Bringing daughters is viewed as a liability and sons are preferred as the saviours of seven generations of ancestors. A rising economic power whose success may end in missing daughters.

The 15th census enumeration in India has produced interesting results. The 2011 census provisional data shows that while population has increased, the growth (of population) has reduced. Some 181 million people have been added in the last 10 years but the rate of growth has been slower than the previous census — 17.6 % as against 21.5 %. However, we are still overpopulated as the overall population of 1.21 billion is big and more than the population of a couple of countries combined together.

The sex ratio has actually improved, earlier there were 933 women to every 1000 men; now there are 940. The change is marginal but appreciable. However, the happiness in noting this will not remain for long. If not in the next decade but after two more decades, the census would show an abysmal sex ratio disfavouring women. This is because there are fewer girl children now and their number is on the decrease.

The 2011 census shows that the sex ratio among children (0-6 years) has touched an all-time low. It has declined to 914 female children for every 1000 male; it was 927 during the previous census. But then, this has been the trend seen since 1961, every census shows a reduction in the girl child compared with the previous one. This is not “this census specific” but more a recurring and continuing trend. It is pronounced in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Mizoram and the Andaman and Nicobar Islands, the other States are better. Boys continue to be preferred and daughters remain unwanted. The technological improvement and boom that the country has seen over the last years seem to have aided in eliminating (unwanted) female foetuses/babies. It also points to inadequacy in getting appropriate legislation and in implementing those which are already there.

There has been an overall increase in literacy — since the last count, from 65 % to 74 %. The female literacy rate has improved too. But then the gender imbalance remains — 82.14 % men are literate compared with 65.46 % women. Also, the increase in the literacy rate that this census shows has not been able to achieve a balance in the sex ratio among children. Being literate, of course, is not the same as being educated.

Will the changes that are enumerated get reflected in the society we live in? Could this be advantageous to the girls? It would, if the Rational Choice Theory, propounded by Gary Becker, Economics Nobel Winner, is applied. Becker would expect to see changes in the patterns of behaviour within society; the patterns would be the result of the choices that the girls make. The assumption are that since the girls would be in short supply, they would be able to make the choices, based on the principle of maximising benefits and minimising costs.

In the long run, ceteris paribus (all things being equal) the girls would be more in demand than boys. The girls could demand bride price and also insist that the boy's family incur the cost at weddings. There would also be more inter-caste, interreligious marriages. The boys from the northern States, where the gender ratio is more skewed than in the south (other than Tamil Nadu), will marry the southern girls, the choice of course would rest with the girls.

A heartening factor

That the girls, especially from the poorer sections, can make choices is by itself a heartening factor, a rosy dream. But the socio-cultural ethos is strongly etched in the psyche of the girls that it would be next to impossible to apply the cost-benefit ratio, and turn the situation to their personal advantage. Anyway, economic theories such as those of Becker may not find their roots in our real life Indian contexts.

Economic theories apart, does this actually find resonance in the Indian situation? The system being patriarchal in character, its norms would leave little choice to the girls to decide for themselves.

The reduction in girl population is not because of the natural population divide but a state that is arrived through conscious choices and the anti-girl child gender bias. Gender inequality is a burden on societies and is often socially determined. Ironically, and this is the paradox that it is the modern and globalised society that is promoting heinous practices like female foeticide, sex detection tests and induced abortions of female foetuses. Bringing daughters is viewed as a liability and sons are preferred as the saviours of seven generations of ancestors. A rising economic power whose success may end in missing daughters.

(The writer is a development professional and has worked on governance and decentralisation issues, as a consultant to various national and international organisations. She holds a Ph.D in Development Studies from the University of Mysore. Email: mayasitaram @gmail.com)

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