Commentary

Literacy Improves Fastest in Poorest States

The census has good news on literacy . This explodes leftist claims that economic reforms have benefited only elites while bypassing the poor, and that social improvements have slowed, not accelerated, after 1991.

Literacy is a not an elite benefit. It benefits those at the social bottom, giving them dignity, status and income potential. The census says literacy has improved from 64.84% in 2001 to 74.04% in 2011, up 9.2 percentage points. In the previous decade, literacy improved a record 12.63 points. So, in the two decades since 1991, literacy has risen 21.83 points.

By contrast, the improvement in the earlier two decades — 1961 to 1981 — was just 15.27 points unadjusted, and even lower at 13 points after adjusting for changes in census methodology. Clearly, literacy has accelerated in the reform era, most of all in the poorest states. This has happened despite continuing non-reform in social services, delivered by unsackable, callous government servants with high rates of absenteeism and pathetic outcomes.

Critics will say this decade’s literacy gains were slower than in the 1990s. So, are things getting worse? Not at all. When literacy in any state crosses 70%, it means the vast majority of children are in school, and the remaining illiterates are overwhelmingly adults lacking motivation who tend to stay illiterate. Many states crossed that 70% threshold in the last decade, so their gains decelerated. Kerala’s literacy improved very little, from 90.86% to 93.91%, but that represented saturation, not slippage.

However, low-literacy states made spectacular jumps. In Bihar, long the worst performer, literacy shot up from 47% to 63.82%, up 16.82 percentage points. Big gains came in other poor, backward states — Uttar Pradesh (11.45 points), Jharkhand (16.07 points), Orissa (10.37 points) and Assam (9.93 points). Some poor states gained almost 30 percentage points in the two decades of economic reform.

South India has long been India’s leader in literacy. So, readers may be surprised to learn that Orissa, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and even Uttar Pradesh have overtaken Andhra Pradesh in literacy, and Jharkhand is virtually on a par. Andhra Pradesh has always lagged well behind its southern neighbours, but to be beaten by UP is a shocking performance.

Happily, female literacy has shot up much faster than male literacy. Phenomenal gains in female literacy have been recorded in the last decade in Bihar (19.76 points), UP (16.28 points), Jharkhand (15.893 points) and Orissa (13.39 points).

This is a consequence of a social spending boom. Forget leftist falsehoods about neglect of social spending . New Delhi’s social spending (mainly on education and health) was just 1.28% of GDP in 1992-93, but has skyrocketed over the last two decades to 7.27% of GDP. Much of this is wasted because state governments are unwilling to check absenteeism or non-performance among teachers and health staff, who are protected by powerful trade unions. Yet the sheer mass of spending has helped improve literacy sharply.

However, the impact on health seems far less than on literacy. Family health surveys reveal very high levels of anaemia and malnutrition. I have not come across comparable data for these ailments in the Nehru-Indira socialist era. However, comparable data is available on infant mortality.

Critics have noted that infant mortality fell substantially from 110 to 80 deaths per thousand births between 1981 and 1991. But afterwards, the pace of improvement almost halved, so that a reduction from 80 to 50 per thousand took two decades. Critics repeatedly claim this is proof of social neglect after 1991.

Sorry, this is plain disinformation . If you go back to the 1960s and 1970s, the heyday of Nehru-Indira socialism, you find that infant mortality hardly fell at all, from 115 per thousand in 1961 to just 110 per thousand in 1981. In between, it actually rose to 129 per thousand in 1971. Clearly, infant mortality has fallen much faster in the reform era after 1991 than in the Nehru-Indira socialist heyday.

Why did infant mortality fall exceptionally fast in 1981-91? Possibly because child immunization improved seriously in that decade, a low-cost strategy that had a huge, immediate impact on deaths. However, that impact later tapered off at the all-India level. It continues to have an impact in some poor states.

In sum, the reform era has sparked an explosive growth of social spending, which has led to much larger declines in illiteracy and infant mortality than in the socialist era. Sadly, state governments and trade unions have resisted reforms that would improve outcomes and reduce waste by making teachers and health workers accountable to clients and punishable for nonperformance . Nevertheless, the news from the census is heartening.

Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar is a research fellow at the Cato Institute’s Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity.