Billion Readers (BIRD) project

Same Language Subtitling on TV in India


India’s literacy rate (7+) is 78 % (NSS 2018). But an estimated 60 % “literates” cannot read simple texts, much less a newspaper. The problem starts in primary school. Half the children in Class 5 cannot read a Class 2 level text. Every state faces the weak-reading challenge at population scale. India’s 600 million weak readers need a lifelong path to reading practice and progress.


Same Language Subtitling(SLS) is the concept of adding subtitles on existing TV entertainment, in the “same” language as the audio. What you hear is what you read – Hindi subtitles on Hindi films, Tamil subtitles on Tamil films and so on in every Indian language. SLS is already a reality on all English TV content, but not yet in any Indian language.

Eye-tracking studies have demonstrated that SLS gives automatic reading practice to weak-reading viewers. The evidence from pilot studies of SLS implementation on TV in eight Indian languages (Hindi, Bengali, Gujarati, Marathi, Telugu, Tamil, Kannada & Panjabi) is strong. Regular SLS exposure results in steadily improving reading skills among all viewers: children in and out of school, youth, and adults. A billion viewers in India watch four hours of TV every day, and will do so for life. Reading practice from SLS is incredibly cost-effective and scalable.

Globally, SLS for mass reading literacy was first conceived at IIM Ahmedabad in 1996. In 2019, after 2+ decades of evidence-based-policy-making, SLS became a part of the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting’s (MIB) AccessibilityStandards, under the Rights of Persons with Disabilities Act, 2016.[1] Half the entertainment content on TV, in every language, state, and channel, is required to carry SLS by 2025. The international acceptance of SLS is growing. See comments by: Boris JohnsonNarendra ModiBill ClintonGordonBrown, and Stephen Fry.

Scale up in a state & language

With Co-Impact support, IIM Ahmedabad, MIT Open Learning and J-PAL South Asia are actively looking to partner with state governments to scale up SLS on TV in the state language. The partnership aims to raise the reading literacy skills of the state’s population by:

    1. 1. Scaling up SLS for a 3-5 year project period on state and private TV channels.
    2. 2. Agreeing on a matching funding mechanism for the project period while putting in place a long term sustainability strategy.
    3. 3. Conducting an independent impact study.

[1] Kothari & Bandyopadhyay (2020), Stanford Social Innovation Review, available on request.