Informal Economies

India’s Real Literacy Challenge

The accuracy of census data like India’s literacy rate challenges business’ ability to make informed strategic decisions.

Watch any movie from even twenty years ago and you will witness how job hunts, apartment rentals, and the purchase of used goods were conducted before the age of the internet. An open newspaper with big red circles around relevant classified ads was once the preferred method of local communication. Today that has given way to websites such as Craigslist. In communities where the internet is not widely used, printed Classified ads are a proven, time-honored way to help people connect. Classifieds offer local, actionable information that allow for organization and enable cooperation facilitating purchases, sales, hires, and community events (see related posts). It was this strong history of the written word in general, and classified advertisements in particular, that led Madura Microfinance to ask what classified ads could do for our clients.

Some years ago, seven hundred women from villages around the city of Madurai in Tamil Nadu, India, gathered for a women’s day event organized by Madura’s regional office. The event was also used to launch a new Madura community project. Our newly unveiled classified advertisement newspaper would reach 400,000 poor rural households in Tamil Nadu. The paper was designed as a way to help our borrowers market their products among each other. Though advertising was offered free of charge to our borrowers, larger companies could pay to advertise to this demographic as well. The area’s published literacy rate – just over 80 percent – made the project appear worthwhile. At the launch event, however, many of the women immediately used the first issue of the newspaper to wrap up the snacks that were served to them.

What went wrong? One problem is the very definition of literacy in India. ‘Literate’ doesn’t necessarily mean that the population can read or even write. In India it is implicitly understood that anyone who can sign their name, independent of whether it is legible or complete, will be counted as literate. This doesn’t invalidate a consensus – as long as the metrics measured remain the same increases in literacy remain a very real accomplishment. If, however, India’s literacy rates are reported based on a loose definition of literacy, this has very real consequences for appropriate mechanisms of marketing, business development, and even community building. In this particular instance, if 80 percent of our clients can sign their name, but only 10 percent can actually read, the likelihood of a successful text based advertisement campaign dwindles from what one might expect based on census numbers. There is also a big difference between the ability to read and the inclination to read.

The census, unfortunately, exists in a black box. The results are published, but the specific mechanism of how they were attained is not. They may simply be asking people if they consider themselves to be literate. Though, by definition, it is hard to get into a black box, an independent study conducted by ORG-CRS revealed quite a bit about the literacy in rural India. The study, conducted in several Indian states and recounted by Stanford social scientists, found that many people claiming to be literate could not complete simple tasks, such as orienting text in the appropriate way for reading, writing their own names correctly, or even identifying the correct right-to-left direction of reading Hindi script when shown a sample of text. This does not bode well for literacy in India.

It is also something that Madura Microfinance wishes we had known a little earlier. Our Tamil Nadu classifieds was not the success we had hoped it would be. Women from other districts reacted much the same way as women in Madurai. Our advertisements were not read, our micro-entrepreneurs did not see increased sales, and we eventually abandoned the project. This is just one example of how statistics and census reports matter. If we cannot use the data collected from country-supported census projects to make educated decisions about marketing, business, and community-building are those census numbers really fulfilling their full potential?

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