Some progress, some concern

Print edition : April 14, 2001

The provisional results of the Census of India 2001 point to a decline in the growth rate of population, an increase in the overall population sex ratio and a significant rise in literacy rates, but the outlook is not sanguine all the way.

THE Registrar General-and-Census Commissioner of India and the team assisting him are to be congratulated for bringing out the first paper of the Census of India 2001 (Census Of India 2001, Series-1, India, Paper-1 of 2001) in less than a month after completing the massive enumeration process.

The Census of India is a massive effort: "...over twenty lakh enumerators and supervisors engaged for enumerating over one hundred crore (one billion) people in about twentytwo crore (two hundred and twenty million) households living in 593 districts, 5564 tashils/talukas etc., 5161 towns and around 6.4 lakh villages (six hundred and forty thousand)" (Census of India 2001, series-1, India, Paper-1 of 2001, page 6).

The 2001 Census is the sixth decennial population census in independent India, and the 14th since the first census was conducted in British India in 1871. India has a very well-established structure and administrative machinery for conducting the decennial census, and the Census of India enjoys high credibility not only in India but all over the world.

In two chapters preceding the detailed analysis of the provisional results, the first paper of the 2001 Census provides a crisp and useful introduction to the Census. These chapters cover, inter alia, the organisational structure for the Census, the planning that went into the Census operations, training for population enumeration and some new features of the 2001 Census. The changes that were made in the house list schedule for 2001, which includes several new questions but also retains almost all the questions canvassed in the 1991 Census, should provide interesting new data in the months to come. And the retention of all the 1991 Census questions (except one pertaining to ex-servicemen) should ensure continuity and comparability with earlier censuses.

A special effort has also been made in the 2001 Census process to sensitise senior functionaries, trainers and the enumerators to gender issues. The first publication of the Census 2001 contains 11 'provisional population tables' pertaining to the total population of India and its various States and Union Territories, the distribution of population by age, sex and literacy status, and changes in these variables between 1991 and 2001. The following are some key features of India's population that have emerged from a quick compilation of the provisional results of the 2001 Census.

Growth rate of population

India's population, as of the midnight of February 28-March 1, 2001, stood at 1,027,015,247, that is, 102.70 crores. This makes India the second most populous country in the world, behind China (127.76 crores on February 1) and way ahead of the next most populous country, the United States of America (28.14 crores in April 2000). However, the rate of growth of population has come down in India during the decade since Census 1991. The decadal growth rate between 1991 and 2001 was 21.34 per cent. This is 2.52 percentage points lower than the growth rate of 23.86 per cent between 1981 and 1991. It is in fact the lowest inter-census growth rate during the period 1951-2001.

The population growth rate has declined during 1991-2001 as compared to 1981-1991 in practically all the major States. The only exceptions are Bihar (excluding Jharkhand), Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh (excluding Uttaranchal) and Haryana. Of these, U.P. and Haryana show only very marginal increases. It is only in Bihar that the 1991-2001 decadal growth rate of population (28.43 per cent) is significantly higher than the growth rate (23.38 per cent) for the period 1981-1991. As may be expected, the southern States have shown a decline in growth rate from their already relatively lower levels. Among States with current population in excess of 20 million, Andhra Pradesh (-10.33 percentage points) and Chattisgarh (-7.67) have shown the largest declines in population growth rate during 1991-2001 compared to 1981-1991. Also significant are the corresponding growth rate declines of West Bengal (-6.89) and Assam (-5.39) - States which have historically seen considerable immigration. In the case of Assam, the observed decline in population growth rate is also politically significant, raising serious doubts about the claim that its cultural identity is being threatened by the mass inflow of immigrants from neighbouring Bangladesh.

The Census publication notes: "In a population that is not greatly affected by huge changes in age structure, adult migration or child mortality between two points of time, a significant fall in population of children in the age group 0-6 is broadly indicative of a fall in fertility during the period." Such a fall has occurred in a number of States and Union Territories during 1991-2001. Sixteen States/Union Territories accounting for 44.09 per cent of the population had a 0-6 population to total population ratio below 14 per cent in 2001, as compared to only four States/Union Territories accounting for 10.27 per cent of the country's population in 1991. There is thus confirmation from the 2001 Census for the proposition that fertility rates have been declining across the country. The decline appears well-established in the four southern States, and reasonably well-established in Maharashtra in the West and Orissa and West Bengal in the East.

