May 31, 2012
By Manali Chakrabarti
The much awaited first reports of the 15th Indian Census have come and already several popular articles are circulating in the media. The most talked about statistics is of course the gross population data which was recorded as a whopping 1,210,193,422, second highest in the world, next only to China. Every sixth person in the world is an Indian and this is taken to be a cause of massive concern from all quarters. Most reports, articles and notes seem to be attempting to mitigate the unmitigatable disaster by citing certain redeeming data like on literacy, which has gone up to 74% with male literacy at 82% and female at 65.5 %, higher life expectancy, stabilizing family sizes, etc. It is even pointed out in hushed whispers that the decadal growth of population, though a fantastic 18.14 crores, the growth rate at 17.64 % is still the lowest since 1947.
And yet in spite of these peripheral ‘good’ news the general tenor is that we need to stop breeding like rabbits to take advantage of the fantastic GDP growth on the positive end and to save the planet itself on the grimmer side. Some of us may remember that the population figure used to be displayed in the national TV channel just before the news, which itself was a litany of disaster and tragedies both natural and manmade. The steadily ticking population clock had the mesmerizing effect of an ominous time bomb ready to explode. So let us examine what ought to be our concern about the current ‘population’ trends of India.
Popular Myth 1: Population Growth is due to Unbridled Births
As seen in Table 1 the population of India has been growing every decade since 1901, except for the decade of 1911 to 1921, which witnessed a decline of 0.31 %. The population has increased over four fold in these 110 years from 23.8 crores in 1901 to 121 crores in 2011. So should we conclude that this impressive growth is the fallout of indiscriminate and uncontrolled births? Let us examine more closely. The birth rate in India actually has been declining all these years from 49.2 per 1000 in 1901 down to 20.9 per 1000 in 2011. So it cannot be merely ‘increase’ in birth rate which could be causing the increase in population. Population increase in a country is a function of the difference in birth rates and death rates and as is evident from the table there has been a very drastic decline death in death rates in these years from a high of 42.6 per 1000 down to over 6 per 1000 in 2011. Further there has been a remarkable decline in infant mortality rates in the country from 210 per 1000 births in 1901 to 48 per 1000 in 2011. Which translates to the fact that at the turn of the 20th century every fifth child died before turning 5 while at present the number has come down to 1 in 20. So the ‘disaster’ which seems to be weighing all of us down hides a remarkable improvement in demographic parameters which ought to be celebrated in any sane society. It is further evident in the average life expectancy figures which was a mere 23 years in 1911 and has increased to 65 years in these 110 years. So it seems that the rise in population is not because we have been thoughtlessly breeding like rabbits but actually because we have not been dying like flies. Our babies have a better probability to survive infancy and instead of writing our wills at 23 our grandparents are hoping for an active life well into their sixties.
The above fact has serious policy implications. Much of the efforts to control population have been to curb births through incentives and threats, and continuously there is a demand for drastic measures akin to those adopted in China or in India during the emergency period. As seen in Table 2 these measures have brought down the total fertility rates (TFR)  drastically. From around an average 6 children being born per woman in her lifetime the rate has come down to 2.6. The official target was 2.1 by 2011 which has not been achieved yet but given the trend the population is likely to stabilize in the not so distant future. But what the reassuring statistics of declining TFR does not reveal is the fact that this decline of births is not ‘indiscriminate’ but is actually biased against female children as is evident from Table 3. Over 5 million less children were registered in the 0- 6 years category in 2011 compared to 2001 census. This translates to a decline of around 3 %. But of this decline females registered a steeper decline (3.8 %) accounting for 3 million while the decline in male children was 2.42 % or around 2 million. So what accounts for this skewed decline of female children?
Popular Myth 2: Decline in Birth Rate cause for Celebration
India has one of the lowest sex ratios  in the world. The surprising fact is that the sex ratio has been declining over the last century. From around 972 females for 1000 males at the turn of the 20th century it had declined to 927 for 1000 males in 1991. The last two censuses did register a positive growth in this extremely skewed distribution – the current census puts the sex ration at 940 females per 1000 males. And yet it is way below the pattern observed in developed countries. The world average is also much higher at 990 females for 1000 males.
