Print edition : November 21, 2003

A girl child, who was found abandoned at the Government Maternity Hospital at Koti in Andhra Pradesh, receiving treatment at the Niloufer Hospital in Hyderabad on October 20. - P.V. SIVAKUMAR

A brochure based on data from Censuses 1991 and 2001 points to an alarming decline in the child sex ratio in relatively prosperous States and raises questions about the viability of linking population control measures to schemes for protecting the girl child.

ON October 20, a brochure mapping the child sex ratio across the country was released in the United Nations Conference Hall in New Delhi. The brochure made it clear that the juvenile sex ratio, which had become a cause of concern after the 1991 Census, had plummeted further according to provisional data from Census 2001. Although unsaid in the brochure, the decade was also one of liberalisation and globalisation and, supposedly, of economic well-being.

Produced jointly by the office of the Registrar-General and the Census Commissioner of India, the United Nations Population Fund and the Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the brochure compares the situations in 1991 and 2001, especially in the case of certain States where the decline was sharp. What brings out the stark contrasts is the comparison of the district-wise mapping of the child sex ratio as evidenced in Censuses 1991 and 2001. It is now possible to identify the specific districts where the problem is most rampant and where a positive transformation is clearly visible. In the case of Punjab, a block-wise mapping has been done, zeroing in on specific tehsils where the sex-ratio is abnormally low. The sex-ratio at birth is considered to be slightly favourable to boys, that is, more boys are born than girls. The sex ratio in the zero to six age group (child sex ratio) therefore is usually between 940 and 950 girls per 1,000 boys. Census 1991 reported the national average as 945 girls per 1,000 boys, which declined to 927 during the 2001 Census. These statistics are not new in that they have been available over the past one year. However, what is novel is the mapping that the brochure does, highlighting the contrasts in the child sex ratio over the past two decades. More study has been done to compare and contrast the figures for the two periods and more introspection done about what may have gone wrong. Unfortunately, the introspection does not address larger questions that involve the link between the declining child sex ratio and the drive towards population stabilisation. In fact, releasing the brochure, Union Minister for Health and Family Welfare Sushma Swaraj declared that the government would combine its population stabilisation drive with measures to protect the girl child. Swaraj raised the slogan Aabaadi ghatao, beti bachao (Reduce population, Save the daughter).

The two-child norm, which has of late become a preferred method of achieving population goals, though not approved by the National Population Policy 2000, is already being enforced in several States. This has created alarm among concerned sections, including those dealing with gender and health issues, as it has the potential to lower the proportion of girl children even further, resulting in a novel kind of sex selection. It is felt that population stabilisation measures with incentives or disincentives are unlikely to result in more girl children, especially when son preference continues to be high, the dowry system continues to flourish and the investment in the girl child right from her birth, by both the state and a patriarchal society, continues to be very low.

A look at the Census figures of 1991 and 2001 shows a frightening trend in Indian society. In 1991, while the national average of the child sex ratio was 945, several States, including Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, had fewer than 900 girls to 1,000 boys in the zero to six age group. Yet none of the States fell in the category where the figure was lower than 800. However, the situation worsened in the next 10 years, with the results reflecting in Census 2001. In Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Gujarat alone, the child sex ratio plunged to fewer than 800 girls for every 1,000 boys. In Punjab, in 1991, all districts except Nawanshahr recorded a child sex ratio lower than 900; in 2001, while Nawanshahr showed a figure of 810 girls as compared to 900 in 1991, the child sex ratio in at least 10 of the 17 districts recorded fewer than 800 girls per 1,000 boys.

Jayant Kumar Banthia, Registrar-General and Census Commissioner of India, told Frontline that Punjab's overall sex ratio was always low. It had improved since 1901 but still remained low, he said. On the other hand, Tamil Nadu's sex ratio, he said, had declined very sharply since 1901. But overall, northern States, especially the more prosperous ones, were found in a far more disadvantageous position - Maharashtra, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and Haryana have recorded a more-than-50-point decline in the child sex ratio over the past 10 years.

Like Punjab, the child sex ratio in Haryana has worsened in the decade 1991-2001. While in 1991, not a single district recorded a figure lower than 800, in 2001 Kurukshetra, Kaithal, Ambala, Sonepat and Rohtak districts recorded figures lower than 800. The worst contrast was in Gujarat where from a situation in which almost all districts had more than 900 girls for every 1000 boys in 1991, in 2001 the picture seems to have changed drastically. While the decline has been very sharp in Rajkot, in Mahesana the situation was alarming in that it showed a ratio of just 798 girls per 1,000 boys. Only eight districts in Gujarat recorded a child sex ratio of over 900 as compared to 20 districts in 1991. Equally baffling is the drastic drop in the child sex ratio in several districts of Himachal Pradesh, especially those in the plain areas and those adjoining Punjab and Haryana. What was deemed as a normal child sex ratio of more than 950 in 1991 seemed to have moved backwards in those eight districts of the 12 that recorded a declining child sex ratio, the worst being Kangra and Una.

