed that there has been steady increase in literacy in the country and that among the States, Kerala leads with regard to literacy both in 1971 and 1981. In the literacy rate for total population and male and female population of age 7 years and above are presented in descending order, for 1991.
It may be noted that these rates refer to the population aged 7 and above. It can be seen that Kerala, as in previous years, leads with a literary rate of 89.81 per cent. The lowest literacy rate (38.48 per cent) is recorded for Bihar.
The States and Union Territories recording literacy rates lower than the national average are: Orissa, Meghalaya, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Arunachal Pradesh, Dadra and Nagar Haveli, Rajasthan and Bihar. Literacy rates for males and females considered separately, more or less, follow a similar pattern.
Kerala with a literacy rate of 90.9 percent persists to hold the first rank in the country, closely followed by Mizoram (literacy rate 88.5) and Lakshadweep (literacy rate 87.5). Bihar, with a literacy rate of 47.5 per cent ranks last in the country preceded by Jharkhand (literacy rate 54.1 per cent). For females, the lowest literacy rate in the country is observed in Bihar (literacy rate 33.6 per cent).