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"The two-child norm only leads to female foeticide"

By Madhu Gurung

Commenting on the serious decline in the 0-6 sex ratio in India, leading demographer Ashish Bose states that the government's policies are all wrong. The two-child policy has got mixed up with female foeticide. Government slogans like 'Beti ya beta, dono ek hain' make little sense. And financial sops for couples having a girl-child can make no dent in the traditional preference for sons in India

Census 2001 figures, released recently, showed that the child sex ratio has dropped even further - from 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001. States such as Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh and Delhi now have fewer than 900 girls per 1,000 boys. What are the causes and implications of this shocking drop in sex ratio?

Leading demographer Professor Ashish Bose recently conducted a study of female foeticide in Punjab , Haryana and Himachal Pradesh, which showed that "demographic fundamentalism" or preference for a boy-child is on the rise in the country, resulting in a declining sex ratio. In this interview, Prof Bose discusses the sex ratio figures and also comments on the recent controversy over the growth-rates of population in India by religion.

What are the most significant findings of Census 2001?

The latest Census shows that the juvenile sex ratio, which had become a concern in the 1991 Census, has gone down even further. In 1991, the national average for the child sex ratio, in the 0-6 age-group, was 945. Several states, including Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, had fewer than 900 girls per 1,000 boys. However in Census 2001, in Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat alone, the sex ratio had plunged. In 1991, all districts of Punjab except Nawanshahr, recorded a child sex ratio lower than 900. In the 2001 Census, while Nawanshahr recorded a child sex ratio of 810 girls per 1,000 boys, more alarmingly, 10 of the 17 districts of Punjab recorded fewer than 800 girls per 1,000 boys.

The past decade also saw a worsening sex ratio in Haryana. In 1991, not a single district recorded less than 800. In 2001, Haryana's well-known districts like Kurukshetra, Kaithal, Ambala, Sonepat, Rohtak, all recorded figures less than 800.

Gujarat, in 1991, enjoyed a sex ratio of 900 girls for every 1,000 boys, but the 2001 Census throws up a dismal picture. There is a sharp decline in a large number of its districts. Of the 20 districts in Gujarat, only eight recorded a child sex ratio of 900, the rest of the districts were very low. In fact in Rajkot and Mahesana, the situation is alarming and showed a ratio of just 798 girls per 1,000 boys.

In Himachal Pradesh too there is a drastic drop in the child sex ratio, especially in districts adjoining Punjab and Haryana. What was deemed a normal sex ratio of more than 950 in 1991, had dropped drastically in Himachal Pradesh, eight out of 12 districts being the worst. Most of the prosperous northern states have recorded more than a 50-point decline in the child sex ratio in the past 10 years.

In Rajasthan, more districts have recorded child sex ratios lower than 950, and it's slightly better amongst predominantly tribal populations. But even there, there has been a drop in child sex ratio especially in Chittorgarh and Udaipur. The child sex ratio has declined in Alwar, Sikar, Jaipur and Jhunjhunu districts. This could be attributed to the two-child norm pushed actively by the state government.

In 1991, Delhi's child sex ratio was lower than 950. Ten years later, the 2001 Census shows that almost all districts recorded a child sex ratio less than 900, with its more prosperous southwestern part showing a decline from 904 girls in 1991 to 845 girls in 2001.

In Maharashtra, in Jalgaon, Aurangabad, Beed, Solapur, Sangli and Kohlapur districts, the child sex ratio has gone from bad to worse. Maharashtra's eastern districts like Nagpur and Jalna also show a significant drop.

Of all the southern states that come up on the map of worsening child sex ratios, is Tamil Nadu. Little seems to have changed since 1991. Dharmapuri, Namkkal, Theni and Madurai districts had recorded a low child sex ratio in 1991. But the recent 2001 Census shows that the problem has spread to Tiruchi, Cuddalore and Vellore districts. In 1991, Salem had recorded the lowest child sex ratio at 830 girls which, the latest 2001 Census shows, has further declined to 826 girls per 1,000 boys.

What are the reasons for the decline in sex ratio? Census 2001 shows that during the 1991-2001 decade the overall sex ratio increased from 927 per 1,000 to 933 per 1,000 (an increase of six points). But during the same decade the child sex ratio (0-6 years) dropped from 945 to 927 (a decline of 18 points) while the sex ratio in the 7+ age-group increased from 923 to 935 (an increase of 12 points).

When you talk of the Indian Census, it is important to understand that our sex ratio is defined as the number of females per 1,000 men, unlike the West where sex ratio is the complete opposite and defined as the number of males per 1,000 females. Like China, in India too masculinity is increasing. But having said that, I also want to say that in India we have a poor civil birth registration system and most of our data are from hospitals where births have been registered. In India there are thousands of births that go unreported. So what we have is really biased data, not very reliable, but these are data constraints that we have to work with.

If you analyse in detail, India has 28 states and seven union territories that add up to 35 administrative units. We have data of 593 districts that were there in 2001, now the districts have gone up to 600. We have to demographically map them. Your figures are correct -- those are the figures we have arrived at.

