New data from the Census have confirmed yet again what is now very well known — the Indian desire for a male child, even if at the exclusion of a female child, is widespread and well-established. Within this known phenomenon, however, are two different and in some ways contrasting processes that are going on simultaneously among different socio-economic groups, processes with great import for India’s demographic future. On the one hand, there is a clear birth advantage for male children in India, an advantage of such magnitude that it is almost certainly artificial. Among women who had one child, 22 million said that they had a girl and 28.5 million had a boy, clearly indicating a disproportionately large number of boys being born. Even given the small genetic and biological advantage that boys enjoy, meaning that a slightly larger number of boys than girls are naturally born, there is an implication of pre-natal sex selection which is leading to more boys being born. This unnatural disadvantage continues in slightly larger families; half of all families with two children have a boy and girl, another one-third have both boys, and just one-sixth have both girls. It is only in large families that the trend reverses.
India has had remarkable success in lowering fertility to the extent that its southern Stateshave now reached replacement levels of fertility, at which the population growth will stabilise and the population as a whole will stop growing. What’s all the more admirable is that this change has come largely without coercive measures of the sort adopted by China, with the belief that education, access to health and economic prosperity, particularly for women, automatically drive down female fertility among all social groups. However, there is growing evidence that in the absence of a genuine transformation in gender relations, the push for smaller families is making pre-natal sex selection more common. While families might have chosen in the past to have repeated pregnancies until a male child was born — as borne out by the far higher likelihood of the youngest children of a large family being boys — as smaller families become a social norm, families are being pushed towards artificial methods of ensuring a male offspring. Indeed, the new Census data bear witness to this. Smaller families are more likely to have more boys than girls, while the larger ones have more girls than boys. Anecdotal evidence suggests that lack of access to pre-natal sex determination technology meant better sex ratios among more marginalised communities, but with growing urbanisation these barriers are falling too. India must build on its success at bringing down fertility levels, but it cannot be unmindful of the immense cost to its girl children this is coming at. It must begin a meaningful conversation on gender equality, backed with a gender-equal economic regime, going forward, or this will be a hollow demographic transition.