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The index of inequality

Do the preliminary census findings confirm that India is united by discrimination against girl-children?

Written by Ravinder Kaur |
April 4, 2011 12:28:15 am

First the good news: the overall sex ratio improved from 933 in 2001 to 940 in 2011. There are more women in the Indian population than there were ten years ago. The bad news: there are even fewer girls in the 0-6 age group then there were in 2010. The number went down from 927 in 2001 to 914 in 2011 — a decline of 13 points.

While the perennial question — why don’t Indians want daughters — continues to stare us in the face,we need to dissect the provisional child sex ratio figures released by the census commissioner a little carefully to understand the implications.

One positive trend that may go unnoticed in the swirling sea of declines in 24 out of our 35 states/UTs is the improvement in many of the forever guilty northern states — especially Punjab and Haryana. Chandigarh and Delhi,the two much maligned cities,have also shown improvement even though Delhi’s — by only one point — hardly calls for celebration. But there is improvement in Himachal Pradesh as also in Gujarat and Tamil Nadu; the latter two are in many ways similar to the northern states. Haryana and Punjab at 830 and 846 still remain states with the worst sex ratios and with J&K joining them,continue to contribute a large share of the country’s female deficit; but their upward movement finally should make us take heart.

How about the rest of the country? It seems that while the north may be improving,the rest of the country is resolutely marching on the path of daughter elimination,continuing trends that began as early as 1971 in some states. It is difficult to explain why north-eastern (and largely tribal) states such as Nagaland,Manipur,Sikkim and Tripura should be showing further and large declines from 1991 and 2001 figures. Other eastern states,Assam and Meghalaya,also show smaller but definite declines. States in this part of the country are generally taken to be more female friendly than the rest of India. And even though most of them continue to have above normal sex ratios (higher than 950) the declines need to be taken as warning signals. West Bengal and Orissa have also continued their 2001 downward trend. Another shocker is the continuing dips in the central Indian tribal states — Jharkhand and Chhattisgarh have declined and so has the hill state of Uttarakhand. STs,as a social group,have had robust sex ratios even though there was a decline between 1991-2001,from 985 to 973. The declines in both the north-eastern and central Indian states,states with tribal populations,means that ST ratios are likely to fall further. Then there are the outliers: A huge drop of 78 points in J&K? And small UTs like Dadra and Nagar Haveli,Daman and Diu have dived by 66 and 16 points respectively.

Can there be one common explanation as to why child sex ratios have been dipping around the country for several decades? Despite all our differences — of language and culture,kinship and marriage,wheat growing and rice growing areas,lower and higher castes,nomadic,tribal and hill people — are we now simply united by our desire to get rid of our daughters?

Unfortunately,the census has as yet not published the critical sex ratio at birth (SRB) figures for 2011,that is,answers to the census question: children born,by sex,in the year immediately preceding the census. This ratio will tell us whether the promising signs of a turnaround shown by the sample registration system (SRS) data are corroborated across the country. If the sex ratio at birth for 2011 does show an improvement,then there are two — good and bad news — conclusions to be drawn: sex selective abortions may have reduced but neglect continues unabated with post-birth discrimination leading to further attrition of girl children up to age six (and perhaps higher). Many rich states like Punjab and poor states like Madhya Pradesh show higher girl child mortality. Madhya Pradesh continues to record cases of female infanticide.

There is also an alternate explanation. The statistic on the sex ratio,0-6 years,in 2011,is actually an average of sorts of the SRB in the previous seven years. These seven years are centred in 2007,and if there has been an improving trend then the 2004-2010,average of 914 means a higher number for SRB for 2010. The Census 2001 number for SRB was 906,that is,the census SRB in 2010 will most likely be in the high 920s,possibly higher. So while the child sex ratio shows a decline,the SRB will show an improvement provided the census data reflects the trend upwards in the SRS data. This would be reason for hope that the trend perceived at the tail end of the last decade could become long-lasting.

But to return to the million dollar question on everybody’s mind — why does a growing India continue to discriminate against girls? Interestingly,we are not alone in this — China,growing faster than us has a worse problem while rich countries like South Korea have only recently managed to get normal sex ratios at birth. New work by French demographer Christophe Guilmoto shows that the malady may be spreading to other parts of Asia — Vietnam,Singapore,

Armenia,Albania,Azerbaijan and Georgia show masculine child sex ratios. But this should not be cause for comfort to us!

The new dip in the child sex ratio also signals a general policy failure and an inability to control sex determination. Can laws and palliative policies address the root causes of the malaise? The answer is no. As I have reiterated several times,it can only be the hard work of ensuring equal rights for girls and women — whether in property or in other entitlements such as education,nutrition and health care that will drive the turnaround. Parents have to value daughters — only then will they survive. Also,society has to learn to acknowledge the contributions of women and girls — and this has to be learned behaviour as the market doesn’t seem to be doing it very well.

The writer teaches sociology at IIT,Delhi

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