As is obvious from the above facts the female population is ‘unnaturally’ lower in India and this is most true for the age category 0-6 years, or Child Sex Ratio (CSR) has shown a precipitous decline and is only 914 girls for every 1000 boys. The increase in overall sex ratio is thus solely due to the age category 7 and above. So where are the missing girls of India?
Drawing from patterns observed in worldwide population sex ratio at birth, it may be concluded that without intervention (naturally born) a few more boys would be born than girls. And due to the higher life expectancy of females, the ratio evens out later with a few more females in the elderly population. If one compares the number of girls actually born to the number that would have been born if natural sex ratio prevailed then it is estimated that around 600,000 girls go missing every year . Policy initiatives, social norms, exponentially increasing living expenses put pressures for restricting the family size. And yet social practices like dowry, norms demanding birth of a son to continue familial lineage, and the general inferior status of women put a premium to the birth of a son. A combination of these factors has contributed to both lesser births of girls through sex-selective abortions and also higher female infant mortality due to selective negligence of female children, leading to an overall decline of child sex ratio.
There has been a lot of focus on female foeticide in recent years. The reason for this dramatic shift in Child Sex Ratio stems from the introduction into India of methods of prenatal sex determination, such as amniocentesis and ultrasound technology in the 1980s. After the debacle of en masse forced sterilisations during the 1970s this was part of strategy to improve health conditions for both mothers and children. But given the socio-political context, these new technologies had the unexpected option of offering couples advanced information on the sex of their future children. India’s rather liberal law on abortion, Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, which was amended in 1975, rendered the termination of a pregnancy considerably easier. The law was primarily meant to address the issue of unwanted pregnancies – foetal defect or contraception failure, as part of a comprehensive family-planning strategy. But the combination of factors mentioned above led to sex-selective abortions becoming the primary method used to alter the sex composition of children from the 1980s .
Popular Myths 3: Increase in Economic Status and Education among Mothers would Lead to improved Sex Ratio
It is estimated that during 2001-2005 approximately one foetus may have been aborted for every twenty female live births. The NFHS-3 data clearly indicate that pregnanciesreceiving ultrasound test were more likely to lead to a lower sex ratio than biologically normal sex ratio . Given the relatively high expense of an ultrasound scan, only the wealthy class has access to this facility leading to higher sex selective abortion amongst the well off. This is corroborated by the fact that the lowest sex ratio is prevalent amongst the affluent regions of this country as seen in Table 6.
The richest states in the country – Haryana, Gujarat, Punjab, Maharashtra, have abysmally low Child Sex Ratio (CSR) suggesting the prevalence of sex selective abortions in these regions; whereas some of the poorest regions of the country economically, have a CSR much above the national average of 914 girls per 1000 boys. This distorted CSR have led to a lot of advocacy groups actively campaigning against this trend including local groups, religious organisations, international bodies, the government, and women’s groups. They have been analysing this trend and suggesting for various policy and other measures to tackle it. As succinctly put by Mary E John ‘the child sex ratio has become a veritable academic and advocacy industry in its own right’ . Everybody acknowledges the situation to be grim which could lead to a demographic crisis. The solution suggested for correcting this situation focuses on tighter laws against sex-selective abortions including severe penalty for erring doctors and parents. But as John (2011) points out correctly till the extreme social bias towards male reinforced over centuries is recognised and ‘corrected’ these measures would not address the real issue. One suspects it would merely keep feeding on to the burgeoning academic-advocacy nexus even further without making a dent in the real ‘problem’. This is borne out by the fact of high mortality amongst female infants in the age group of 0-6 years especially amongst the lower economic classes.
The higher mortality risk for new born females is borne out by the findings of National Family Health Surveys. Apparently ‘in the first decade of the 21st century a girl child is about 40 % more likely to die than a male child in the first year of life, and 61 % more likely to die between first and fifth birthdays’ . The ‘unnatural’ mortality gap is enforced voluntarily by refusing access to nutrition, parental care, healthcare, and vaccination to the girl child. Apparently this gender disparity in mortality in the first 5 years of life can adequately account for all discrepancy in sex ratio at birth .
Thus whether being exterminated before birth or actively allowed to die in their infancy, girl child in India face a mountainous task merely to survive the first five years of their lives. And in spite of the ‘enormous’ development and ‘progress’ the country has witnessed in the last two decades the situation if anything has become grimmer. Most experts suggest that the ‘problem’ would be effectively addressed with increase in
prosperity and empowerment of women largely through higher level of education and employment. But statistics do not bear out these assertions as seen in Table 7a and Table 7b.