The phenomenon of declining sex ratio that showed up in Census 2001 is worst in Punjab, Haryana, Chandigarh, Delhi, Western Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat and Maharastra. This defies all demographic theories as these are prosperous states. You expect that when people live better, have better education and economic security, there will be less of a traditional bias against the girl-child; but in India, like China, it has only worsened the situation. Suppose like China, instead of just one, we had a two-child policy, then the Jats and Punjabis would ensure that they had two sons.

In India, there is an unholy alliance between tradition and technology. Tradition is marked by son-preference. Technology started in the '80s with amniocentesis, most readily available in Punjab, the state made most prosperous by the Green Revolution, and having a long tradition of son- preference. Today ultrasound is the sex-selective technology that is widespread in most prosperous states.

The reasons are easy to define - prosperity ensured better infrastructure, more machines and more doctors to perform the tests. People had money-power to pay for the technology and of course, as infrastructure improved, people could access the clinics easily. All this made foeticide rampant. If we look at the historical perspective of Punjab, where the sex ratio is the worst, the state has a long martial tradition, and women were seen as liabilities. Sons were preferred as they could carry on the martial tradition.

The new factor in Punjab is migration. Punjabis are the most eager to migrate to the West. The propensity to migrate is higher for young boys than for young girls. In Chandigarh, most young people are looking towards New Zealand for migration because that country is also agriculture-oriented.

In Haryana, the Jats have their own tradition of land ownership, so sons are preferred. It is a dismal situation. In the future, Punjabis will have to marry non-Punjabis, probably girls from Bihar and UP, which are demographically surplus-populated states.

Son-preference has spread even to south India. Social wokers are saying the reason is patriarchy, or women having internalised the value systems of men. The whole phenomenon is supply-driven rather than demand-driven and women feel they have a better self-image and status in society if they have sons.

A UNFPA report in 1997 pointed out that if Kerala's sex ratio of 1,036 females per 1,000 males prevailed in the entire country, there would be close to 32 to 48 million missing women. In the light of the Census 2001, what is your estimate of missing females?

This was a romantic expression coined by Amartya Sen. You cannot arrive at figures like that because you must look at the individual family unit. For me this is a non-issue because much more fine-tuning is required to understand the social phenomenon of declining sex ratio. All this is hypothetical and good for newspaper headlines.

Does the latest census show that the DEMARU trend (an acronym you coined standing for Daughter Eliminating Male Aspiring Rage for Ultrasound) has proliferated in the states and reflects a skewed sex ratio?

Yes, it is spreading, and the reason is better infrastructure, better education, which ensures more doctors, and overall prosperity, which ensures people's ability to pay. The next Census will also show the declining sex ratio. I was in Rajasthan on fieldwork, collecting data along with a team, and we had a questionnaire we had prepared, and I had some young people going around the villages asking the same question. The question was: how many sons do you want? And almost everyone had put down two sons, so I decided they had all sat together and put it down. So I went around and met a woman on the road and asked her the same question and she said she would like at least two sons. When I asked why, she said, why do you have two eyes?

In your booklet Darkness at Noon, in a chapter on societal action, there is a doctor who is quoted as saying that prenatal tests should be permitted if the first child is a daughter so that couples can have a planned birth, that is, a son thereafter. After this they can go in for sterilisation. What do you say?

I think the government's two-child norm and female foeticide have got mixed up, through no fault of either the government or the people. The famous family planning slogan, Hum do hamare do, mathematically adds up to only three possibilities -- that people have two sons, two daughters, or one son and one daughter. Two daughters are usually not acceptable - culturally or economically, because they have to be married off. While one son and one daughter are tolerable, the ideal situation people strive for is two sons. When a vast majority of people are poor, with no health or social security, sons make the best survival strategy. Slogans like Beti ya beta dono ek hain make little sense. How can they be equal for people, when girls have to be married off and sons can be used as crutches?

It's nonsense when people say Hindus need sons for cremation rights. Who is thinking of death, when survival is questionable on a day-to-day basis.

As for the government's sterilisation incentives, it has not really worked because they pay a pittance. It's barely Rs 200, or Rs 500 at most. Money-power cannot be invoked over this social phenomenon. Schemes like sterilisation are only good on paper, but do not have the desired impact.

An amendment to the Pre-natal Diagnostic Tests (PNDT) Act was instituted on January 14, 2003. Has it helped? What should the ideal government policy be?

Without insulting the Supreme Court order, it has not helped. How can anything help against demographic fundamentalism? How can anyone question why sons are required over girls? However, I am not opposed to the law as it creates an enabling environment to create awareness against female foeticide.

Our doctors are cleverer than our policemen, our law demands evidence and not a single one has been caught with anything incriminating. Sex determination tests are the chief money-spinners. The Supreme Court has ordered that all ultrasound machines have to be registered, but who will supervise this -- the chief medical officer, who is also a doctor? How can he complain against other doctors? The truth is the PNDT Act is not implementable.

