The sex ratio numbers game

The sex ratio numbers game

If news reports are to be believed, Delhi’s sex ratio is shifting in favour of females: In 2008, 1,004 girls were born for every 1,000 boys, according to Delhi government registration data, which the articles cite.

But let’s hold the champagne. Birth registrations are a unscientific measure of sex ratio. North India’s sex ratio imbalance is a powder keg waiting to explode: The coming generation will face what can be called a bride deficit of great severity. And we should be concerned about how to track and correct that.

It is difficult to disentangle what is actually happening in Delhi. A few things are clear. Families are reporting a greater number of female births. That much we know. As of 2008, parents have a financial incentive to report female births. Many births in the Capital take place at home, outside of hospitals or clinics. These same parents may now be inclined to report female births—but not male ones.

In the spring of 2008, the Delhi government passed a scheme to financially reward families with girls. In the Ladli scheme, the state deposits about Rs1 lakh in an account for female children born into low-income communities in the Capital; the money is only accessible after the girl turns 18. It’s likely that this scheme is driving up the reporting of female births. But there might be more at play than the Ladli scheme. It is unclear how a scheme passed in the spring of 2008 can so quickly change cultural norms towards girls— especially when the data being lauded dates from 2008.

More females may very well have been born than males in the Capital, but we cannot know for sure until we see the 2011 census data.

A skewed gender ratio is a complicated thing. Foeticide is part of it, but the full story is more complicated. Infant and childhood mortality rates for females tend to be higher, suggesting that, in a household, male children receive a greater allocation of resources, or that females go neglected. Anti-foeticide campaigns—or barring sex screening, which the government does—won’t address this part of the problem.

Northern India has long suffered from dismal sex ratios. The Delhi sex ratio numbers might be cause for optimism, but we’ll have to see the census data first.

What can be done about India’s sex ratio disparity? Tell us at