Census 2011

Uneven progress

Print edition : October 02, 2015

A class in progress at a government-run school in Allahabad on September 7. Photo: Rajesh Kumar Singh/AP

Students of a special school for tribal people at Agaly in Attapady in Kerala's Palakkad district. Photo: K.K. Mustafah

The key takeaway from the Census of India 2011 data on urban growth, sex ratios and literacy rates is that India is moving towards population stabilisation, though not as rapidly as might be desired.

THE Census of India 2011 provides important information about the progress of the nation in terms of some of the key characteristics of the population. The population of India rose, by the Census count, from 102.86 crore in 2001 to 121.08 crore in 2011, a growth of 17.71 per cent. An interesting aspect of this growth was that the urban population grew in absolute terms by practically as much as the rural population: the population increase of 18.22 crore between 2001 and 2011 was distributed as 9.12 crore in rural India and 9.1 crore in urban India. In proportional terms, the urban population grew by 31.8 per cent between 2001 and 2011 while the rural population grew by 12.3 per cent during the decade.

Key characteristics

Table 1 presents some key characteristics of India’s population in 2001 and in 2011. With the growth in population being much more rapid in urban areas than in rural areas, the share of the urban population was up from 27.81 per cent to 31.14 per cent. However, while this attests to the rapid growth of the urban population, it must be noted that India still remains overwhelmingly rural, an aspect that is not reflected in the overall economic policy framework of successive governments since 1991. It must also be noted that the growth of the urban population by 31.8 per cent between 2001 and 2011 is not very different from the rate of growth of the urban population by 31.5 per cent between 1991 and 2001. The other point is that the decline in the rate of growth rate of the total population from 21. 5 per cent between 1991 and 2001 to 17.7 per cent between 2001 and 2011 is entirely because of the relatively rapid decline in the rate of growth of the rural population.

An important feature of the age distribution of the population is that between 2001 and 2011, the population aged six years or younger has declined absolutely in rural areas from 12.65 crore in 2001 to 12.13 crore in 2011. But this has been offset by a slightly larger increase in the population in this age group in urban areas, so that there is a marginal increase in the population in this age group for India as a whole, from 16.38 crore in 2001 to 16.52 crore in 2011. However, the share of the population in this age group in the total population has declined, indicating the continuing movement towards population stabilisation.

Sex ratios

An important indicator of the status of women in a society is the sex ratio of the population. In the Indian census, this is measured as females per 1,000 males. The population sex ratio in India declined through most of the 20th century but has recently shown an upward trend. It rose from 927 in 1991 to 933 in 2001. It has further risen to 943 in 2011.

An aspect to be considered in this context is that the population sex ratio for any given territory would be distorted by sex-selective migration. This may not be a problem at the national level for India since emigrants would form a relatively small part of the population. However, at the State level, and more so at district levels, this can be a relevant factor.

One way to eliminate the possible distortion caused by such migration is to look at the sex ratio for the population aged 0 to 6 years since sex-selective migration will not be an issue for this age group. As can be seen from Table 1, this ratio, usually referred to as the child sex ratio or sometimes as the juvenile sex ratio, has declined between 2001 and 2011 from 927 to 918. This is a reflection of the continuing bias against females in Indian society.

The decline is steeper in rural India from 934 to 923, but in absolute terms the urban ratio is worse at 905 in 2011, marginally lower than the figure of 906 in 2001.

Literacy rates

Literacy rates have continued to improve, given their low levels to start with and given that school enrolment ratios have been rising. Again, in line with expectations, the rates of increase in literacy rates are distinctly higher for females compared with males and for rural areas compared with urban areas. The gender gap in literacy rates has come down in both urban and rural areas. However, it must be noted that as of 2011, the difference between the rural male literacy rate, at 77.1 per cent, and the rural female literacy rate, at 57.9 per cent, is more than 19 percentage points. Even in urban areas, the gap is considerable at 9.7 percentage points in 2011. The gender disparities are much higher in the States that show lower literacy rates and are simply unacceptable in a modern society.

