If the central or state governments decide to heed to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Independence Day exhortations to “come forward under different schemes" to address what he referred to as a “population explosion", they will in all likelihood be contributing to a further worsening of India’s already poor sex ratio.

Even in its natural course, the decline of family sizes in India—with richer, healthier and better-educated families deciding to have fewer children—has gone hand in hand with a worsening of the sex ratio.

Economist Seema Jayachandran has found that the decline in fertility explains one-third to one-half of the recent increase in India’s sex ratio in favour of boys. Data from the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) 2015-16 indicates that families where a son is born are more likely to stop having children than families where a girl is born. Girls are far more likely to be a part of large families, while boys are much more likely to be part of single-child or smaller-sized families. The male-biased Indian sex ratio at birth is distinctly sharpened for the last child of the family.

This is not a trend that occurs naturally. As a comparison made in the 2017-18 Economic Survey with Indonesia shows, sex ratios in a population do not normally change significantly with birth order, signalling that there is something “unnatural" going on with Indian fertility.

Some of this could be attributed to families that continue to have children until they have as many sons as they would like. However, in-utero sex selection definitely plays a part, too. With the spread of ultrasound technology that can be used for prenatal sex determination, the likelihood that third and fourth order births would be girls in families that had not yet had a son declined sharply after the mid-1980s, research by economists Sonia Bhalotra and Tom Cochrane finds.

By the mid-1990s, ultrasound access was more widespread, but the desire for small families was growing, too. As a result of these two phenomena, families were no longer waiting for third and fourth births to intervene and even second order births began to be less likely to be those of girls.

Whether population control is introduced through coercion or through incentives, in patriarchal societies it leads to a worsening of the sex ratio, research shows.

Using Chinese census data, Avraham Ebenstein found that areas in China that enforced fines for second births more strictly during the one-child policy regime had lower fertility but worse sex ratios than areas that enforced fines less strictly. A scheme launched by the Haryana government in 2002 offered financial incentives to families that had fewer children, with the highest cash incentive to those having only one daughter, and a lower amount to those having only one son, or only two daughters. The result was a decline in fertility as evidenced by the share of families with only one child, economist S. Anukriti found. However, this decline was driven almost entirely by families having only one boy.

There was no increase in families having only one daughter, despite the financial incentives being highest for this outcome. There was also no consistently significant increase in families having only two daughters, despite the financial benefits for such families being the same as for those having only one boy.

The scheme did encourage smaller families, but only among those who were able to have only one son.

In general, families tend not to sex select before their first child, research by Sonia Bhalotra shows. Only if the first child is a girl, the likelihood of sex selection rises prior to the second birth.

However, Anukriti’s research shows that, families began to sex select even before the birth of the first child, due to the introduction of financial incentives for having just one child, coupled with latent preference for sons in the Indian society. This resulted in a worsening of the state’s sex ratio at birth.

Even schemes with less mass impact than that in Haryana have had similar effects. Starting with Rajasthan in 1992, several states began to enact laws debarring candidates with more than two children from contesting local body elections. Anukriti and economist Abhishek Chakravarty looked at eight such states and found that the laws did reduce fertility, but this came at the cost of a worsening sex ratio, as families tried to ensure their future eligibility for public office, while still having their desired number of sons. India is moving swiftly towards achieving replacement fertility and its cities are already coming face to face with extremely low fertility.

Population control schemes will only seek to worsen the sex ratio, even as growth and development are already lowering fertility, making the task of “Beti Bechao" more challenging than it is today.

Rukmini S. is a Chennai-based journalist.

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