What Does it Mean to be Literate in India?

3 Jul

A country hailed internationally for its engineers is also home to about a third of world’s illiterates (UNESCO, 2000).

Indian government defines literacy as the ability to read and write, which is similar to UNICEF’s definition. The 2001 census put India’s literacy rate at 65.4%, leaving over 250 million (counting only people older than 7) people who can’t read and write. The female literacy levels were worse. “In 1991, less than 40 percent of the 330 million women aged 7 and over were literate, which means [then] there are over 200 million illiterate women in India.”

While these figures are bad enough, the picture looks distinctly worse when one surveys the literacy attainment of people classified as literate.

“A recent study by ORG-CSR (2003) conducted in rural villages across five states – Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Rajasthan, and Gujarat – confirms the low skill attainment levels of many literates in India. To share some key findings on reading, print awareness, writing, and functional aspects of ability with the written word in Hindi: 68.2% perceived themselves to be literate.

  1. Based on their reading of an extremely simple paragraph from textbooks at 2nd to 3rd grade level, the field surveyors classified the sample as: 12% who can read with ease, 36.3% who made mistakes or read with a range of reading difficulties, and 51.7% who could not read at all.
  2. Faced with a square block of Hindi text printed centered on a square piece of paper with no other graphical indicators of beginning, ending, or page orientation, 37.4% could not hold the printed matter in the proper orientation for reading. After this was shown (or known), 42.5% could not point to the end of the text. Half the sample could not move their finger to delineate the left to right direction of print and a nearly equal proportion could not move from the end of one line to the beginning
    of the next line immediately below.
  3. Only 37.5% could write their full name correctly, 15.1% could write it partially or with mistakes, and 47.4% could not write it at all.
  4. Reading the bus board, one of the most common encounters with print in village life, was, by their own admission, not possible for 51.9%. Self-reports on other functional aspects inform us that 56% could not read a newspaper, 54.8% could not read letters, and 56.7% could not write a letter themselves.


“A nation’s literacy rate is determined, to a great degree, by the definition of literacy and the method used to measure it. Countries struggling to achieve higher rates often tend to lower definitional bars, which then makes progress that much easier. India is no exception, and this raises simple but unanswered questions. How many of India’s literate people—literate according to the Census—can read the headlines of a newspaper?

If a demonstrated “ability to decode the simplest of passages were operationalized” as the definition of literacy, not necessarily with understanding, then only 10–15% would be fully literate.”

Source: Brij Kothari and others

In short, there are near half a billion people who cannot decode simple passages. Given the importance of literacy in improving important things like health and access to jobs, it is critical that India invest more money in literacy programs. But where to invest? Brij Kothari believes that literacy can be increased by providing Same Language Subtitling (SLS)—subtitling the lyrics of popular song-based television programs like Chitramala in the same language as the audio. Initial tests of SLS in Gujarat have been successful. The novel approach to increasing literacy leverages the fact that a lot of Indians have access to television and watch a bunch of it.

Voice technologies such as speech recognition, text to speech, and auto-correction make the ability to write and read the written word increasingly optional. Thus, one way to move forward is to make such technologies more widely available. Another way would be to make essential information more broadly available in a non-textual format. Until now, these ideas have been considered as fallback options. But to continue to think of them as that would be a mistake. They may simply reflect the future of humanity.

p.s. An article on inequality in achievement in maths in India: India Shining, Bharat Drowning: Comparing Two Indian States to the Worldwide Distribution in Mathematics Achievement (pdf) by Jishnu Das et al.

What Does It Mean for India to have South Asian States on the Failed States Index?

9 May

A joint survey by Foreign Policy magazine and The Fund for Peace on ‘Failed States’ was unveiled recently. The “Failed States Index” puts Pakistan at number nine, or in other words, Pakistan is seen as the ninth most likely country to fail.

The survey, which is based on “data from more than 11,000 publicly available sources collected from July to December 2005” and tracks 12 socio-economic and political factors, puts Pakistan one rank above Afghanistan. That is reason enough to doubt the results of the survey.

2005 was a traumatic year for Pakistan with insurgency gaining ground in the west, a massive earthquake that destroyed parts of north-west, continued sectarian violence in Karachi, and the continued rule of the West’s favorite military ruler—General Pervez Musharraf. All these factors were enough to cause Pakistan to lose ground from its relatively safe 34th position last year to the shaky 9th this year. The report itself counts the earthquake as the chief reason for the decline.

