Last week, two widows were beaten to death in Ranila village in Bhiwani district of Haryana. They were allegedly murdered by the nephew of one of the deceased women, apparently because he suspected the two to be in a lesbian relationship.
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There is more to the incident than just than the obvious disquieting facts: It happened in Haryana, which holds the dubious record of the worst child sex ratio in the country; it occurred in a state ruled by the Congress party, a key proponent for women’s rights; and apparently the incident happened in the presence of some of the villagers.
The incident, once shorn of its dramatic nature, highlights a social problem, which so far we have preferred to ignore. Now, all of this may be about to change.
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The country’s demography, with respect to gender, is undergoing a transition for the last three decades. What is happening is that women have begun to outlive men. While the global norm is that women outlive men, in India it was, for a host of reasons, reversed till about the mid-1980s. Initially the change was incremental, but the trend has gradually accelerated. The 2010 census will in all likelihood-when the detailed data is put out-confirm this enduring trend.
So what will happen now, assuming the practice of women marrying men at least 5-10 years older stays, is that there will be more widows. So far, public policy has struggled to deal with the problem of widowhood, often leaving it to society and its prejudices. Documentary film-maker Pankaj Butalia showed us in his compelling documentary, Moksha (1993), the fate of the abandoned widows of Vrindavan and the devastating consequences for a society living in denial. The unsavoury episode in Haryana suggests that their fate can be worse.
The problem, if viewed in the present, may not seem alarming. True, but that is because at the moment, the Indian population is very young-60% estimated to be less than 35 years of age-and longevity is gradually improving as mortality in higher age groups declines. Once the demographic dividend—a phenomenon where the bulk of the population is in the working age group—has been harvested, the problem could be acute, especially given the absolute numbers of India’s population—currently estimated at 1.21 billion. We may still be 20-30 years from the problem peaking.
The life expectancy tables put out by the office of the census commissioner are revealing. While the sex ratios at birth, due to reasons well discussed, tend to be skewed against the girl child, the gender balance corrects in later years when the biologically stronger women start to correct this imbalance.
Given that women tend to marry older men, any comparison of life expectancy across gender should factor for this. Accordingly, one has taken the benchmark of life expectancy for men at 60 years and 50 for women; the more pedantic among us can do a fine tuning with a five-year gap, but will (have checked with a demographer) throw up a similar outcome.
The life expectancy tables show that in 1970-75, 13.4% males aged 60-plus years would survive, while the proportion would be 21.3% of women aged 50-plus; in the period 2002-06, the survival proportion for the respective age groups for men was 16.7%, and 26.9% for women.
Two distinctive trends stand out: One, both genders have improved their longevity. Second, the improvement in the survival rate of women is better than that of men, implying that the gap between the two demographies has widened.
This trend is unlikely to be reversed. What it then implies is that we are potentially looking at, for the want of a better phrase, the widowing of India. Is public policy prepared to address the issue? There is no visible action.
And, ghastly anecdotal tales such as the episode in Haryana suggest that rural society is just not prepared to address the problem or prefers to live in denial. The outlook in urban India could be no better. Growing atomistic families means that the social back-up that came with joint families cannot be taken for granted.
Like in the case of missing daughters (the abysmal, skewed child sex ratio against girls), Haryana has, thanks to the dubious acts of some of its populace, once again served up a fresh policy challenge to the country. The issue is whether a government so besieged in the short run and busy putting out political fires would have the bandwith to address the problem.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics.
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