Sometimes, the good news is inextricably tied up with the bad. Provisional data from Census 2011 indicate that India's population might stabilise soon with the slowing down of the growth rate. From 21.54 per cent in Census 2001, the decadal population growth fell to 17.64 per cent in 2011. In absolute terms, 2001-2011 is the first decade (if 1911-1921 is excluded) to add a smaller number to the population than the preceding decade. The other good news is that literacy rate climbed from 64.83 per cent in 2001 to 74.04 per cent in 2011. While literacy among males rose from 75.26 per cent to 82.14 per cent, an increase of 6.9 points, it rose among females from 53.67 per cent to 65.46 per cent, an increase of 11.8 points. Of the additional literates, women (110,069,001) outnumber men (107,631,940). The gap of 21.59 percentage points between men and women in 2001 now stands reduced to 16.68 points. The full census data, to be released next year, should provide policymakers a comprehensive view of where India stands on key indicators of socio-economic development, set against the goal of creating a more egalitarian and just society.

It is no surprise that the overall sex ratio (number of females for every 1,000 males) has shown improvement, from 932.91 in 2001 to 940.27 in 2011; a good part of this can be explained by the greater natural longevity of women and improvements in health care over the years. Lurking in the provisional population data, however, is a deeply disturbing set of statistics: a steep fall in the child sex ratio, which measures the number of girls for every 1,000 boys in the 0-6 years age group. The sex ratio in the 0-6 age group has been continually declining since 1961 but the fall from 927.31 in 2001 to 914.23 in 2011 is the worst since Independence. This trend and scale of decline in rising India is shocking. It can only be explained by the deadly application of the ‘son preference' on a growing scale — through the instrumentality of sex-selective abortion, or female foeticide. Attempts to tackle female foeticide through bans on sex-determination tests imposed by the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act have been largely ineffective. In his essay ‘Many faces of gender inequality' (Frontline, November 9, 2001), Amartya Sen drew on the 2001 Census data to highlight the fact that India split into two when it came to the sex ratio in the 0-6 age group: the South and the East had a decent ratio while the entire North and the West revealed a deeply disturbing picture. Even though the regional split concealed many micro-level variations, the contrast was striking. It would be interesting to see if the same regional pattern continues in the 2011 Census but the overall child sex ratio data, which throw sharp light on social mores, are depressing.

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