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Hoping for girls in 2011

The new census might well show the middle class is now willing to welcome girl children.

Written by Ravinder Kaur |
February 10, 2011 9:50:10 am

The results of the census exercise to be conducted in February are eagerly awaited by a major constituency — those fighting the battle against disappearing daughters. With the 2001 census had come the alarming news of sharp drops in child sex ratios,the number of girls born per 1,000 boys. The biological norm is 950 and this ratio dropped from 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001.

Some states showed horrific declines: 82 points in Punjab,59 in Haryana,and smaller but significant drops in many other states,including in previously more gender-equal states in the east and the south. Since then,government and civil society have been involved in frenetic activity on two fronts — attempting to book radiologists,gynaecologists and parents involved in violating the law against sex determination and sex selection (the PCPNDT legislation) and introducing a slew of policies aimed at raising the value of the girl child.

Have these efforts had any effect which will show up in the census 2011 results? One way of finding out is by examining sex ratio at birth (SRB) data provided by the Sample Registration System (SRS) and available up to 2008. These show some interesting and hopeful trends.

From around 870 in 1995,the SRB increased to 900,but then started declining again and fell to 885 by 2005. The period of 2000-2004,it appears,was an exceptionally terrible period for girls irrespective of where one was in the country. The usually robust south shared in the downturn,creating ripples of worry that female unfriendly northern patterns were travelling southwards,accompanied by a rise in dowry and greater domestic violence.

Scholars,policy-makers and civil society have been active in both explaining and stemming this decline. There seem to be two major culprits responsible for this trend: surprisingly,an increase in prosperity and,unsurprisingly,the simultaneous increased availability of technology to detect the sex of the child before it is born. That there seems to be a peculiarly close correlation between adverse sex ratios and prosperity is signalled by the fact that the worse sex ratios are indeed to be seen in the richest states and cities of India,such as Punjab,Haryana,Himachal Pradesh,Delhi and Chandigarh. Maharashtra and Gujarat,as they began to prosper,also began to enter the sex ratio hall of shame. The western,more prosperous part of Uttar Pradesh too is plagued with low sex ratios. One could thus argue that growing prosperity in the southern states,including Kerala (known for its Europe-like gender ratios),was responsible for the southern negative turnaround.

Given that gains in prosperity have continued at an accelerated pace since 2001,there is a genuine fear of a further drop in the sex ratios in the 2011 census. From a policy point of view,there has been an increased concentration on laws to prohibit sex selection,and the forceful implementation of the laws. Prosperity cannot be arrested,but laws can be implemented. However,there is little evidence that law enforcement has surmounted the demand and supply for sex determination and abortion services.

So should we brace for further bad news? We needn’t. There is good news emerging from the annual SRS surveys on the child sex ratio at birth. There are some divergences with the census data,but the broad trends (and even levels) are close to the census data. There is a definite upward trend in sex ratios at birth in almost every state in India,with the overall figures showing an increase from 883 to 904 in SRBs (between 2001-3 to 2006-8). Punjab has gone up from 776 to 836,Haryana from 807 to 847 and Rajasthan from 855 to 870. How is this possible with increased prosperity?

In popular discourse,it is the middle class that appears to discriminate the most against girl children. It prefers a small family and has enough knowledge and income to use technology effectively to “plan” its family. Further,its son-preferring values don’t seem to have changed.

The correct interpretation may actually be the opposite. The declines in girl child sex ratios happened in the late 1980s through the 1990s. Technology had come in but the middle class was neither large nor educated enough to rethink its values. At that point,the middle class (defined as those with a per capita income of at least Rs 40,000 a year in 2010) was less than 8 per cent of the population. Today,the estimate of the middle class is edging towards 40 per cent.

Why does this “critical mass” middle class not discriminate against girls? As people have higher incomes,they also obtain higher education levels and hence should become less prone to discriminating against girl children. Indeed,there is now robust evidence that mother’s education correlates positively with both fertility decline and healthy sex ratios. Equally important are the other changes; simultaneous with the expansion of the middle class has been a catch-up in girls’ education. Most recent data show a near parity in girl-boy education levels in both urban and rural India. More women are entering the urban labour force with participation levels nearly double the 15 per cent level observed a decade ago in 1999-2000.

Daughters are now more likely to provide valuable support to ageing parents. This powerful mix most likely has changed the entire dynamic of sex selection. Girls have increased in value and therefore their elimination has diminished in appeal.

So instead of unidirectional forces,we now have checks and balances. Increased prosperity and easier technology mean a worse sex ratio; middle-class expansion and female education mean less sex selection. And according to SRB estimates,the force for good has been winning out for the better part of the last decade. Extrapolating these trends,one can venture to forecast that census 2011 will show (relative to census 2001) a sex ratio at birth of about +80 points for Punjab and Haryana (the two worst past offenders) and an increase of at least half that amount for India. In other words,look for an average sex ratio at birth of 935 on an all-India basis — up from the estimated 905 in the census 2001 data.

The writer teaches sociology at IIT,Delhi

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