Thus two of the richest communities Jains and the Sikhs have appallingly low Child Sex Ratio. Christians and Muslims fare better than the majority community Hindu. A further break up reveals that the CSR is most equal amongst the tribal population.
Table 7b clearly indicates that, defying all common sense logic, mere increase in education level of women would not bring about a positive change in the sex ratio. Actually on the contrary the sex ratio at birth gets increasingly skewed as the education level of the mothers’ increases – probably by making sex-selective tests and abortion more accessible to the families. However uncomfortable be the data one must acknowledge the fact that adverse female proportion in population is because of complex socio-political biases accentuated over centuries and so called ‘prosperity’ and ‘modernisation’ (education, employment, technology, etc.) have actually furthered the existing imbalance against women and girl child.
To conclude one would like to reiterate that population is not merely a statistics which can be understood as an undifferentiated whole; one can only make any sense of it by analysing the various parts, the rich heterogeneity which constitute it. At the most preliminary level one needs to appreciate that population constitutes of individuals, and any civilised society can progress only when every single one of its people are considered precious, down to the last of the 1,210,193,422 that constitutes are nation. That this number, however large it may be, needs to be celebrated for what it implies – that less number of children are born each year because infant mortality has declined and children have a much higher chance of survival than a century earlier. Further, a 20 year old today is just about planning to start his/her career and not preparing to die like his/her counterpart a hundred years back. Else we are likely to enforce misinformed policies which may lead to demographic disasters like the disappearing girl child. If the present trend continues then in a few decades we are likely to face an unprecedented catastrophe. At the present rate there would be over 12 million less girls of marriageable age in two decades – which would translate to fewer males finding partners. This cycle unless corrected would get into a spiral of fewer girls born, leading to higher number of single males, leading to even fewer babies born, and this would be exponentially reinforced over and over again. In the not so distant future the country’s population would constitute of predominantly elderly males. And they would have to be supported by a shrinking population of youth, again predominantly male.
That this is very much in the realm of tangible reality can be appreciated by examining the situation in our neighbouring country China whom we seem to be keen to emulate in everything. China at present is the most populous country of the world. Demographers estimate that the fertility rate of China is currently around 1.5, much lower than the replacement rate, and in cities like Beijing and Shanghai it is as low as 0.7. Due to the government’s one-child policy, and a similar social preference for male child (like us) the sex ratio in China is one of the lowest at 840. In 2005 China had 32 million more males under 20 than females and the ratio is likely to worsen in the coming decades . Initially the drop in fertility rates worked in favour of Chinese economy. But at present economists argue that the phenomenon of fewer births is going against the interest of the economy. Apparently China already has 14 percent fewer people in their 20s compared with a decade ago and in the next 20 years the numbers will further reduce by an additional 17 percent. And concurrently the share of China’s population that is 65 and older is projected to double to 16 percent. By 2050, nearly one in four Chinese will be elderly, according to United Nations projection.
1. The Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of a population is the average number of children that would be born to a woman over her lifetime.
2. Sex Ratio is defined as the number of females per 1000 males
3. ‘India Health Care: Gendercide in India’ The Economist Intelligence Unit Limited, 11th April 2011
4. Guilmoto, C. Z. ‘Characteristics of Sex Imbalance in India, and Future Scenarios’ Fourth Asia Pacific Conference on Reproductive and Sexual Health Rights, 2007.
5. Navaneetham, K and Dharmalingam, A. ‘Demography and Development: Preliminary Interpretations of the 2011 Census’ EPW, Vol XLVI No 16, April 16th , 2011, pp 13-17.
6. John M. E. ‘Census 2011: Governing Populations and the Girl Child’ EPW Vol XLVI No 16, April 16th, 2011, pp 10-12
7. Navaneetham, K and Dharmalingam, A. ‘Demography and Development: Preliminary Interpretations of the 2011 Census’ EPW, Vol XLVI No 16, April 16th , 2011, pp 13-17
8. Oster E ‘Proximate Sources of Population Sex Imbalance in India’ Demography, Vol 42, No 2, pp 325-339
9. According to a 2009 study by The British Medical Journal quoted in ‘As China Ages, Birthrate Policy May Prove Difficult to Reverse’ New York Times, April 6, 2011.