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The girl child’s future

Data predicts a turnaround in middle-class India’s attitude to girls

Written by Ravinder Kaur |
November 5, 2011 3:57:48 am

The seven billionth baby is born in Uttar Pradesh,India — and it is a girl. Now UP has not been known for producing girls much; it has one of the worst sex ratios at birth (girls per 1000 boys) in India,which means one of the worst in the world. China gives India a lot of competition in biased sex selection — India,for once,appears better. However,not much should be read into the girl being selected by an NGO as the seventh etc baby — it may have been all so politically correct.

That interpretation is supported by the information contained in the UN’s latest Human Development Report. It has India’s gender inequality index at 0.617 significantly higher (thus,worse) than neighbouring Pakistan and Bangladesh (levels of 0.573 and 0.550,respectively). Worse than our neighbours,and worse than most of the rest of the world. Not a great tribute to India’s attempt at inclusive growth.

Gender inequality is closely correlated to the problem of the adverse sex ratio in India. More explicitly,girls are not wanted,so they are aborted. Our neighbours do not stoop to such low practices and that maybe one reason they come out ahead. In a recent paper,one of us (Ravinder Kaur) has tried to document the reasons for sex-selection in India; mostly,the culprits are the members of the emerging middle class. This class has run rampant,with easy availability of technology being a perfect “asset” for sex-selection. But given India’s growth rate,the emerging middle class (from Rs 90,000 to Rs 1,70,000 per year per family of five at today’s prices) is now forming a declining proportion of the total population. In 2000,the size of this emerging middle class is estimated to have been 68 per cent of the population; in 2011,the size of this class is closer to 41 per cent.

The evidence suggests that the mature middle class does not practice sex-selection or does so to only a limited degree. Indeed,there is strong evidence that this class (above Rs 1,70,000 a year for a family of five) does not practice sex-selection. The size of this class has increased from miniscule proportions in the mid-1990s to 27 per cent in 2005 to 50 per cent in 2011. This would suggest that the sex ratio at birth should improve from its very low depths observed just a few years ago.

And it does! Census 2011 published the results for the sex ratio of children 0-6 years a few months back. This ratio showed a decline from a level of 927 in 2001 to 914 in 2011. (The normal sex ratio is around 950 girls to boys i.e. biologically,at birth,for every 1000 boys born,about 5 percent less girls are born). On the face of it,this declining 0-6 sex ratio would suggest that the gender bias is getting worse. And indeed,many articles emerged suggesting that sex selection was getting worse. As it turns out,Census 2011 did collect information on the sex ratio at birth for children born in the previous 12 months,February 2010 to February 2011. It is not clear why this information has not been released. Until then,we need to look for other sources of data to corroborate the possibility of a turnaround in India’s sex ratio at birth (SRB).

The major source for SRBs is the Sample Registration Survey (SRS) which publishes such data for an average of three years. The last such available data is for 2006-08,and it did show some improvement from the trough observed in 2003-05 (SRB equal to 880). However,there is an alternate source of heretofore relatively unused data on the sex ratio at birth — the periodic,large sample consumer expenditure surveys conducted by the NSS. Yes,the very same surveys used to calculate poverty. The table documents the surprisingly extreme accuracy of the NSS data. (Actually,it is not so surprising since information about a child’s sex and birth,is likely to be very accurate — unlike expenditures,the main focus of NSS surveys).

The table lists four columns of data for different years since 1961. The first two columns represent the sex ratio at birth according to SRS and NSS; the next two columns contain data on the sex ratio for 0-6 years,census and NSS. In 2001,census reported a level of 927,the NSS survey reported the same in 1999-2000; in 2011,the census reported 914,the NSS survey reported 915 in 2009-10. For the earlier censuses (1981 and 1991),the numbers are not so close,but reasonably so. And in both these years,the census reports somewhat higher numbers than the NSS surveys for two years later — entirely to be expected,since the SRB has been in a declining mode since 1961 (and before).

The match with the SRS data is not as precise,but the trends are well captured. SRS reports a decline in the SRB of 15 points between 1983 and 1999-2000; the NSS reports a decline of 25 points.

Given this reasonable accuracy of the NSS data,observe the SRB in the 2009-10 survey. A stunning level of 978 — that is,no aggregate problem with sex-selection. Of course,this does not mean that couples are not killing the girl child; but it does mean that going forward,this problem will be less. And we can thank the education-and equality of the sexes-oriented middle class for this turnaround. And maybe the next time the UN,and others,bemoan gender inequality in India,they will recognise the India of the present and the future,and not of the past.

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

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