While the figures of the child (0-6 age group) sex ratio do not seem surprising, one would have expected some improvement with greater education and participation of women in the workforce.
After 2001, the sex ratio at birth trends available to us from sample registration system data were showing a turnaround. This was expected to translate into better child sex ratios (CSRs). Given improvements in education and female labour force participation, one expected some improvement in how society values girls and women.
However, anecdotal evidence on sex selective abortions has been showing that the PNDT (pre-natal diagnostic techniques) legislation has not had much effect on this activity. Despite the legislation, sex determination technologies are most likely available even more easily and widely then during the last decade. At the same time, factors affecting the child sex ratio negatively—increasing prosperity and spread of dowry—have also been on an expansionary course. Fertility decline can also be a factor in certain states which has led to such poor CSRs.
The important point to note here is the improving trend in the north, where traditionally the worst offenders have been located. Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh and Delhi have all shown an improvement. In the west, Gujarat has improved while Tamil Nadu in the south has also shown improvement. Gujarat and Tamil Nadu have behaviour very similar to the northern states so one is not that surprised.
The worrying trend is the spread of negative CSRs in the rest of the country—this had already begun in 2001 when 29 out of 35 states and Union territories had shown a decline. This time around, 24 out of 35 show a decline with one (Mizoram) showing no change.
The tribal-dominated states all show a decline; in the past, scheduled tribes have always had robust sex ratios. The east and North-East also show declines.
There may be concerns about the robustness of the data for some states—Jammu and Kashmir, for instance, shows the most whopping decline of 78 points. Lakshadweep and some other small territories show a steep decline. Declines in earlier robust states—Nagaland, Sikkim, Manipur, Tripura—have to be studied more closely, especially since the North-East was never afflicted with this particular malady due to matrilineal or cognatic systems of inheritance.
The climb back up to normal child sex ratios is going to be harder if the declines remain long-lasting. India faces different contexts of daughter discrimination and daughter elimination; these have to be understood and addressed.
As for economics being unable to influence social prejudices, I have argued that it is most likely the emerging middle class that tends to sex select the most. In the short run, new prosperity is likely to result in family practices and strategies aimed at reducing the number of girls.
On the flip side, widespread improvements in education and female labour force participation will eventually reduce dowry and impact CSRs positively.
The trend throws up challenges to public policy, which include improving the overall value of women.
Though laws may act as a deterrent, they do not change behaviour very easily. The causes of daughter devaluation are structural translating into cultural. Old-age security for parents may be one policy that decreases daughter discrimination very fast.
We need to focus more on factors/policies that improve the overall value of girls/women. Education, equal inheritance, old-age support for parents are some key elements. We need to improve infrastructure for public health delivery—perhaps the improvement in Tamil Nadu can partially be attributed to this.
The author is professor of sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.
As told to Ruhi Tewari.