English language and India's working population

Indian Express, 14 October 2005

English language is being spread in India by the world of work. And, most interstingly, young India is gearing up to meet the challenge of English. An analysis by the Indian Express of the Indian Retirement Earnings and Savings (IRES) shows that nearly 40 percent of the young earners -- in the age group 20 to 30-- have at least a rudimentary ability to read English.

q: How widespread is the use of English in India?

a: About 35 percent of the earners of India claim that they can "read" English. A note of caution must be added: all measurement of literacy is weak. A man who "claims to read English" can probably slowly read one letter at a time.

q: How do we know about this data?

a: One good source of knowing about this is the Indian Retirement Earnings and Savings (IRES) database, released by the Ministry of Finance and ADB. This tells us about a randomly chosen set of 41,000 earners in the country. The focus is on earners - people who do not work for an income are not counted. There are 364 million earners, so each 1% of the earners is 3.64 million people.

q: What does IRES tell us about Hindi and English?

a: It shows a fascinating pattern:

Speak Hindi Read Hindi Speak English Read English
Yes 69 51.5 16.5 35
No 31 48.5 83.5 65

In the case of Hindi, more people say they can speak but not read - this probably reflects a great prevalence of Bollywood-quality Hindi. In the case of English, it is upside down: Only 16.5% people are confident enough to speak, but 35% can read - this probably reflects English picked up at school and college. These are big numbers -- one-third of the 364 million earners of India is 120 million.

q: What is the situation on literacy, in any language?

a: If we look for people who can read in either a local language, Hindi or English, we find that 76.5% of the earners of India are literate.

q: How does reading English or Hindi vary by age?

a: If we look at age 50-60, where 12% of the earners are to be found, roughly half of them can read Hindi but only one-third can read English.

Young people are more likely to know English. In the 20-30 age group, where a quarter of India's earners are found, those who can read English are 10% out of 25%. Hindi readers are a bit bigger at 14%. So English is more prevalent in the 20-30 cohort as compared with the 50-60 cohort.

q: How does reading English or Hindi vary by income class?

a: A rough definition that might be useful is to break India into three groups: "Poor", "Middle Class" and "Upper class". We classify the bottom 15% as poor - these prove to earn below Rs.14,000 a year. We classify the top 15% as rich - these prove to earn above Rs.85,000 a year. The in-between, the 70% of individuals earning between Rs.14,000 a year and Rs.85,000 a year, we classify as "Middle Class".

The picture that we get for Hindi and English, broken-down by class:

Poor Middle Class Upper Total
Read Hindi 4 37 11 51.5
Read English 2 23 10 35.0

This shows that out of the 15% of the upper class, 11 read Hindi and 10 read English. Similarly, out of the 15% of the poor, 8 read Hindi and 2% read English. Roughly speaking, we may say that English and Hindi are neck to neck when it comes to the upper class. Each language is known to roughly two-thirds of this group.

Ila Patnaik

Ila Patnaik