As to what should be the ideal government policy, one suggestion that I have given the government is to hire private detectives who should collect incriminating information against doctors who flout the PNDT Act, something like Tehelka... create a stir to get people working and rethinking.

Do you feel the girl-child schemes and financial help offered by the government are enough? Is there any one state where the girl-child policy has worked?

There may be marginal impact or no impact in most states, however well-meaning the government schemes may be. Schemes have to be innovative, imaginative and implementable. Sure, in states like Goa, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala, the government family planning programme has worked, but not in states like Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. But there is not one state where the girl-child policy has been successful or the census data would not show up so negatively.

In Bangladesh, most of the schools I visited had more girls than boys, when culturally they have the same biases as us in India, and I learnt it was because each girl who came to school could take home a bag of rice for every month she stayed in school. Yes, such schemes may have their pluses and minuses. But we have to examine schemes that give people incentives, education to the girl-child that would enable her to earn in the future, and flexible school hours that ensure she stays in school and also contributes to the family income.

What are your recommendations? Is government policy addressing the problem?
Female foeticide is the result of an unholy alliance between the traditional preference for sons and modern medical technology, the increasing greed of doctors, the rising demand for dowry that makes daughters financial burdens, the ineffectiveness of the PNDT Act and the liberal Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, and the lack of any serious involvement of civil society in fighting this menace. The gender balance cannot be restored unless we make a frontal attack on all the players and stakeholders.

One possible way could be job reservation for women, because without economic empowerment, political empowerment will not be enough. However, this may not be acceptable to the government. I suggest a three-tier model involving the government, NGOs and panchayati raj institutions, with technical back-up from academic experts, social activists and management experts. Local initiatives by NGOs and individuals with vision in such fields must be permitted. No more additions to the already existing government schemes are recommended.

Funds must be made available to organisations, especially in the health sector, to initiate an awareness campaign through the electronic and print media. A nation-wide campaign must be launched to recognise and spell out all forms of gender violence and the disastrous consequences of the demographic imbalance. The role of the father in determining the sex of the child must be highlighted. All suspected cases of female foeticide must be examined by state commissions and women's organisations, and action to punish erring doctors must be undertaken. The PNDT and Dowry Acts must be implemented in letter and spirit. The government should consider empowering reputed NGOs to deal with cases of female foeticide on a trial basis. There has to be vigilance at the local level and state supervisory boards and authorities at the district level have to be activated.

While recommending continuation of the government's sterilisation programmes, the concept of a small family norm should be left to the zilla parishads, panchayat samitis, panchayats and gram panchayats, to be handled at the local level. Financial sops to couples that have two daughters and agree to sterilisation are not effective because reproductive behaviour cannot be manipulated by such incentives. It would therefore be better to invest in special incentives for girls in the employment market, empowering them in terms of their earning capacity. This could ideally be handled by the Planning Commission instead of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, as is being done now. Years of propaganda have made people accept the small family norm of one son and a daughter or even two sons and a daughter. The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare should continue to propagate its population policy without emphasising the two-child norm, as it only leads to female foeticide.

High priority has to be given to field studies and research. There has to be collaboration between universities and research institutes, with NGOs that are qualified in this field. Only then can meaningful intervention strategies be evolved.

What are your comments on the recent 'by religion' growth rates?

When we talk about communities, it is important to point out that no two communities grow at the same rate. The newspapers write things to sensationalise their papers. What is important to know is that there is no decline in the population in any community in India barring the Parsis. In absolute terms, the proportion of population of each community must add up to 100. These proportions will depend on the growth-rate of population of different communities. So when I say that the Muslim population has gone up, that does not mean that the Hindu population has gone down. The Hindu population has also gone up, but the proportion has gone down.

Three things affect population growth: natural increase in population (that is birth minus death), net migration and geographical territorial adjustments (if any). In 2001, the census was conducted all over India. But in 1991, the census could not be conducted in Jammu and Kashmir (J&K) because of disturbed conditions, and likewise in Assam in 1981 census enumeration did not take place. So it is important to compare the comparables. Now that J&K has been enumerated in 2001, adjustments have to be made comparable to the 1991 Census.

So all I can say is that all over the world, the Muslim growth-rate is higher than the non- Muslim growth-rate. But in Muslim-dominated countries, where they do practice family planning, the growth-rate is less than in countries where Muslims are in a minority -- as in India and Nepal, where there is some resistance to family planning.

Community-wise, in India, the Parsis have the lowest growth-rate, in fact it is running in minus. The Muslim growth-rate is 29.3%, the Hindu growth-rate is 19.9% and the Sikh growth-rate is the lowest at 17%. The Sikh growth-rate was 25% in the 1991 Census, so it has dipped drastically. The Christian growth-rate is 25%.

(Madhu Gurung is a Delhi-based journalist and consultant working on gender issues.)

InfoChange News & Features, November 2004