The overall literacy rate for members of the Scheduled Castes (S.Cs) is 66.1 per cent, nearly seven percentage points lower than that of the entire population. The gap between the S.Cs and others will be even higher. In urban areas, the gap is slightly larger: the S.Cs report a literacy rate of 76.2 per cent as against 84.1 per cent for the entire urban population in 2011. The literacy rates for members of the Scheduled Tribes (S.Ts) are lower at 59.0 per cent overall and 56.9 per cent in rural areas. It is only in urban areas that the S.Ts have a literacy rate that marginally exceeds that of the S.Cs, at 76.8 per cent against 76.2 per cent for the S.Cs.

The gap in literacy rates between S.Cs and the population as a whole has narrowed in both urban and rural areas. The gap between the urban females of these two categories, however, remains high at more than 10 percentage points even in 2011. The worst off are rural S.Ts, with female literacy rates below 50 per cent.

While on the matter of literacy rates, the point needs to be made that the census overestimates literacy. In a number of field surveys conducted by the Foundation for Agrarian Studies (FAS), respondents were given the following choices: can read and write, can read but not write, can neither read nor write. Only those reporting that they can both read and write were counted as literate. The resulting literacy rates for revenue villages in years close to a census year—2001 or 2011—were much lower than those reported in the Census.

Literacy is, of course, a very minimal indicator of educational achievement. If one looks at data on schooling, the scale of deprivation is quite alarming. The mean years of schooling in 2010-11 in India was 4.4 years, well below the world average of 7.4 years.

Of the population aged 20 years or older, less than 10 per cent possess a graduate degree. In several villages across the States of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar, surveyed by the FAS between 2005 and 2011, it was found that in practically all the villages surveyed, half or more of the women aged 16 years or older had not completed one year of formal schooling. Graduates in the population aged 25 years or older constituted a very small proportion even in the socially and economically dominant groups and were negligible among the S.Cs, the S.Ts and Muslims. There were also very few female graduates, even in the top socio-economic groups.

Demographic transition

It is clear that there has been progress with respect to literacy across the country. It is also the case that female literacy rates have generally risen faster than male literacy rates. It is likewise with rural literacy rates vis-a-vis urban literacy rates. The gap in literacy rates across social groups is also coming down, though rather slowly, especially with respect to rural S.Ts in relation to others. However, all these differentials remain significant and are unacceptably large. Further, while differences in literacy rates across States have also continued to decline, they still remain very substantial.

The census results of 2011 show that the demographic transition which has been under way in India since long is continuing, with total fertility rates coming down across the country. India is moving towards population stabilisation, though not as rapidly as might be desired.

A problem with obsessive focus on population numbers is that it tends to undermine the importance of gender balance and also misses out on what the factors that cause fertility decline are. Some of the mindless arguments of religious fanatics tend to look at population growth by religion without any attempt to understand the factors that impact on the growth of any human population.

Factors such as improvement in infant and child survival, education and empowerment of women, overcoming of patriarchal structures and values, improvements in health care, and livelihood security in old age are recognised as important determinants of population growth. These are the variables that need to be focussed on. Scaremongering about the religious composition of the nation with scant regard for facts or socio-demographic and socio-economic processes positively detracts from an analytical understanding of the determinants of population growth and the formulation of appropriate policies thereof.

Balanced human development is perhaps the most effective contraceptive. To achieve that, however, the overall economic policy framework ought to emphasise social and human development rather than spout the linear growth mantra. Besides, it is far from clear that neoliberal growth can deliver positive outcomes with regard to human development. The available evidence is, in fact, to the contrary.


1. Provisional figures for the Census 2011 had suggested that the number of children in the age group of 0 to 6 years had declined by slightly over 50 lakh between 2001 and 2011 from 16.38 crore to 15.87 crore. However, the final figures suggest a small increase. But the proposition that there has been a decline in fertility remains valid.

2. There are many districts where this ratio is considerably lower, and researchers have highlighted the links between such highly masculine child sex ratios and the practice of both female infanticide and female foeticide. States that perform especially badly in this regard include Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. But there are districts outside these States, including some in Tamil Nadu, which also do badly. (See the article by Venkatesh Athreya in Frontline, October 9, 1998, for an account of an important intervention in Tamil Nadu in this regard.)

3. See www.fas.org.in for details.

4. http://mospi.nic.in/Mospi_New/upload/SYB2014/CH-29-EDUCATION/Education.pdf

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