Universal Literacy

It stands to reason that compared to the poor, rich people educate their children more. That’s because they have more wealth and can spend more on education. Rich countries therefore have a more educated population compared to the poor, which naturally implies that their populations are more literate. But since at some time in the past every currently rich and literate country was poor and illiterate, it’s interesting to ask which came first — the literacy or the wealth.

Literacy comes Before

The positive correlation between wealth and literacy suggests causation. The direction of causation can be inferred from the historical evidence. Literacy levels went up first and then economic growth followed. Those countries that are still poor today are those that have low literacy levels. This causal relationship is easily established analytically. In the previous post “What Comes Before” I noted that literacy makes agriculture more productive, makes the released labor employable in non-agricultural sectors and consequently increases productivity. Policy implications follow.

Literacy is an absolutely fundamental skill but it is also a most unnatural skill. We don’t need to be taught to speak or comprehend the spoken word. Every one of us learned naturally, without any instructions, the language(s) we were immersed in as children. But reading and writing have to be taught and learned, and usually involves considerable effort and cognitive costs. Learning that skill, however, is highly rewarding. It opens up an amazing world of ideas. Nearly all other learning requires a foundation of literacy. Without it, a person is incomprehensibly handicapped to the point of being mentally crippled in a world of ubiquitous technology.

Here’s a true story. At the guest house of a major multinational corporation in New Delhi some years ago, I asked the caretaker whether he used the internet during this spare time. The place had computers for the guests to use for the web. They were hardly used and I told the caretaker that he would be able to learn a great deal by using them. I offered to teach him the basics. He thanked me and said that he couldn’t because he was illiterate.

Speaking for myself, I would be figuratively blind, deaf and dumb if I could not read and write. Life would have been immeasurably harder for me if I had not received the education I did — all based on the fundamental learned skill of reading and writing. So it is easy for me to understand that anyone else who cannot read and write is figuratively blind, deaf and dumb. That handicap effectively closes off so many opportunities to live and to work that it predictably leads to individual poverty. Consider then what effect it has on the economy of a nation when a significant share of the population — hundreds of millions in India’s case — are not literate, leave alone not educated.

The Literacy Barrier

We live in a world awash in technology. I use the term “technology” for brevity to mean “products of technology”. It is the use of technology that increases the individual’s (and therefore the collective’s) productivity. The ability to use technology depends at a minimum on literacy. If the collective cannot use technology, it produces little and that leads to widespread poverty.

India is a poor country and poverty is widespread. There are many causes for that dismal state of affairs, ranging from poor governance and bad policies to resource constraints. But the most critical barrier to prosperity is the lack of universal literacy. No country in the history of mankind has developed without it. I would willingly eat my shoes if you can point out an exception to that necessary condition for a country’s prosperity.

Note that universal literacy is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for prosperity. So now on to the policy implications.

Around the time of India’s independence, literacy rate was around 30 percent. Now the percentage has gone up to around 60 percent. (We can quibble with those numbers but that does not affect the validity of this argument.) The absolute number of illiterates in India has gone up — from around 225 million to 480 million — since 1947. Of all the stupidities that the government then (thanks to the incompetence of Nehru & his bunch of miserable minions), not ensuring that India becomes 100 percent literate within a decade stands out as the costliest. All they did was to put the government in charge of education and quite predictably that resulted in the disaster we see today.

Did I say that Nehru was incompetent? Sorry, I meant Nehru was criminally incompetent. And those that followed him were not all that much different. No surprise there since most of them were his spawn.

I hear that there is talk of the New Delhi government making free wifi available for the public. Spending public money on luxuries when the bare essentials are unfunded is insanely bizarre and surrealistic. These people who promote such indefensible waste of public funds are following in the hallowed footsteps of Nehru the Nabob of Cluelessness.

It is possible to achieve 100 percent literacy in India. Unnatural though literacy is, it is easily mastered by all except the congenitally mentally handicapped or the very old. In 2004, I had advanced a scheme to achieve 100 percent literacy within three years. After 11 years, the proposal still stands.

In the next bit, I will probably discuss technology. If there is a demand, there will be a supply.

Author: Atanu Dey


6 thoughts on “Universal Literacy”

  1. Atanu, I have a question for you. Not on the topic of this post, but I thought I’d post it here anyways so you would be sure to see it.

    You have written a lot about Islam. Could you clarify your thoughts and positions on this topic relative to other current, popular voices on the subject – Pam Geller, Sam Harris, Rula Jebreal? I am particularly interested to hear about the last one – do you agree with her nuances? Which ones would you change, and how? For the sake of simplicity, let’s keep it limited to domestic, within India, and foreign sources that are directly linked to those inside India.

    I would also be interested to hear what sort of actionable thoughts you have on this topic – saying something shouldn’t be a certain way is all well and good, but what would you actually do about it, and how?

    Look forward to a good discussion……thanks.


    1. A suitable place to post your question would have been in the Ask me anything post of Apr 27th. But in any case, here’s my brief answer.

      I have written occasionally about Islam on this blog, mostly my opinion on the ideology and its harmful effect on the world. How does my position relate to that of Geller, Harris and Jebreal? I am very familiar with Harris’s work, know a little about Geller’s, and I have never heard of Rula Jebreal until you mentioned her.

      Therefore I cannot comment on Jebreal’s position.

      I would like to respond to your questions adequately. Would you restate them, please, given that I don’t know Jebreal’s opinions? Thanks.


      1. Okay, will do. Sorry, hadn’t seen that post.

        Also, would you mind having a more elaborate discussion, on a variety of topics, on that blog post, or would you prefer doing so elsewhere? Thanks –


  2. There is only one thing that brings sustained growth and prosperity in the long term, at least in the modern world, and that is research and innovation. Europe sped past the rest of the world since the renaissance age there not because of higher literacy than in india or china or persia but because of a free spirit to understand the world and to innovate.

    To give you a modern analogy – USA invested tons of money into research and over years and decades resulted in internet and in the most innovative and lucrative internet companies. india has mostly focused on computer literacy after all the innovation has occurred elsewhere and hence mostly does outsourced low-end jobs (i mean india here not indians in US). in other words, the inventor of the alphabet becomes prosperous and the those who follow and learn the alphabet merely to be ‘literate’ remain at the bottom.

    so, invest invest and invest in research and innovation. that is the only sure way to prosperity.


    1. Literacy is necessary, not sufficient. That distinction is important to keep in mind.

      “Necessary” conditions are . . . how shall I put it . . . necessary.

      Having legs is a necessary condition for winning the Olympic 100m sprint. Having legs is not sufficient for winning the 100m sprint.


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