India’s economic transformation and growth have received much media attention in recent times. However, another major transformation in Indian society, which has received much less attention, is the demographic transition that the country has been undergoing since the 1960s. While the death rate has been falling steeply since 1911, the country’s birth rate, too, has started falling steeply since 1961. India’s fertility rate has declined from around six children per woman in 1961 to 2.7 today. As a result, the population growth rate—which increased secularly between 1911 and 1971—has been falling since then. Of course, given population momentum, the country’s population should continue to grow, albeit at a progressively diminishing rate, before levelling off sometime in the middle of this century.
Illustration: Jayachandran / Mint
Unfortunately, the falling fertility rate has been accompanied by another disturbing trend: a falling juvenile sex ratio. The ratio of females to males aged 0-6 has been declining quite sharply over the last three decades, from 964 females aged 0-6 per 1,000 males of the same age in 1971 to 927 in 2001. While many countries around the world have a small imbalance in their juvenile sex ratios for biological reasons— such as a biological tendency for more male than female babies to be born to compensate for the slightly higher risk of mortality among newborn boys—the imbalance in India is acute, and is most likely the reflection of three major behavioural factors: First, it is indicative of prenatal sex selection by parents, whereby the parents choose to abort female foetuses based on prenatal ultrasounds. Second, it also reflects higher rates of infant and child mortality among females. Some of this may be attributable to infanticide, but most of it is likely the result of parental neglect of female children in terms of food and healthcare allocation. Finally, an imbalanced juvenile sex ratio can also arise when parents use contraceptives differentially, depending upon the sex composition of their existing children, such as using contraceptives only after having had a son. All three behaviours reflect a strong cultural preference among Indian parents for sons over daughters. The low and declining juvenile sex ratio in the country is a matter of grave policy concern, not only because it violates the human rights of unborn and infant girls but also because it deprives the country of the potential economic and social contribution of these “missing women”. Some have estimated the number of “missing”—unborn or prematurely dead—females in India to be as high as 37 million.
Much of the literature on Indian sex ratios has focused on a north-south dichotomy. This literature has argued that the northern and western regions of the country not only have more rigid norms of female seclusion— particularly related to participation in economic activities outside the home—but also have marriage customs, such as large dowry payments, that make female children economic burdens on families. In contrast, women in the south and the east enjoy greater autonomy and higher social status within the family. These cultural differences manifest themselves in the form of lower sex ratios at birth in the northern and western states than in the southern and eastern states.
The data is broadly consistent with these predicted patterns, but the picture is more nuanced. For instance, the phenomenon of low juvenile sex ratios has become more pervasive over time, and has spread to states in the south and east. States which had more balanced sex ratios—Orissa, Gujarat, Maharashtra and even Tamil Nadu—than the northern states have, more recently, seen large declines in their juvenile sex ratios. What is most worrisome is that every major state in the country, other than Kerala, saw its juvenile sex ratio decline between 1991 and 2001.
Which policy interventions are likely to improve the juvenile sex ratio in India? The outlawing of prenatal sex determination tests and sex-selective abortions is an obvious policy response; one that has already been legislated in India, as sex selection tests are illegal under the 1994 Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex-Selection) Act. Unfortunately, this has done little to stop sex-selective abortions from taking place. Enforcement of the law is weak and there are loopholes in it that allow clinics and doctors to continue performing sex determination tests. With the root cause of imbalanced sex ratios being a strong preference for sons among Indian parents, simply outlawing sex selection tests is likely to achieve little.
One might assume that improving literacy and schooling among Indian women would work to reduce the parental preference for sons. However, the evidence is not encouraging. If anything, much of the evidence points to a worsening of the juvenile sex ratio with increased female education and literacy. A possible explanation for this has to do with the negative effect of female literacy on fertility. Educated women tend to have fewer children than less educated women, and in the context of a strong son-preference culture, the lower levels of fertility lead to greater pressure on couples to have boys instead of girls. This relationship between fertility decline and lower juvenile sex ratios has been observed in other countries with strong son-preferences, such as South Korea and China.
Recent research suggests that a number of public health interventions at the village level—increased availability of public health centres, community health workers and clean drinking water—are likely to improve the juvenile sex ratio, particularly in villages and regions where the ratios are especially imbalanced. However, these interventions do not have the same effect—and sometimes have the opposite effect—in villages where the sex ratio is more balanced.
In addition, it is important to recognize that one of the reasons sons are preferred is that, historically, inheritance laws in India, especially among Hindus, have favoured sons over daughters. Hindu inheritance customs were codified into law in a Bill enacted in 1956 that provided the right of inheriting ancestral property only to males. It is widely believed that some of the worst manifestations of gender discrimination in India, such as female foeticide and dowry, can be traced to biased inheritance laws favouring sons.
In 1975, Kerala was the first state in the country to change its inheritance laws to provide women the right to inherit ancestral property. During the last two decades, states such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu have also changed their inheritance laws. In 2004, Parliament introduced and passed the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Bill, which removed the discriminatory provisions of the 1956 Act, and gave daughters a right to their parents’ property.
What is needed to combat the scourge of low juvenile sex ratios is a package of interventions that includes more equal inheritance laws, improved health facilities and public health interventions in villages having the most imbalanced sex ratios, and an educational curriculum at the primary and middle school levels that highlights the importance of equal treatment of boys and girls in the family. Even with such a package, it will take years for attitudes to change and for the practice of prenatal sex selection and neglect of female children to end.
One thing is clear, however: Unless India manages to reverse the decline in the juvenile sex ratio, its demographic transition will remain incomplete.
Anil B. Deolalikar is associate dean of social sciences and a professor of economics at the University of California, Riverside. Comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org