It seems that India’s neighborhood is getting very unstable. Burma, Bangladesh, and Nepal are consecutively placed at 18, 19, and 20 respectively. If the data from the current year were to be included, I believe Nepal would likely make it to the top 10. Sri Lanka, of course, is simmering again and is likely to lose ground from its current ranking of 25.

The surrounding instability in the neighborhood may affect India critically if one or more countries see a prolonged conflagration. Let me refine the hypothesis a bit. There is encouraging evidence that a country can withstand chaos in the neighborhood. Take for example South Africa, which borders Zimbabwe and has seen a massive flow of immigrants from the country. But India’s case is a bit different. For instance, Nepal’s resurgent Maoist movement may find support in the beleaguered northeast areas of India and the impoverished villages around Himalayan region. And this may cause unrest in India. Prolonged problems in Bangladesh may set off an even wider wave of immigrants looking for security and economic opportunity in India. There is already widespread anger against Bangladeshi immigrants in parts of North-east and any increase in immigration is likely to set off violent demonstrations.

While the prognosis for long-term stability in South Asia seems bad, things aren’t particularly hot for East Asia either. Among the other countries that saw a precipitous rise in the rankings over the past year include China, which on the basis of its “87,000” peasant strikes lost 10 points to clock in at 57th.

Piracy—the Real Mantra Behind Indian Success

9 May

The Wall Street Journal (WSJ) ran an opinion piece yesterday arguing that India is “rapidly evolving into Asia’s innovation center” and “leaving China in the dust” because of its famed intellectual property regime.

Not only is the claim patently bogus, but the opposite—that the Indian innovation is surviving primarily through piracy—is very likely true. It is, of course, clear that the authors of the article have never ventured to Palika Bazaar or Nehru Place in Delhi or the countless other entities that use and sell pirated materials in India. Nor have the authors ever read an Indian science book, for all they will find are hasty copies of works by foreign authors on poor paper. Nor have they ever been to an Indian store in the US. For they won’t be able to spot a rightfully purchased Bollywood movie at these stores.

Yes, India has a wonderful copyright law. At least so the gentlemen would like us to believe. However, it is rarely enforced. The article points out that in 1994 the copyright act was amended to explain the rights of holder and penalties for infringement. “In 1994, the Indian Copyright Act was amended to clearly explain the rights of a copyright holder and the penalties for infringement of copyrighted software.” Nowhere does the article mention that the act itself was rewritten to make it tougher. The only effect of the law, which the article mentions has been called one of the “toughest in the world” (without quoting sources), was to create this handbook.

Since the implementation of a copyright law that was “one of the toughest in the world,” a government study on copyright piracy in India done in 1999 concludes, “The total value of pirated copyright products sold in India during 1996-97 was about Rs. 1,833 crores which formed 20% of the legal market. Segment wise, the piracy rate is found to be the highest in computer software (44%) and lowest in cinematographic works (5%).”

Let me finish by focusing on how piracy has helped India innovate. Without the countless street level computer training centers which mostly rely upon pirated software, there wouldn’t have been an IT revolution in the country. Without the lax patent laws on Pharmaceuticals, which patented only the way in which a medication is produced and not the mix of ingredients itself, there would have been no Indian success story in Pharmaceuticals. Without the cheap knock-off science books that are abundant for poor Indian students, there wouldn’t have been the countless educated Indians with a high level of understanding of fundamentals of science.

Moving on to the authors’ contention that India is leaving behind China in the dust. The authors use the following line to support such an exaggerated claim, “The number of Indian patent applications filed has increased 400% over the past 15 years.”

Aah, the wonders of statistics.

Let’s put the numbers in perspective. “According to the World Intellectual Property Organization’s (WIPO), the number of international patent applications from Japan, Republic of Korea, and China, has risen by 162%, 200%, and 212%, respectively, since 2000. These growth rates reflect the rapidly growing technological strength in northeast Asia.” More instructively, China in 2004 filed for 1,705 patents while India filed for 689. [PDF – WIPO statistics]. One more comment about China. Chinese economy (and innovation) with annualized growth rates of upwards of 9% and with high tech stalwarts like Lenovo is flourishing. Any comments as to leaving China in the dust aren’t just wrong, but also dumb or dishonest.

