The Tamil Nadu picture

Print edition : April 28, 2001

It is a mixed message that emerges from the preliminary Census data regarding the major southern State.

PAPER-1 of the Census of India 2001, Series-34, entitled 'Provisional Population Totals', pertaining to Tamil Nadu, has been brought out by the Director of Census Operations for Tamil Nadu. It contains interesting preliminary material on several aspects of changes in the population since the 1991 Census including population growth, sex ratios and literacy rates and disaggregation by district and gender. The document should be of great interest, even given the provisional nature of the data, and the fact that several other aspects, such as disaggregation by residence, workforce participation and so on, are yet to be published.

Tamil Nadu's population stood at 62,110,839 as of 00.00 hours of March 1, 2001. It is the sixth most populous State of the Indian Union behind Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra, Bihar, West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh. The State accounts for 6.05 per cent of the country's population. Its population density at 478 persons per square kilometre, up from 429 in 1991, and much higher than the all-India density of 324, makes it the eleventh most densely populated State (1991 rank:10).


During the decade 1991-2001, Tamil Nadu reported the second lowest decadal growth in population after Kerala, among the group of States with population exceeding 20 million in 2001. While Kerala's population grew by 9.42 per cent between 1991 and 2001, Tamil Nadu's grew by 11.19 per cent. In fact, Tamil Nadu, Kerala and Orissa are the only three States in this group to have shown a decline in decadal percentage change in population in every decade since 1971. Among the southern States, Andhra Pradesh has shown the sharpest decline in percentage decadal growth in population from 24.2 in the period 1981-1991 to 13.86 in 1991-2001.

Tamil Nadu has also performed reasonably well in terms of literacy growth during the decade 1991-2001. The State's literacy rate increased from 62.66 per cent in 1991 to 73.47 per cent in 2001. The female literacy rate increased from 51.33 per cent in 1991 to 64.55 per cent in 2001, while the male literacy rate grew at a slower pace from 73.75 per cent in 1991 to 82.33 per cent in 2001. This is in line with trends elsewhere in the country, with female literacy growing more rapidly from a lower base level, but of course considerably behind male literacy levels. As is the case with every State/Union Territory except tiny Dadra and Nagar Haveli, the gender gap in literacy has declined in Tamil Nadu, but still remains large at 17.78 percentage points. This is almost as large as in Andhra Pradesh (19.68) and Karnataka (18.84), and way above Kerala's at 6.34 percentage points. However, there are several positive features of the State' progress in literacy.

The population sex ratio for Tamil Nadu has increased from 974 females per 1,000 males in 1991 to 986 in 2001. This is true of most States. Only four States among those with a population exceeding 20 million in 2001 - Haryana, Gujarat, Maharashtra and Punjab - report a decline in population sex ratios between 1991 and 2001. However, Tamil Nadu's child sex ratio - defined as the number of girls per 1,000 boys in the age group of 0-6 years - shows a decline from 948 in 1991 to 939 in 2001. The decline in child sex ratios in some districts of the State is quite alarming.

NOW for the disaggregated picture at the district level. The decadal percentage increase in population is lower between 1991 and 2001 as compared to 1981-1991 for most districts as it is for the State as a whole. The only exceptions are Coimbatore, Salem and Namakkal. This compares with eight districts reporting an increase in the decadal percentage increase in population between 1981 and 1991 as compared with 1971-1981. An examination of decadal increases since 1901 shows that in 18 out of the State's current 30 districts, the intercensal percentage increase has been declining in every decade during the period 1971-2001. For 15 of these 18 districts, this is true for the period 1961-2001.

The percentage decadal growth in population between 1991 and 2001 has been especially low in the central and southern districts, with only Virudhunagar and Tirunelveli reporting growth higher than the State average of 11.19. Among the districts reporting relatively high growth rates of population, we really seem to have two categories: Coimbatore, Tiruvallur, Kancheepuram and Vellore possibly reflecting growth of industries and some in-migration, on the one hand, and Dharmapuri, Salem and Namakkal reflecting high fertility arising from very strong son preference, on the other. This argument is of course somewhat speculative at this point in time, and one would need data on migration and fertility to confirm this.

What emerges overall is that the trend of decline in population growth in Tamil Nadu is now widely spread among practically all its districts. Its gender implications may not always be sanguine, as we shall see later.

TAMIL NADU'S literacy map in 2001 looks impressive in comparison with most States. Among the major states, it is just behind Maharashtra but way behind Kerala. An encouraging feature of the progress between 1991 and 2001 is the significant reduction in inter-district variation as well as in the gender gap in literacy. The difference between the highest and the lowest district literacy rates in 1991 was 44.16 percentage points for females, 30.65 for males and 36.04 overall. The corresponding figures for 2001 are 36.28, 22.06 and 28.88 - still large, but reflecting some progress. In 1991, only four of the current 30 districts reported a female literacy rate in excess of 60 per cent. In 2001, the number is 20. Similarly, only four districts reported a male literacy rate exceeding 80 per cent in 1991. The number in 2001 is 23. Sixteen districts out of the current 30 had female literacy rates below 50 per cent in 1991. In 2001, only Dharmapuri has that dubious distinction.

