Saturday, Oct 01, 2022

When in a pickle, make some fudge

That skewed sex ratios affect population growth is self-evident. Still, here are three studies to prove it.


sex ratios, population growth, gender sex ratio, sex ratio in india, india sex ratio, india population growth, population growth in india, Tony Joseph column, in column, indian express column Looking for research which proves that skewed sex ratios affect population growth is like hunting for a study proving that the loss of an eye can affect one’s sight.

In his latest article published in the The Indian Express, ‘Numbers don’t lie — people do’ (September 5), Surjit S. Bhalla challenged this writer (and The Indian Express) to show “one study that shows that, all other things being equal, a skewed sex ratio significantly affects population growth”. In fact, he goes further to say: “Just one study, and it need not even be published.” But why should Bhalla make do with one study, when he can have three?

The first one, published by Asian Population Studies last year, was done by Rod Tyers of the University of Western Australia and Jane Golley of the Australian National University. The study, titled “Gender Rebalancing in China”, had this to say in its conclusion: “… A complicating associated factor arises due to the Chinese traditional preference for at least one son, which, via selective abortion, has caused rise in the sex ratio at birth.This has reduced the share of women of reproductive age and so further slowed population and labour force growth.”


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The second study, titled “Sex Ratio and Population Stability”, published by Nordic Society Oikos, was written by Stewart D. Johnson from the Department of Mathematics, Williams College, US. It says: “Sex ratio within a population strongly affects per capita birth rate; predominantly female populations can have a substantially higher birth rate than predominantly male populations.”

ALSO READ: No proof required: Numbers don’t lie-people do

The third study is from Development in Crisis, edited by Rae Lesser Blumberg, professor of sociology, University of Virginia. A chapter on “gender discrimination, sex ratios and their implications for the developing world”, written by Abigail Weitzman, says: “The longer a population endures a skewed sex ratio, and the more skewed a population’s sex ratio becomes, the smaller that population’s growth will be. Intuitively, this reflects the reality that as the number of childbearing women wanes, so too does the number of live births.” (Thanks to Gokul Yadav for the third reference and Deepak D’Souza for bringing up with Bhalla the relevance of sex ratios on social media.)

Looking for research which proves that skewed sex ratios affect population growth is like hunting for a study proving that the loss of an eye can affect one’s sight. The proposition is so self-evident that few researchers would spend time on it. Despite that, Weitzman explains the causation well. To bring home the point even more clearly, let me put it this way: In a relative sense, men are not the constraint on population growth; women are. Now that Bhalla’s request for references has been met, I hope he will not have a problem accepting this.


The rest of the points are a restatement of Bhalla’s earlier article, and were already dealt with. For readers who are confused by his arbitrary selection of time periods, making for a hodgepodge of comparisons, there’s a more reasoned way of doing it. Family-planning methods began to be widely available and acceptable from the 1970s, and hence the link between higher education and lower fertility would also be applicable only from then. Therefore, what makes sense is to compare how the Sikh and Christian populations behaved from then on. The census numbers are straightforward: During this entire period, 1971 to 2011, the Sikh population grew at 1.76 per cent a year, while Christians grew slower, at only 1.69 per cent a year. And that is quite opposite to the story Bhalla tells.

Arbitrary selection of periods becomes a powerful tool in the hands of a statistician keen on getting a specific result because trends are not always linear. Jains, for example, grew at 0.44 per cent in 1991, raced up to 2.34 per cent in 2001, and were back to growing at 0.52 per cent in 2011. So if you began your period from 2001, you will see a dramatic decline; and if you began your period from 1991, you will see growth. In fact, a statistician determined to prove that Jains were into, let’s say, largescale human cloning, could ask: What else can explain the acceleration of their growth rate in 2001?

The hypothetical case that Bhalla has built suffers from too many deficiencies to list: From random and opaque choice of parameters such as time periods, relative sex ratios and fertility rates to omission of variables such as migration differences.


The last point Bhalla makes, about a qualitative distinction between demographic changes caused by immigration, conversion and higher fertility rates, also disintegrates on scrutiny. If demographic change is to worry anyone, why would it matter what the cause is? In fact, politics in India suggests that it certainly does not matter: Think of all the anti-immigration or anti-”love jihad” campaigns.

It is perhaps a sign of the times we live in that so much hate-mongering and dog-whistling can happen over a proposition such as Bhalla’s, which, in the final analysis, does nothing more than make the accusation that Christians are converting people faster and faster to stay in the same place demographically — rather, in fact, to go backwards! Obviously, we have wandered into Alice-in-Wonderland territory where making some fudge when you are in a pickle seems like a normal thing to do.

The writer is a former editor of ‘Businessworld’ magazine

First published on: 09-09-2015 at 12:00:37 am
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