Lastly, I would like to address the question of why this poorly researched article trumpeting fake achievements and rationale for India’s success has made it to the Wall Street Journal. My guess is that this is a deliberate piece, produced after much deliberation with the businesses. It comes as no surprise that one of the authors of the article, Mr. Wilder is a lawyer representing the euphemistically named IP lobbying Association called the “Association for Competitive Technology.”

Ditty for Bush

6 Dec

Seldom has a country reached such levels of obsequiousness that Pakistan reached when officials chose to include a rhyming poem titled, The Leader, praising George W Bush in its English-language course book for 16 year-olds. The poem spells out George W Bush in addition to coming up with lines like – “Strong in his faith, refreshingly real” and “Bracing for war, but praying for peace”.

Patient and steady with all he must bear,
Ready to meet every challenge with care,
Easy in manner, yet solid as steel,
Strong in his faith, refreshingly real
Isn’t afraid to propose what is bold,
Doesn’t conform to the usual mould,
Eyes that have foresight, for hindsight won’t do,
Never backs down when he sees what is true,
Tells it all straight, and means it all too.

Going forward and knowing he’s right,
Even when doubted for why he would fight,
Over and over he makes his case clear,
Reaching to touch the ones who won’t hear.
Growing in strength he won’t be unnerved,
Ever assuring he’ll stand by his word.

Wanting the world to join his firm stand,

Bracing for war, but praying for peace,
Using his power so evil will cease,
So much a leader and worthy of trust,
Here stands a man who will do what he must.

Highway to India

5 Dec

Amy Waldman recently wrote a series of articles about the socio-cultural impact of highways and the burgeoning number of cars.

Here are the links:

The articles include interactive features with audio commentary and slideshows. While the photographs are well shot, Waldman’s hurried narration leaves much to be desired.

Brief comments and caveats: Waldman puts far too much emphasis on the posited transformative cultural power of both the highways and the increasing number of cars. And she repeatedly paints “old India” in stereotypical terms like, “the land of dharma”, etc.

The Art of Reading

27 Nov

The value of reading is constrained by how one chooses to read aside from what one chooses to read.

Reading is anti-evolutionary. Neither our brains nor our eyes were designed to excitedly decipher small symbols printed on a paper. But then reading is much more than deciphering symbols. Words provide wonderful abstract worlds in which we can embody the characters that are described in the book. But to live with them, in them and empathize with them, we need to spend time with them and nurture them carefully in our minds. A character in a novel is truly subjective (it is often left deliberately open to manipulation). The emotions, the pitch of the scream, rationality of action and the sinister atmosphere are all amplified or mellowed, tampered with or abandoned in our minds. The true pleasure of reading lies in reading slowly to go over the nuances and the phraseology. Of course, not all novelists and all passages invite this cohabitation. In fact, some novelists will go out of their way to create atmospheric dread that pushes you away from the analysis but then you are living through the temporary paralysis of emotions that comes when environment overwhelms you. But then you need to pause and introspect for that is when you can empathize with the character.

Reading slowly can help one introspect and come to a better understanding of oneself and the world around us. If one chooses to look at a novel merely as a teleological progression towards the resolution of some quibble, then it merely becomes a tool for entertainment.

Perhaps a more important virtue, as compared to reading slowly, is reading critically. A novelist imposes his or her worldview on you and you need to be able to critically think through the points that s/he makes, and separate out the chaff from the wheat.

The Lost Art

Today, reading slowly is a lost art. Leisurely reading a passage and then mulling over its contents seems archaic. Doubtless, pointless drivel camouflaged as writing has taken much away from the pleasure (and motivation) for reading slowly. The other obvious villain is the television with its increasingly crazed editing. Once upon a time, a shot lasted 90 seconds. Now it lasts for less than 6 seconds on average. The reader today needs a more action-packed story that relentlessly moves across scenes, countries, and emotions—all in a hurried progression to the end. So not only are novelists concocting stories that encourage hurried reading, readers are actually reading books the same way as they watch telenovelas or sitcoms—mindlessly.

Let me end with a caveat. I am not saying that speed reading is necessarily bad. In fact, there is good reason to believe that it is a very important tool for academics and few other people who need to consume a lot of information in a very limited amount of time.

End of Information Hierarchy

11 Nov

Today, people have a variety of ways to explore a collection via the Internet as opposed to carefully orchestrated explorations in a brick and mortar museum with a curated exhibition.

A curator comes up with a story along with other contextual information about the exhibit and arranges the exhibition so that the person exploring it has only a few chosen entry points and few ways of exploring the collection. Some of the impediments are put in deliberately while others are a result of hosting an exhibition in the real world where the design of building etc. still matter.

