Despite having lower literacy rates than “others”, scheduled caste households have higher sex ratios, and tribals the highest of all, newly released Census data shows.

While census data is not yet available by religious group, the primary data of scheduled castes and scheduled tribes was made available by the office of the Registrar General of India and Census Commissioner on Monday.

The data shows that although the numbers are improving, scheduled castes, who comprise 16.6% of the population, and scheduled tribes, who make up 8.6% of the population, have lower literacy rates than the Indian average. The literacy rate for female STs is still under 50% and just 57% for SC women, while the numbers are slightly higher for men.

Yet despite the common belief that education will improve attitudes to female children, the data shows that India’s least educated social groups are those with better sex ratios. The child sex ratio (girls for every 1000 boys aged 1-6) is 957 for STs and 933 for SCs as compared to 910 for “others”. In urban areas, the child sex ratio of the non-scheduled caste, non-tribal population is just over 900, meaning there are 100 less girls for every 1000 boys.

Better sex ratios among tribals could reflect a combination of positive and negative factors; cultural gender parity as well as lack of access to pre-natal diagnostic technology. Dr. Abhay Bang, the award-winning doctor and social activist from Gadchiroli in Maharashtra who is a member of the central government’s new High-Level Committee on Status of Tribal Communities, says that both factors could co-exist. “It is true that there is no social bias against women in tribal communities such as there exists among the middle castes, especially landed ones. Women can ask for a divorce, and in many communities, money is paid to the girl’s family at the time of marriage,” Dr. Bang told The Hindu. Simultaneously, most tribal communities either do not know of pre-natal sex determination, or do not have access to it, Dr. Bang said. “But among more educated tribals, those who get government jobs, sex selection has begun,” he said.

Similarly, the female work participation rate – the proportion of women who are in the workforce – which is considered an indicator of female empowerment, is highest among STs, followed by SCs and then “others”. In fact, the proportion of female STs in the workforce is nearly double that of women in the “other” category; 44% as against 23%.

Social group Child sex ratio Sex ratio Effective female literacy rate (in %) Females in workforce (in %)
ST 957 990 49.35% 43.49%
SC 933 945 56.46% 28.30%
Others 910 937 68.19% 22.76%
India 919 943 64.64% 25.51%

Within caste groups, location matters. The child sex ratio among SCs is far lower in states like Haryana, Punjab and Delhi which have low sex ratios for all social groups. Within these states, however SCs do better than other social groups. Similarly, the literacy rate of SCs in Kerala is higher than that of “others” in Bihar.

The new numbers also show that tribals are undergoing a massive occupational change. While there has been a fall in the proportion of people working as cultivators and a rise in agricultural labour across the country, this shift is most marked in the case of STs. Nearly 10 lakh fewer tribals reported being cultivators in 2011 as compared to ten years ago, while there were 73 lakh more tribal agricultural labourers.

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