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India’s Missing Millions

Edited by: Lavanya Goswami


In April 2023, the United Nations announced that India had overtaken China to become the most populous country in the world. While India’s population touches a new milestone, the sex ratio at birth remains concerningly low. The sex ratio refers to the ratio of males to females in a population. In India, the sex ratio at birth is measured as the number of females born for every 1000 males. This piece discusses the significance of this ratio and why this gap is a cause for concern.


According to data published by the National Family Health Surveys (NFHS-5), for the period of 2019-2021, the average child sex ratio is 929 females for every 1000 males. While this figure is an improvement from the NFHS-4 for the period of 2015-2016 of 919 females for every 1000 males, it remains significantly more skewed towards boys than the global average, as shown in the infographic below, which measures the number of newborn boys for every 100 newborn girls.




Especially concerning is the situation in the states of Goa, Jharkhand, Himachal Pradesh and Chandigarh, which witnessed a decrease in the proportion of females between the two periods, slipping below the critical point of 900 females/1000 males. This is in addition to the ratios in the states of Haryana, Rajasthan and Telangana, which despite showing slight improvement, continue to remain below the level of 900 females per 1000 males. A research study conducted by Pew Research Centre, based on data published by the Union government estimated the foeticide of at least 9 million females between 2000 and 2019.


Cultural, religious and societal preference for boys has ruled, in spite of the efforts made by the government through schemes like the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign and the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act to prevent pre-natal sex determination and hence sex selective abortions. Parents expect sons, but not daughters, to provide financial care, especially in their old age. The male child is seen as adding to family wealth and property while daughters are seen as draining it through dowries. Sons can continue the family lineage while daughters are married away - “paraya”. Sons are always seen as an intrinsic part of the family, the ones who carry forward a family’s legacy, while daughters eventually leave the family.


Causes and Implications

A skewed sex ratio has implications that go beyond just ethical and societal concerns. There is vast literature proving that an uneven sex ratio can have far reaching economic consequences, especially because it is usually a by-product of the cultural preference for boys over girls. A substantial portion of the female population remains excluded from the labor force. This means that women, who comprise nearly half of India's population, represent a considerable untapped human resource. This exclusion translates into a loss of human capital, leading to lower productivity and potential economic growth.


The preference for male children can reinforce gender disparities in the workplace, affecting the gender wage gap and limiting women's economic empowerment- occupational segregation leads to women being concentrated in lower-paying fields, while men dominate higher-paying industries. Moreover, societal norms and biases contribute to the undervaluation of women's work, leading to lower wages even when performing the same tasks as their male counterparts.


A lower participation rate of women in the workforce perpetuates gender-based wage discrimination, which further impacts their financial independence and overall contribution to the economy. A skewed sex ratio also affects consumption patterns and market behavior. The presence of a significant number of unmarried men in the population can impact spending habits, affecting various industries, including real estate, consumer goods, and entertainment.


Conclusion

A skewed sex ratio, in many ways, creates a cyclical issue of gender biased problems as a gender imbalance means that policymakers, lawmakers, legal authority and other positions of power and governance often end up being held by men which negatively impact the effectiveness in the creation and implementation of policies targeting gender based issues.


As India grapples with a skewed sex ratio and the far reaching impacts it entails while simultaneously dealing with a large, growing population, the country finds itself at a critical juncture. While there have been efforts in the past to address the issue, much remains to be done to create a more equitable society.


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