WHY is the situation not unfavourable in most of the BIMARU States where human development indicators are largely low and the girl child is equally, if not more, disadvantaged? According to Banthia, the answer lies in the contrasts in infrastructure in the prosperous and BIMARU States. Better infrastructure has meant better access to technology and services in rural segments as well. In other words, the access to technology (especially Pre-Natal Diagnostic Tests that help in sex-determination) and services coupled with some purchasing power has cost the girl child dearly. "The lack of infrastructure in some of these regions has allowed the girl child to survive," said Banthia. But where the difference is less between rural and urban infrastructure in terms of access to roads and general mobility, the disparity in sex ratio is higher. "We have observed this in Haryana, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi and Chandigarh. The machine and the man can reach anywhere," he said, referring to pre-natal diagnostic technology.

It is significant that Delhi has also been listed in the category of States with a low child sex ratio. In 1991, none of the National Capital Territory's districts recorded a child sex ratio lower than 900. In fact, most of them had recorded 950 girls and above. Ten years later, Census 2001 finds that none of the districts came under the 950 and above category. In fact, the majority of the districts record a child sex ratio lower than 900, with the southwestern district, one of the more prosperous districts, recording a drastic decline from 904 girls in 1991 to 845 girls in 2001. In neighbouring Rajasthan too, more districts have recorded child sex ratios lower than 950. Interestingly, the sex ratio is slightly better in the districts where there is a predominant tribal population. But even here, there has been a deterioration in the child sex ratio in Udaipur and Chittorgarh. Similarly, the child sex ratio has worsened in Sikar, Jaipur, Alwar and Jhunjhunu districts as compared to 1991. The two-child norm is being pushed actively in Rajasthan as part of a State-level programme.

In Maharashtra, in the Jalgaon, Aurangabad, Ahmednagar, Bid, Solapur, Satara, Sangli and Kolhapur districts, the child sex ratio has gone from bad to worse. Even in the State's eastern districts, stretching from Jalna to Nagpur where the child sex ratio was slightly better in 1991, the gaps have widened. Therefore, what was seen as a worrying trend in Census 1991 has become a reality in Census 2001.

The only southern State to appear in the map is Tamil Nadu where little seems to have changed since 1991. Apart from Dharmapuri, Namakkal, Theni and Madurai districts, which recorded very low child sex ratios in 1991, the malaise now seems to have spread to Tiruchi, Perambalur, Cuddalore and Vellore districts. The child sex ratio in Salem, which was the lowest at 830 girls in 1991, declined further to 826 girls in 2001. Banthia admitted that discrimination against the girl child or woman predated the Census findings. "But I am surprised at some aspects. Punjab, as is seen, has one of the worst records. But a look at the population sex ratio reveals there has been a steady improvement since 1901. But the sex ratio in Tamil Nadu declined gradually from an excellent position in the 20th century," he said.

The pertinent question is whether population control ought to be achieved at the cost of the girl child. "I have looked at the Japanese experience in the 1950s and 1960s where there was a concerted move to control fertility and the population. Women resorted to abortions, but there were no sex-selective abortions. They wanted to control fertility but did not try to alter the composition of their families," said Banthia. Societies that tried to control the composition and size of their families through norms like the two-child one would at the same time ensure that at least one child was a boy. "There is no other way than to invest in the girl child, especially in her education," said Banthia.

However, this is easier said than done as every other scheme for the girl child - even where there is a declining sex ratio - is seen in tandem with population control meaures. For instance, the Deviroopak scheme launched by the Haryana government in September 2002, is mainly targeted at newly married couples who are entitled to Rs.500 a month for 20 years on the birth of a girl child and Rs.200 a month for 20 years on the birth of a boy or after the birth of two girl children. But the caveat is that they have to opt for sterilisation or some permanent method of contraception to avail themselves of the fund.

The National Population Policy, it may be recalled, was averse to granting any incentives to control fertility. The Haryana scheme appears to be targeted mainly at the poor as one of the eligibility conditions is that the couple should not be income tax payers. Secondly, if any couple as of September 25, 2002 has one child and wants to be a beneficiary under this scheme, they have to opt for a permanent method of family planning.

The stress is so much more on family planning that the scheme also envisages that if conception occurs despite having opted for a permanent method of family planning, the incentive would be discontinued. According to official figures, there were 2,494 cases registered under the scheme as of September 15, 2003 and 180 persons had so far undergone sterilisation and were getting the financial benefit under the scheme.

As for the disaggregated data of the district-level child sex ratios, it will raise several questions and open up new areas of study. It will throw light on cultural practices and their regional variations within States. However, there is reason to believe, as pointed out by the Census Commissioner, that the gap in the sex ratio at birth is widening. There is no doubt that this gap will widen if governments continue to link population stabilisation programmes with measures to address the sex-ratio imbalance.

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