Sex ratios

Demographers and policymakers, especially those with a "population control" mindset, often tend to focus mainly on the "overall numbers" and the growth rate of population as such, and generally celebrate observed declines in fertility. However, as is being increasingly recognised, in a patriarchal society universalisation of the small family norm may bring about a fertility decline that is far from being sex-neutral. It may, in fact, lower the survival chances of female foetuses and infants, in the context of the strong preference for sons in society. It is important, therefore, to look at the sex composition of the population.

The overall population sex ratio - the number of females per 1000 males - has increased from 927 in the 1991 Census to 933 in the 2001 Census. Since 1901, the sex ratio has been showing a secular decline, from 972 in 1901 to 927 in 1991, with a marginal inter-census rise on two occasions: from 945 to 946 between 1941 and 1951, and 930 to 934 between 1971 and 1981. It remains to be seen whether the observed increase in sex ratio between 1991 and 2001 constitutes a reversal of the secular trend of decline or is an ephemeral phenomenon like the 4-point increase between 1971 and 1981, which was followed by a 7-point decline between 1981 and 1991. The sex ratio has improved in a number of major States between 1991 and 2001. These include all the southern States, Orissa, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh, Bihar, Jharkhand, U.P., Uttaranchal, Rajasthan and Assam. But it is worrying to note that the sex ratio has declined sharply in Maharashtra (from 934 to 922) and Gujarat (from 934 to 921) and has declined from an already low level in Punjab. One also notes declines in Himachal Pradesh and Haryana.

The temptation to ascribe the decline in Maharashtra and Gurajat to sex-selective, male in-migration from other States in search of jobs in these two "rapidly industrialising" States should be resisted. This becomes clear when one looks not at overall population sex ratios, but at sex ratios in the age group of 0 to 6 years, the so-called juvenile sex ratios (JSR), which are not likely to be distorted by sex-selective adult migration.

One finds, for the country as a whole, a sharp decline in JSR from 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001. The decline is even sharper in several States. Thus, the JSR has declined from 951 to 897 in Himachal Pradesh, 875 to 793 in Punjab, and 879 to 820 in Haryana. In Gujarat, it has declined from 928 to 878 and in Maharashtra, from 946 to 917. In fact, the JSR has declined in every State with a population exceeding 20 million in 2001, with the solitary and honourable exception of Kerala. Only Sikkim, Tripura and Lakshadweep show a significant increase in the JSR and Mizoram, a marginal rise.

The general decline in the JSR practically across the entire country must be viewed with concern. The Census publication concedes, though rather cautiously, that "the data on sex ratio at birth for the past many years as obtained from the Sample Registration System is indicative of a larger than usual shortfall in female births as compared to male births" (page 91). But it stops short of linking this trend with sex-selective foeticide. However, in its discussion of decline in child sex ratios, or the JSRs, it notes the sharp declines in the States mentioned earlier and raises the question: "Are the sharp declines in child sex ratios indicative of an underlying trend of sex-selective abortions in these areas?" (page 97). Its answer is non-committal: "We may really have to wait for some more data before coming to any definite conclusion in this regard" (page 97).

Leaving aside the question whether such abundant caution may or may not be warranted in an official publication, there is enough evidence from the field to indicate an alarming spread of the practice of female foeticide not only in the contiguous belt of Punjab-Chandigarh-Haryana-Uttaranchal-Hi- machal Pradesh, but also in Maharashtra and Gurajat; even more worrisome, in the much-vaunted South, where the female foetus and infant were earlier not thought to be at great risk.

In Tamil Nadu, for instance, there is considerable evidence of the practices of female infanticide (Frontline, July 11, 1997; Economic and Political Weekly, April 26, 1997 and December 2, 2000) and of female foeticide (Frontline, December 18, 1998 and November 19, 1999) being spread over a significant part of the State. It is, of course, possible that there may also be factors at work which contribute to a trend decline in sex ratio at birth. But while one may need more data to confirm the presence of such factors, there is already enough confirmation of the spread of the practices of female foeticide and infanticide not as a relic of an atavistic past, but as consequences of a narrowly based, consumerist path of capitalist development within a framework of strong patriarchy and son preference, and an environment of universalisation of the small family norm and unrealisable aspirations promoted by the dominant consumerist ethic. Policy intervention and social mobilisation are urgently needed on this issue.

