Will India be able to achieve complete literacy by 2015? This is the million-dollar question bothering many educationists with different official agencies making contradictory claims.
The current national literacy rate is 65 per cent and with at least eight major states logging a staggering 70 per cent illiteracy and showing little sign of kicking up their literacy missions, there is a serious question mark on the government's flagship educational programmes.
Interestingly the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), the country's official census agency, last week clearly pointed to the sluggish rate of literacy growth in the country.
The NSSO said the literacy rate was growing at a mere 1.5 per cent per year.
However, government officials claim they will maintain a steady growth of five per cent every year till 2015 to attain complete literacy by 2015.
AK Rath, secretary (secondary education and literacy) in the human resource development ministry, refuted a report released by UNESCO in November last year that said India was nowhere in terms of eradicating illiteracy.
"We are committed to having complete literacy by 2015 and we will do whatever it takes," said Rath.
"UNESCO is not aware of the ground realities and it only goes by assumptions of figures quoted by some NGOs."
The UN body painted a poor picture of the country's literacy missions and unequivocally stated that India would miss the bus of ending illiteracy by 2015, pointing to huge disparities between urban and rural areas.
Nearly 70 per cent of the country's illiterate population belongs to the eight states of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Karnataka. All these states have not shown any major improvement in the government's flagship programmes, the Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (Education for All), for universalisation of elementary education in a time bound manner, and the National Literacy Mission.
The Indian government has earmarked a whopping Rs 850 billion ($21 billion) for the education sector in the 11th Five Year Plan, which ends in 2012. The budget is almost five times more than the budget allocated for the education sector in the previous 10th Five Year Plan.
But 13 states - Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Assam, Orissa, Meghalaya, Andhra Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Arunachal Pradesh, Jharkhand and Bihar - have a literacy rate below the national average of 64.8 per cent, according to data published by the Directorate of Adult Education.
Even prominent educationists have apprehensions about the government's claim of full literacy by 2015 and the way in which the entire exercise is being carried out.
Anil Sadgopal, an educationist and member of the Central Advisory Board of Education (CABE), said the procedure to collect literacy data is flawed.
"The method used to gauge literacy level in our country is highly suspicious. The technique does not assess people's capacity to read and write with understanding. Volunteers simply ask people if they can write their name and if they say yes then they mark him or her as literate," Sadgopal told IANS.
Quoting a UNESCO report, Sadgopal said that India is unlikely to achieve even 80 per cent literacy by 2015.
Renowned educationist, TK Oommen, who was recently awarded the Padma Bhushan, said achieving 100 per cent literacy by 2015 was a very unlikely proposition.
"With all the problems at the ground level, how can we think of achieving complete literacy? Let us be practical," he added.
"Why are we focusing on literacy? The focus should be on education. Let me say Kerala and Mizoram are doing well on the literacy front not because of any literacy mission but simply because of good school education."