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No country for old men’s values

Yes,sex ratios are coming back to normal,and the middle class is responsible

Written by Ravinder Kaur |
November 12, 2011 2:29:35 am

In our previous article ‘Here comes the girl child’ (IE,November 5),we had presented evidence to suggest that the decline in the sex ratio at birth may have been arrested. Further,that amongst the many issues facing the Indian economy and polity,gender imbalance is a problem that may be on its way to getting resolved.

This optimistic conclusion has turned out to be controversial. As expected. For the question of missing girls has haunted many sections of academia,civil society and the government during the last two decades. The child (0-6 years) sex ratio (CSR) had dropped alarmingly,especially in northwest India. Large scale interventions to have a son (read murder of the girl child) had meant that approximately 4 to 5 per cent of all boys born each year were extra. There was hope that all the efforts made to reverse the dismal decline in the number of daughters would bear fruit and positive results would be seen in the 2011 census. This hope was based on evidence from the Sample Registration System (SRS) that the sex ratio at birth had begun to improve since its trough in 2004.

These hopes were dashed when Census 2011 revealed that the CSR had declined from 927 in 2001 to 914 in 2011. [Note that the biological norm is 950 girls born for every 1000 boys. However,this decline tells us relatively little about recent changes in the sex ratio at birth (SRB). Census 2011 has yet to release the information on a closely related variable,the sex ratio for children of zero years of age (0-364 days,SR0).

There is considerable evidence that the pace of change in India has accelerated in the last decade. The Census CSR is an average of the SRB for children born since February 2004. Since then,per capita income in the country has increased by close to 60 per cent. There are alternative sources of information for the sex ratio — namely,the SRS and the periodic data compiled by the NFHS (National Fertility Health Surveys). The last information published by the SRS is for 2006-08; the last NFHS survey is for 2005-06. The NFHS is much relied upon by social scientists for its trustworthiness.

There is yet another source of information on the sex ratio — the NSS (National Sample Surveys). These surveys are used for calculations about poverty,and standards of living. Their sample size (around 125,000 households) is slightly more than the NFHS. And for the sex ratio at zero years these data are just as good as the NFHS.

And the NSS data show a steep upturn in the sex ratio,0-364 days,for the last decade: a level of 977 in 2009-10 compared to 901 in 1999-2000. This is where the controversy,and doubts,begin. The popular belief is that such a number is impossible for India — perhaps in another era,not in our lifetime. No,not really; turn back to circa 1961 and 1971 and the numbers for child sex ratios given by the census were 976 and 964.

But as the table shows,the 977 number is not that outlandish for the SR0 (sex ratio at birth figures cannot be derived from the NSS). All data that can be compared for the three sources reveal near-identical figures for the last 20 years. Note also that the silver standard — NFHS — has the SR0 at 958 in 2005-06. If all of these data match,what is the likelihood that the NSS’s 977 figure is telling us a false story?

Hence,it is important to start looking for explanations for why the sex ratio at birth is improving. Here are some preliminary thoughts/insights/explanations. Tentative,but not infirm.

The steep declines that took place following 1991,peaking around 2005,were probably linked to a confluence of factors. With rapid growth,large numbers of Indians emerged out of poverty and entered the lower tiers of the middle class; and sex determination technologies came within reach of this emerging middle class. A third factor was rapid fertility decline. This emerging middle class has the most at stake in consolidating its new status and uses the family as a vehicle of upward mobility. And yes,it is present both in rural and urban areas.

It employs several strategies to move up. It shapes the family by reducing the number of children and engineering its gender composition — making sure more boys than girls are born. It educates the boys and sends them to urban areas or into salaried professional occupations. It demands handsome dowries. Daughters have little or no place in their grand design.

But what happens when people begin to move into higher brackets? What happens when girls have the same education as boys? What happens when the boys do not turn out as expected — witness Punjab where the huge improvement in child sex ratios could partially be attributed to disaffection with a generation of sons lost to drug addiction and a dawning affection for girls who “care”,and offer the elusive old-age support that sons were wanted in the first place for. Interestingly,both in upper-class India and China a mother with two sons is today pitied if not openly derided!

One final comment. India is a large and diverse country. The data presented are an aggregate for the nation. Regional patterns will remain of immense importance in determining where daughters are missing. Even within a picture of plenty there could be places with abysmal sex ratios. Thus,the Salem,Theni and Dindigul districts of Tamil Nadu were longstanding pools of female infanticide within an ocean of normal child sex ratios for the state as a whole: 962 in 1981,945 in 1991,942 in 2001 and now back to 946 in 2011. Interestingly,it is these very districts that have improved.

Even when India had better child sex ratios until 1981,the north and northwest of the country presented an abysmal anti-female,anti-daughter picture telling us that this show will still travel around the country yet. The dark shadow cast by the emerging middle class on girls is fortunately declining in size,and therefore,importance. That maybe the most important message of the back-to-normal sex ratios in India.

Bhalla is chairman of Oxus Investments,an emerging market advisory firm; Kaur is a professor of sociology at IIT Delhi

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