Literacy rates

Perhaps the most positive piece of news from the 2001 Census is that of a significant increase in both the literacy rates and the number of literate persons. The improvement in literacy status is significant not only for the population as a whole, but also for every category of it, whether by sex or region.

For India as a whole, the proportion of literate persons among the population aged 7 years and above is reported to be 65.38 per cent, which represents a jump of 13.17 percentage points over the actuals of 1991. The female literacy rate has increased even more rapidly, by 14.87 percentage points to reach 54.16 per cent, while male literacy has increased by 11.77 percentage points, to reach 75.85 per cent. Accordingly, the male-female gap in the literacy rate has declined to 21.70 percentage points, the lowest since the 1951 Census, when both male and female literacy rates were abysmally low. Among the major States, Kerala predictably leads the pack with a literacy rate of 90.92 per cent and a fairly small male-female gap of 6.34 percentage points. Maharashtra's literacy rate, which was ahead of Tamil Nadu's by 2.21 percentage points in 1991, is now ahead by 3.80 percentage points at 77.27 per cent; Tamil Nadu's literacy rate is 73.47 per cent. A remarkable feature of the improvement in literacy is the sharp increase in literacy rates in the States of Rajasthan (22.48 percentage points), Chattisgarh (22.27) and Madhya Pradesh (19.44). The spread across major States with a population of at least 20 million each in 2001 is between Kerala at 90.92 per cent and Bihar at 47.53 per cent; the difference is still large at 43.39 percentage points but less than the difference of 52.32 percentage points in 1991 between Kerala (89.81 per cent) and Bihar (37.49 per cent).

The other heartening aspect of the literacy situation in 2001 is the reduction in the gender gap in all States and Union Territories except in the small Union Territory of Dadra and Nagar Haveli with a population of only 220,451. The biggest improvement in female literacy rates has occurred in Chattisgarh (24.87 percentage points), Rajasthan (23.90) and Madhya Pradesh (20.93). The same is true of male literacy rates as well, if Dadra and Nagar Haveli is excluded. An idea of the general improvement in literacy across the country can be had from the following fact. Only around 27 per cent of the country's population lived in States with literacy rates of 60 per cent and above, and these States accounted only for 35.94 per cent of all literate persons in 1991. By contrast, in 2001, 72.71 per cent of the population and 78.31 per cent of all literate persons lived in States/Union Territories with literacy rates of 60 per cent and above.

However, one should not get overly euphoric about the advance in the literacy rates. Certainly, the participatory mass literacy campaigns of the 1990s, especially the early ones which had somewhat of a free run before becoming hopelessly bureaucratised, did score significant success. Even where the mass literacy campaigns were not particularly successful in terms of literacy achievement, they did motivate non/semi-literate parents - especially the mothers - in a big way to send their children to school. Much of the increase in the overall literacy rate has to be attributed to improved enrolment and retention ratios in primary/elementary schools. But there is a need to enter a caveat as well. Wherever mass mobilisaiton for literacy campaigns had taken place in the 1990s, it would have become more difficult for non-literate women to report themselves as non-literate than was the case before the campaign. In a neighbourhood milieu, where women had been enrolled as learners in significant numbers in literacy campaigns, it would have been difficult for many of them who had not acquired literacy to report themselves as non-literate. There might be a small upward bias in the reported female literacy rate, though its extent is hard to gauge.

Finally, the census figures on literacy should not lead to complacency. Nearly half the women in the country in the population aged 7 years and above are still non-literate, 50 years after the Republic came into existence, even by a rather minimal definition of literacy. Far more attention needs to be paid to elementary education, and the constitutional promise of free and compulsory education has to be redeemed at least now. That task requires political will and a reversal of the disastrous policies of liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation that abandon education to the tender mercies of the market.

Venkatesh Athreya is Professor and Head of the Department of Economics, Bharathidasan University, Tiruchirappalli.

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