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The real concerns

Print edition : Oct 08, 2004 T+T-

The controversy over the population growth rates only serves to deflect attention from serious issues such as the declining sex ratios.

in New Delhi

WHEN Census Commissioner and Registrar-General of India Jayant Kumar Banthia released the first report on religion data, he was probably unaware that a reference to the growth rate of a particular community would spark a major controversy, obfuscating in the process the good work done by the Census office. This is the first time that the Census office has been dragged into an unsavoury debate and accused of not very honourable motives. One of the viewpoints during the debate was that such controversial data should not have been presented at all. But those associated with the Census office both in the past and the present argue that all data are open to interpretation and that the exercise is conducted in the spirit and hope that its outcome would be put to good use - for planning policy.

The projected growth rate was not given for comparable years, which created confusion. The belated clarification by the Census office about "adjusted" and "unadjusted" data did not help much as some political forces were bent on capitalising on the confusion. In the controversy that ensued, what the Census Commissioner wanted to project - the cross-tabulated data on religions with socio-economic variables - was ignored. Though data on religions had been presented in previous Census reports this is the first time that a cross-tabulation was done which showed that fertility and well-being depend on factors like literacy and other development indicators. Again for the first time in independent India, the absolute number of literate people, workers and non-workers, in all the religious communities at the national and State levels have been presented.

In his preface to the report, Banthia clearly says: "It is hoped that this will serve as an important ready reference document for the key stakeholders such as planners, policy-makers and all other data users who are interested in various aspects of the religious demography of India. A long felt need of the various demographic and socio-economic indicators of the religious communities based on Census results is thus being fulfilled ultimately by the Census Organisation." Although he had been advised by several persons not to venture into making the linkages, Banthia was convinced that the bold initiative of putting socio-economic and demographic characteristics based on religious composition was in public interest and ultimately would result in public good. And public good, in his words, was ultimately about providing better and equitable opportunities to the people of India.

According to a former Census Commissioner, for some time now there have been requests from data users such as the National Minority Commission for a cross-classification of religion data by the socio-economic characteristics of religious communities so as to assess the level of their development. The introduction to the report on religion data says that in the pre-Independence period, some kind of cross-classification was done on the basis of the age and marital and educational status of the members of religious communities. Post-Independence, only data pertaining to sex and residence were provided by the Census office.

It is pertinent to point out that Hindus form the biggest block among all communities, comprising 81.4 per cent or 828 million of a total population of 1,028 million people. Muslims form 138 million of the population, the second largest block, though in absolute numbers and as percentage of the total population (12 .4 per cent), they lag far behind Hindus. Then come Christians at 24 million (2.3 per cent); Sikhs at 19 million (1.9 per cent), Buddhists at 8 million (0.8 per cent) and Jains at 4.2 million (0.4 per cent).

But going beyond these figures, the report clearly states that the adjusted data for all communities shows a declining growth rate barring Jains and Christians. The section giving a brief analysis of the data emphasises that no effort has been made to interpolate the religion data for Assam in 1981 and Jammu and Kashmir in 1991. Data users, suggests the report, therefore, should exercise caution while drawing conclusions in respect of trends in the proportions and growth rates at the all-India level.

WHAT emerges from the cross-classified material provided is the close correlation of fertility levels and sex ratio levels with overall standards of living. The data on sex ratio, for instance, have some surprises. While the sex ratio among Sikhs is the lowest, it is above the national average among Muslims and a shade lesser among Hindus. Among the States, religious affiliation matters little where overall development indicators are healthy. The highest sex ratio of 1,058 has been reported in Kerala among Hindus followed by Chhattisgarh (990) and Pondicherry (987). Correspondingly there is a high sex ratio among Muslims in Kerala (1,082), followed by Pondicherry (1,097) and Tamil Nadu (1,020). The overall sex ratio among Christians is also high.

The data on the declining child sex ratio, one of the most disturbing features of Census 2001, also reflect certain interesting trends. At the national level, the Sikh population recorded the lowest child sex ratio at 786 preceded by Jains at 870. Christians, having done well in the overall sex ratio, show the highest child sex ratio of 964 followed by Muslims at 950 and Buddhists at 942. Shockingly, the child sex ratio among Hindus - 925 females for every 1,000 males - is lower than the national average of 927. Even persons categorised as professing "other religions and persuasions" have recorded the highest child sex ratio of 976 at the national level. The minority communities, barring one, seem to be doing rather well as far as the girl child is concerned though they definitely could do better to bridge the difference.

Some equally important correlations have been made between the fertility levels and female literacy levels of religious communities. And even here, religious communities have been seen to respond to regional specificities of development rather than religious affiliation alone. The proportion of population in the 0-6 age group to the total population has been taken as a proxy estimate of the relative position of fertility among religious communities. There seems to be a negative relationship between female literacy and fertility levels and this applies to all the religious communities. Banthia writes that this indeed is a positive sign and shows that irrespective of religious affiliations, measures for increased investments and creation of better environment and facilities to improve female literacy would help lower fertility rates. This would be a long-term stable solution.

THE Census Commissioner's relentless campaign on the declining child sex ratio is well known. His report advocates higher female literacy for all communities. He writes: "The past legacy of low female Muslim literacy, which is to some extent true even for segments of the Hindu population, such as the Scheduled Castes and the Scheduled Tribes among them, has had possibly a (negative) role to play in not accelerating the pace of fertility decline. It is therefore imperative that governments invest in improving the overall female literacy particularly for the Muslims and sections of Hindu society and these communities in turn need to respond faster than ever before and remove if there exists any female bias in educating their women - girls and adolescents both... . While these trends on the relationship between female literacy and proportion of child population 0-6 are clearly visible and discernible from the 2001 Census data on religion, it would be prudent for the policy makers and planners to examine such issues in greater depth and isolate the influence of various other factors before jumping to firm conclusions."

As for the general literacy rate, Kerala, Lakshwadweep and Pondicherry have very high literacy rates for all the religious communities (above 80 percent). In Andaman and Nicobar Islands and Tamil Nadu, literacy is above 70 per cent for all the religious communities. On the other hand, in the Bimaru (a term coined by well-known demographer Ashish Bose) States like Bihar, Jharkhand and Uttar Pradesh the literacy rates are rather depressed and below 60 per cent for Hindus, Muslims and others. Hence, religious communities behave quite differently in different regions, - a clear indication that socio- economic and developmental factors matter a lot. The report states: "Thus, there are regions in the country where all religions have a high literacy rate or a low literacy rate. It appears that the religion effect may be weak in several parts of the country and the overall regional milieu and state of low or high development may be contributing to the improvement or stagnation in literacy rates."

Says Banthia: "The enumeration of religion has always been there. Unless religion was determined, it was very difficult to determine caste." The Census is deeply related to the planning process. Banthia says that nearly 60 per cent of resources are allocated on the basis of population details. The religion data has a lot of intra as well as inter-religion information and this explains why communities behave differently in Uttar Pradesh and Kerala. Of the 41 paragraphs in the section on "Brief Analysis", Banthia says, only one was on growth rates but the media focussed mostly on it. "Our focus was on how to explain the underlying causes a little better. The idea was to break away from monolith explanations like Hindu or Muslim patterns," he says.