A new India, but old worries persist

A new India, but old worries persist

The first set of results of the 2011 Census is a mixed bag on new India: a cause for worry and a reason to be pleased.

On the one hand, it shows that the transition of India—with a population of 1.21 billion—to a younger population profile is on course, nearly three out of four Indians are literate, and the gender gap in literacy is narrowing rapidly. At the same time, the 15th census shows that the practice of female foeticide is on the rise, and worse, is now no longer confined necessarily to a clutch of states or to particular income classes, signalling that it may be time for a radical review of existing public policy that sought to reverse the trend of the declining sex ratio.

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Similarly, the continued growth in population, which bumped up population density to 382 persons per sq. km, is a reminder that policy responses, especially in urban areas, to address constraints in transport and housing can no longer be business as usual.

The provisional data was released by census commissioner C. Chandramouli in the capital on Thursday. It showed that the decadal rate of growth of population decelerated further to 17.64% and that the gap with China, the world’s most populous country, narrowed to 131 million in 2011 compared to 238 million in 2001.

The Census, a once-in-a-decade effort and conducted for the first time in 1872, canvassed at least a billion people, spanning 28 states and seven Union territories, 7,742 towns and 608,786 villages, using questionnaires drafted in 18 languages, and involved 2.7 million personnel.

The data roll-out will continue over the next two years with the next batch focusing on the rural-urban population profile, gradually unravelling the changing socioeconomic fabric of a country that has seen rapid economic growth in the last decade expanding its gross domestic product to $1.7 trillion (Rs75.99 trillion).

The big question was whether this was accompanied by a social transformation, particularly in overcoming prejudices. While the overall sex ratio of the country improved by seven points since Census 2001 to 940 in Census 2011—the highest since 1971—it was overshadowed by the continued decline in child sex ratio (for the age group 0-6 years), dropping by 13 points to 914; internationally, a ratio of 950 is considered acceptable. That is, while the sex ratio, females per 1,000 males, has increased for the entire population, it has continued to decline for the category of 0-6 years.

This is the outcome of two phenomena. The improvement in overall sex ratio is because women are now beginning to outlive men. On the other hand, the decline in child sex ratio is primarily because of pre-natal sex selection and the relatively high mortality rate for female children—while for male children it is 64 per 1,000, it is 73 per 1,000 for females.

According to Marc Derveeuw of the United Nations Population Fund, the declining trend continues to point to discrimination against girls, “though there are some improvements in the child sex ratio in some states such as Punjab and Haryana. However, this improvement in ratios in these states is still far below the normal mark."

A disconcerting feature was that in states such as Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Goa, the situation went from bad to worse, while in those such as Andhra Pradesh it reversed from a healthy situation to drop below the national average.

More worrying is that declining child sex ratios are now spreading to other states. Demographers such as Saraswati Raju, professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, believe that easier availability of technology is the prime reason and that this is not necessarily confined to the higher income groups.

Interestingly, this trend is despite the fact that the country has in the last decade witnessed a big jump in literacy levels. While literacy rates for males was up to 82.14%, it was 65.46% for females. More significantly, the gender gap in literacy narrowed. Out of a total of 217.7 million literates added in the decade, females at 110.1 million outnumbered men at 107.6 million. As a result, the gap between male and female literacy has come down in 2011—states with a gap of less than 10% include Nagaland, Mizoram, Tripura, Meghalaya and Kerala.

“In the last one decade, women’s literacy has increased more than male literacy in terms of percentage points," said Narendra Jadhav, member, Planning Commission. “This is great news and we hope it will gradually change the education scenario of the country. India needs more women in classrooms."

Arguing similarly, Vinod Raina, an education expert, said women doing well on the literacy front indicates that efforts to bridge the male-female literacy gap were moving in the right direction. “Though states like Bihar are still behind the national average, they have shown commitment to do well in education. I think by the next census, you will see a paradigm change in literacy, especially female literacy."


Radhieka Pandeya and Prashant Nanda contributed to this story.