Census 2011 showed that about 32 million children aged between 6 and 13 years have never attended any educational institution, even though government estimates of out-of-school children show substantially lower numbers. Given that out-of-school numbers consist of both children who dropped out and those who never attended school, it raises some questions over the numbers thrown up by the periodic National Surveys on estimation of ‘out of school children’.

In its Millennium Development Goals assessment in 2015, the UNDP has stated that India has made significant progress in universalising primary education, and is moderately on track to achieve this goal.

Enrolment and completion rates of girls in primary school have improved and are catching up with those of boys, as are elementary completion rates. At the national level, the male and female youth literacy rate is likely to be at 94.8 per cent and 92.4 per cent respectively.

However, the UNDP cautions that a large numbers of children are still out of school and are not completing their primary education. This is particularly so with girls, children living in rural areas, and children from marginalised and minority communities.

There are fears that the real picture is much grimmer than what statistics suggest. So, what’s the real, big picture?

Devil in the detail

Often, India’s statistical achievements around human development have to be taken with a pinch of salt. Vimala Ramachandran, national fellow at the National University for Educational Planning and Administration, observed that enrolment data, particularly from schools and the education department, are often unreliable since they tend to over-report. According to her, these numbers must be complemented by data on dropouts and on those who have never attended school.

The authorities say the number of out-of-school children has declined steadily since 2001. In 2005, a national survey commissioned by the ministry of human resource development pegged the number at 13.5 million. According to this survey, which collected data from 87,874 households, the number of out-of-school children accounted for 6.9 per cent of the total number of children.

In 2009, another survey conducted among 99,226 households indicated that the number of out-of-school children fell from 13.5 million in 2005 to 8.15 million.

In other words, it was estimated that the share of out-of-school children within the total population in the age group 6 to14 years decreased from 6.9 per cent in 2005 to 4.3 per cent in 2009.

The third and the latest round of the National Survey on Estimation of Out of School Children (NSEOSC), conducted in 2014 covering 99,929 households, estimated that the number has further fallen to 6 million or 2.97 per cent of the total number of children.

A second exercise by Unicef in 2014 based on an analysis of household surveys estimated the total number as much higher than official projections. It showed that a total of 17.8 million children between the ages 5 to 13 years were out of school in India.

While the debate on the veracity of these numbers can go on, it will be useful to look at the most reliable source, the Census, and the trends between 2001 and 2011.

Census 2011 numbers on education were released along with the numbers on religious demography a few months ago.

The media celebrated the spectacle of respectable commentators reading the Census as some kind of a Sensex of religion, and mostly ignoring the education numbers. What got buried were issues that actually affect peoples’ lives.

Census numbers

The Census remains the most reliable source for any assessment of children not attending school since all similar numbers are estimates based on samples of varying size. The Census covers every household across the country.

Till Census 2001, we only knew whether a child was attending an educational institution or not. However, in Census 2011, separate codes were given for children who had never attended any educational institution and for those who had attended an institution earlier. This has widened the scope for analysis.

If we look at the total population, this means that in 2011, out of a total of 208 million children between 6 and 13 years old, 18.3 per cent were not attending any educational institution (chart 1). That’s 38 million children, a significant reduction from 58 million in 2001.

However, to put these numbers in perspective, an earlier round of NSEOSC in 2009 indicated that the number of out-of-school children declined from 13.5 million in 2005 to 8.2 million in 2009. There is a gap of about 30 million, between the Census number for 2011 and the 2009 estimates of the government.

Census 2011 figures suggest that the overall numbers we are looking at are much larger. While the situation has certainly improved over Census 2001, in 2011 we still had 38 million children between 6 and 13 years not attending any educational institution.

This included 7.1 million dalit and 4.6 million adivasi children. Alarmingly, more than 80 per cent of these children have never attended any educational institution.

It is also worth mentioning that after 2011, India’s total enrolment in elementary schools has stagnated and has, in fact, started declining (chart 2).

Caste-based attendance

The National Sample Survey has estimated that three out of four children currently out of school in India are either dalit (32.4 per cent, 2 million), Muslim (25.7 per cent, 1.5 million) or adivasi (16.6 per cent, 1 million).

Census 2011 data reveal that the actual numbers are indeed much higher, but also that while adivasi and dalit children are certainly less likely to be attending an educational institution, the divergence with the national average may not be as much as it was in 2001, or what the NSEOSC 2014 estimated (chart 3).

In light of these facts, the fate of the 38 million children remains unclear. The urgency of the situation is compounded when we realise that about 32 million of these children have never been to any educational institution.

Can the Right to Education Act help them? Sure, it can. However, given the shift in the latest Union Budget from social sectors, it remains to be seen to what extent.

The writer is with Oxfam India