Cut to the online world and the user is untethered from most of the curated connivances. This, in turn, may be a result of the fact that people haven’t really understood how best to present a virtual museum but that is not the point I want to get into. The result of the untethered experience is that these cultural objects are seen in a twice removed setting -e.g. a pot taken from an archaeological site and then photographed and put on the Internet. So what is the result of all this? It is hard to give an objective listing but one can see that some of the “meaning” is lost in this journey of an artifact from the ground to the Internet.

What happens when information that was once tethered in a context or a story is made available virtually free of context over say Google. Is storing information in hierarchical networks or associations obsolete? How do you maintain the integrity of information when context-free snippets of information are freely available?

Say, for example, once upon a time people learned about history via a scholar who chose carefully the specific issues about history. Today, a teen gets his/her history by searching on the web often encountering a lot of miscellaneous information. I would argue that the person then can come away, from such a scattered exploration, with a bunch of miscellaneous trivia and no real understanding of the major issue at hand. The key idea here is that for transmission of “knowledge”, the integrity of information is of prime value.

War and Sex

11 Nov

War is deadly for both sexes. A missile doesn’t differentiate between a man and a woman. Then, what is the role of gender in war?

Nearly all active militaries in the world have substantially more male soldier than female soldiers and far more men die on the battle fields than women. But the impact of wars is never limited to artificial battlefields. War enters civilian life through hunger, inadequate health care, decline in availability of potable water, rape, pillage, and many other ways, reducing life expectancy drastically for both men and women. For example, life expectancy in Afghanistan is 46 years (men), 46 years (women) according to UN figures. The figures hide an important fact that on an average women will generally live longer than men. These figure mean that more women are dying as a result of war than men. These figures still don’t take into account the large number of crimes like rape that are committed predominantly against women.

Facts About South Asia

19 Aug

South Asia is home to one-fifth of the world’s population and about 40% of the world’s absolute poor—people living on less than $1/day. Imagine the lifestyle of an American earning $1/day and you will get a window into the poverty described by these figures.

India is home to nearly half of the illiterate population in the world. The adult literacy rate in South Asia (49%) is behind sub-Saharan Africa (57%) as well as that of Arab states (59%). To make matters worse, South Asia’s current annual expenditure on education is 1.9% of GNP. In contrast, military spending in the region is 3.8% of GNP and is as high as 7% in Pakistan which has 50% more soldiers than teachers. A brief zoom in on Pakistan’s education system…. what indeed are people fortunate enough to afford an education are taught? According to a report by an independent government agency, SDPI ( Sustainable Development Policy Institute. See Link at Bottom), ‘facts’ like “Hindu has always been an enemy of Islam.” and “The religion of the Hindus did not teach them good things — Hindus did not respect women…” have been included with the general objective of inculcating “Love and aspiration for Jehad, Tableegh (Prosyletization), Jehad, Shahadat (martyrdom), sacrifice, ghazi (the victor in holy wars), shaheed (martyr)”

Due process of law is often quoted as a key ingredient for a free society. With over 20 million court cases pending at the end of 2002, India doesn’t even pretend. More stark crime statistics in India include—over 1 million people in jail waiting for trial, and a conviction rate of about 1%.

SDPI report on Pakistan Education System (pdf)
World Literacy of Canada

Merchants of Art

26 May

“Shakespeare Wallah” was my introduction to the magic of Merchant Ivory Productions. An elegy to a lost era, a bitter-sweet tale of a traveling English theatre troupe in India right after the Indian independence, it is still vivid in my memory. The debonair Shashi Kapoor and Satyajit Ray’s beautiful score are the two other things that I remember from the film. Since then, I have seen many other Merchant Ivory productions. And their films have always left me simultaneously reassured and disturbed.

A constant in all their movies has been the excellent production values, largely a product of Mr. Merchant’s vision, and his acknowledged genius for creating beautiful, authentic sets on a shoestring budget. With the demise of Ismail, we no longer have a producer who fussed over each detail.

The troika of James Ivory, Ruth Prawer Jhabwala, and Ismail Merchant over the past four decades virtually invented a new genre of films. They showed that you don’t need to compromise on art to be successful. And to me, that is the legacy of Merchant Ivory.

I will forever be indebted to their patience, art, and virtue.

Further Reading:
BBC article on Ismail Merchant