According to census 2011 the sex ratio of children 0-6 showed a decline from 927 in 2001 to 914 in 2011. (The normal sex ratio is around 950 girls to boys i.e. biologically, at birth, for every 1000 boys born, about 5 percent less girls are born). This declining 0-6 sex ratio would suggest that the gender bias is getting worse. The Census 2011 also collected information on the sex ratio at birth for children born in the previous 12 months, February 2010 to February 2011. But this information has not been released. Until then, we need to look for other sources of data to corroborate the possibility of a turnaround in India’s sex ratio at birth (SRB).
However, we have an alternate source of data on the sex ratio at birth — the periodic, large sample consumer expenditure surveys conducted by the NSS (the very same surveys used to calculate poverty). The NSS data which is found to be reasonably accurate, observe the SRB in the 2009-10 survey at a stunning level of 978 — that is, no aggregate problem with sex-selection. The NSS data shows sex ratio, 0-364 days, for the last decade: a level of 977 in 2009-10 compared to 901 in 1999-2000. The sample size of the NSS data, of 125,000 households, is large. And when the NSS does produce figures comparable to the census, they closely match it (for example, the NSS and census figures for the child sex ratio in 2001 and 2011 are almost identical). So it might be possible that the sex ratio has begun to change recently in ways which has not been captured by the census. Of course, this does not mean that there is no discrimination against girl child or there is no female foeticide. But it DOES mean that going forward, this problem will be less. This number is a pleasant and welcome surprise.
The possible reasons for this welcome change has been investigated by Sociologist Ravinder Kaur (of IIT Delhi) and economist Surjit Bhalla.
There was a steep decline in sex ratio after 1991 which peaked around 2005. It was due to a number of factors. With rapid growth, large numbers of Indians emerged out of poverty and entered the lower tiers of the middle class. This was the emerging middle class with annual income from Rs. 90,000 to Rs. 1,70,000 per year of a family of five at today's price. Sex determination technologies came within reach of this emerging middle class. Another factor was rapid fertility decline. This emerging middle class has the most at stake in consolidating its new status and uses the family as a vehicle of upward mobility. This emerging middle class is present both in rural and urban areas. It employs several strategies to move up. It shapes the family by reducing the number of children and engineering its gender composition — making sure more boys than girls are born. It educates the boys and sends them to urban areas or into salaried professional occupations. It demands handsome dowries. Daughters have little or no place in their grand design. The main culprit for the female foeticide and sex-selective abortion is this class, according to the authors. This emerging middle class has all access to technology, is upwardly mobile, financially more secure, and thus feel it easy to use modern technology for sex selection. In 2000, the size of this emerging middle class is estimated to have been 68% of total population. But, their proportion has declined to about 41% in 2011.
But, with more economic development, more and more people emerge from this emerging middle class and move up in the bracket. They can be called the matured middle class with income above Rs. 1,70,000 a year for a family of five. Ms Kaur’s research in five Indian states finds this richer middle-class families are no longer using sons as vehicles for upward mobility. In this class, the girls get the same education as boys and boys don't do as expected by them. This has broken many myths about gender stereotyping. For example, in Punjab, a generation of sons are reported to be lost to drug addiction and we find more and more girls who "care", and offer the elusive old-age support that sons were wanted in the first place for. A combination of female education, the spread of “modern” social attitudes through television, government policies and a dawning sense that daughters are more likely than sons to look after parents in old age are all having a cumulative effect. This is persuading the richer parts of the middle class that girls are as valuable as boys.
This matured middle class is found to NOT practice sex-selection. The good thing is that, the size of this class has increased from a miniscule proportion in mid-1990's to 27% in 2005 and to a good 50% in 2011. This would suggest that the sex ratio at birth should improve from its very low depths observed just a few years ago.
We need more census data to make a definitive claim on this issue. But, many regional data have appeared that substantiate the claim that India is actually reducing sex selection in this matured middle class. So, for example, Monica Das Gupta of the World Bank points out that the 2011 census shows the sex ratio is beginning to return to normal in Punjab and Haryana, states where sex-selective abortion used to be common, but which now report big changes in attitudes to girls. These are rich states with many mature middle-class families. Meanwhile, in nearby Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan and Maharashtra, the sex ratio is getting worse. These are states with more of the emerging middle classes. Because there are many such states and some, like Uttar Pradesh, are huge, they explain why the national child sex ratio became more distorted in 2001-11.
When the 2011 census appeared, many of us were quite sad that the whole country was going the way of Punjab and Haryana. That appears to be unduly pessimistic. The distortions in the newly offending states are small compared with those that once gripped Punjab and Haryana. India’s efforts to cut sex selection may be starting to pay off, after all.
And we can thank the education-and equality of the sexes-oriented middle class for this turnaround. And maybe the next time the UN, and others, bemoan gender inequality in India, they will recognize the India of the present and the future, and not of the past.