The gender gap in literacy has also come down throughout the State. In 1991, in 27 out of 30 districts, the male literacy rate exceeded the female literacy rate by more than 20 percentage points. This number has now come down to 13, again large enough to forbid complacency, but some progress all the same.

The mass literacy campaigns of the early 1990s - known in the State as "Arivoli Iyakkams" - have no doubt played a significant part in this progress, despite the fact that, after the early and enthusiastic high points of 1991-1993, the campaigns lost their participatory character due to bureaucratisation and other factors. But their contribution lay not only in their direct achievements in making people - especially women - literate, but even more in encouraging and convincing parents, especially the neoliterates and non-literates, to send children to school. The literacy achievements as such of the campaigns is difficult to measure, especially at this distance in time from when they took place, and in view of the failure of the State government to put in place an effective system of post-literacy and continuing education that could have minimised relapse into illiteracy for the neoliterates. When data on literacy rates by age groups becomes available, it should be possible to see the impact of increased enrolment and retention in elementary education on overall literacy.

A word of caution against complacency on the literacy front is perhaps in order. It is sobering to note that despite the professed commitment to universal primary education by successive governments in the State - this in itself being a considerable dilution of the constitutional commitment to eight years of free and compulsory education for all - male (and of course, female) literacy rates, even by the rather minimalist census way of reckoning, are nowhere near full literacy. According to the 2001 Census, more than a third of females in the State in the 7+ population remain illiterate. This figure is greater than 40 per cent in 10 districts, with female non-literates outnumbering female literates in Dharmapuri district. Neighbouring Kerala is a constant reminder of what is possible, given the political will.

POPULATION sex ratios have increased between 1991 and 2001 in practically all districts of Tamil Nadu. The only exceptions are Dharmapuri, where it has declined from an already low figure of 942 to 938, and Thoothukudi, where it has declined marginally from a high of 1,051 to 1,049 - still the highest in the State. As many as 17 out of 30 districts report a sex ratio in excess of the State average of 986. The southern districts - with the significant exceptions of Madurai and Theni - report sex ratios in excess of 1,000, while Chennai and its neighbouring districts of Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram as well as Coimbatore report somewhat lower sex ratios, reflecting in considerable part male in-migration from other districts for employment in industry. But there are at least two districts where sex ratios are considerably lower than the State average - Dharmapuri (938) and Salem (929) - for reasons other than sex selective migration. This becomes immediately evident if we look at child sex ratios(CSRs). While the Census Paper for Tamil Nadu does not give the district-wise CSRs for 2001, it gives the break-up of the population aged 0-6 years by sex, thus enabling one to work out the CSRs. Data on CSRs for 1991 for the 21 districts existing then have been worked out from the 1991 Census papers.

The CSR for Tamil Nadu declined from 948 in 1991 to 939 in 2001. Several districts have also shown declines. While in 1991, 12 out of the then existing 21 districts had a CSR greater than 960, in 2001 only nine out of the current 30 districts have a CSR exceeding 960. Seven districts have a CSR below 930 in 2001: Salem (826), Dharmapuri (878), Theni (893), Namakkal (896), Karur (923), Madurai (927) and Dindigul (929). These are also the districts where there is considerable evidence from the field of widespread practice of female infanticide (Frontline, July 11, 1997 and October 9, 1998). Besides these districts where the CSR is low, the district of Vellore has shown a sharp decline in CSR from 962 to 937. It is a fact that female infanticide is widespread in the Tirupathur division of this district as well as in some blocks of neighbouring Tiruvannamalai district.

The decline in CSRs is more widespread than it may appear at first sight. If one takes a look at the 1991 CSRs of the districts of Chengai (now, Tiruvallur and Kancheepuram), Viluppuram (now, Viluppuram and Cuddalore) and Tiruchirapalli (now, Karur, Perambalur, Ariyalur and Tiruchirapalli), and the CSRs in 2001 of the new districts carved out of them, this becomes evident. In all the cases, the CSR of each one of the newly constituted districts in 2001 is lower than that in 1991 of the district out of which it was carved.

Perhaps the most worrying message of the 2001 Census for Tamil Nadu is that unless efforts on a mass scale are urgently taken to address the issues of patriarchy, son preference and the neglect or worse in relation to the female foetus, infant and child, the decline in birth rates which are often celebrated unthinkingly by policymakers may well have been bought at the cost of grave gender inequality, with its own devastating long-run consequences. Universalisation of the small family norm without a concomitant attack on son preference, and in the context of a largely commercialised medical profession for whom ethical concerns are not high on the agenda, and an overall permissive atmosphere where State or community intervention is generally frowned upon, can be disastrous for the gender balance of a population.

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

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