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Not long ago, we learned that India has finally joined the ranks of “developed" countries in this particular sense: we have more women than men.

I’ll let that sink in. Meanwhile, why is this a feature of “developed" countries? Because it’s just human reality that women will likely live longer than men. Put another way, if a boy and a girl are born simultaneously, the girl can expect to outlive the boy: females’ life expectancy at birth is higher than males’. There are various reasons and explanations for this that I won’t get into. But one result is that absent any other relevant factors, a given country will likely have more female citizens than male.

Only, that absence of relevant factors is not as widespread as you might think. The poorer and less educated the country, the greater the preference for boy babies over girls, the less girls are nourished and educated compared to boys, the more they can expect other forms of mistreatment. These are broad generalizations, of course, and ones I also won’t get into. But they do hold, and their impact is enormous.

India has long been a poorer and less educated country than many others. Thus those generalizations apply to us, and the result is that we have long had fewer women than men. We quantify that statement with our sex ratio, usually expressed as the number of females for every 1,000 males. For years, that number has been in the 900s. The 2001 Census showed it was 933; by 2011 it had increased to 943 (bit.ly/3EZpntl).

Let that sink in too. For given those figures, the recent headlines, about more women than men, should come as something of a surprise. They are from the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5, 2019-21, bit.ly/32LXVSZ). Among much else, the Survey says we now have 1,020 females to every 1,000 males. To compare, NFHS-5 reminds us of the sex ratio the previous Survey (NFHS-4, 2015-16) found: 991.

So we have these four data points: 2001, 933; 2011, 943; 2016, 991; 2021, 1,020.

These numbers deserve, at a minimum, scrutiny and questions. Especially when we saw a rise of just 10 between 2001 and 2011, what explains that jump of nearly 50 between 2011 and 2016? What explains the rise of nearly 30 between 2016 and today? But before trying to answer such questions, let’s look at just what these jumps actually suggest; specifically, the most recent one.

In 2016, India’s population was 1.32 billion. If the sex ratio then was 991 females to 1,000 males, that means that of every 1,991 Indians, 991 were female. Thus, the number of female Indians in 2016 was: 1.32 billion x 991/1991, or 657 million. Which of course means the number of males in India that year was 663 million.

Cut to today, when our population is about 1.39 billion. We can do the same calculation with that figure and the NFHS-5 sex ratio of 1,020 females to 1,000 males. Thus we find that the number of females is 702 million and the number of males is 688 million.

Compare the 2016 numbers to 2021 numbers. If this NFHS data is accurate, the number of females in India increased by 45 million (702-657) while the number of males increased by only 25 million (688-663). That is, the growth in the number of women in those five years was almost twice the growth in the number of men.

This is so startling that it practically cries out for an explanation. So what can possibly explain such a dramatic difference in this period? For example, were far more girls than boys born in India between 2016 and 2021?

There’s something else in the NFHS data that is relevant to that question: the sex ratio at birth. It’s invariably offered in the same way—the number of girl babies born for every 1,000 boys. NFHS-4 of 2015-16 reported that figure as 919; five years later, NFHS-5 reports it is 929. Certainly that’s an improvement. Even so, what both numbers tell us is that India sees fewer—not more—girls than boys being born every year.

Once again, we can do some calculations to underline that reality. In 2021, India’s birth rate was 1.7377%, meaning there were about 24.15 million babies (1.7377% of 1.39 billion) born through the year. Of every 1,929 of those, 929 were girls. Thus, the year saw about 11.63 million girls and 12.52 million boys born: close to a million more boys than girls. If we do the same calculations for each year going back to 2016, we will get broadly similar figures. In 2016, when the birth rate was 1.8636%, 11.78 million girls and 12.82 million boys were born: about a million fewer girl babies, again.

That is, over the last five years, India added to its population by birth alone about 58 million girls and 63 million boys: an excess of five million boys. Yet, the sex ratio data we calculated above says that in those same five years, India added to its population a total of 45 million females and just 25 million males. Do the arithmetic to arrive at an even more startling discrepancy: we lost 13 million females in those years, but 38 million males.

Ask again, what can possibly explain such a dramatic difference? Was there a sex-selective pandemic that wiped out far more men than women? Did we fight a major war and lose millions of men, like several European countries did between 1914 and 1918? Or were men suddenly dying earlier and at a faster clip than women? Were women suddenly living even longer lives than men?

Any of these might have explained the difference, at least in part. But any of these would also have been major news. Only, there’s been nothing like it. No outbreak of mainly-male deaths, no war, definitely no surge in births of girls.

Which leaves us with the only reasonable conclusion: something is amiss in this NFHS data. Either the 2016 number is wrong, or the 2021 number is wrong. Or both are wrong. My guess is, both. That’s because much the same sex ratio calculation for the five years between 2011 and 2016—the leap of nearly 50 females—will cast much the same shadow on the 2016 number, especially when compared to the far lower increase of just 10 females between 2001 and 2011.

There’s plenty more to pore over in the NFHS data, as there always is in any detailed population data. For example, NFHS-5 reports that India’s total fertility ratio (TFR)—the number of babies a woman will give birth to in her life, on average—fell below “replacement level", to 2.0. Now, this is a welcome and significant demographic milestone. But it does not mean what some headlines reported: “India’s population has started to decline" (bit.ly/3zueZIV). Instead, it means the growth in India’s population is levelling off and will eventually decline to zero. Only after that will the population itself start to decline.

Two broader points to round this off: large populations like ours don’t change demographic character dramatically in a time as short as five years. Therefore, consider any startling changes with extreme scepticism.

Once a computer scientist, Dilip D’Souza now lives in Mumbai and writes for his dinners. His Twitter handle is @DeathEndsFun

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