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Indians want less children now, but want them as sons

August 28, 2019 08:30 IST

Less children are being born in India. But less daughters too, points out the Sample Registration System data from the Registrar General of India. Abhishek Waghmare reports.

An overcrowded train on the outskirts of New Delhi. Photograph: Ahmad Masood/Reuters.

The year in which India will surpass China in population has been extended from 2022 to 2027. Photograph: Ahmad Masood/Reuters.

The country’s peculiar mantra has been proved to be true once again: Indians now plan fewer children than before on an average, but end up giving birth to fewer daughters than before among the children so born.

 

The Sample Registration System data from the Registrar General of India has brought this under spotlight once again.

A baby is born in Kolkata. Photograph: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters.

The number of females born per 1,000 male births has declined to 898 in the triennium ending 2017. Photograph: Jayanta Shaw/Reuters.

India’s total fertility rate -- the number of children expected to be born per woman during her entire span of reproductive period -- has reduced from 2.3 in 2016 to 2.2 in 2017. This is closer to the replacement rate, or a TFR of 2.1, where population growth stabilises. Couples in both cities as well as villages, across almost all states, have unanimously contributed to having less children, and the decline of TFR as a result.

Delhi kids ride in a cart on the way home from school. Photograph: Pawel Kopcznski/Reuters.

The preference for sons has been getting starker in rural areas. Photograph: Pawel Kopcznski/Reuters.

This trend is in line with the population projections by the United Nations, which have been revised downward in recent years. The year in which India will surpass China in population has been extended from 2022 (according to 2015 report) to 2027 (according to the 2019 report).

This improvement gets eclipsed by a stark worsening of the already adverse sex ratio at birth. After improving till triennium (three-year period) ending 2013 to 910, the number of females born per 1,000 male births has declined to 898 in triennium ending 2017.

While that in cities had declined the most till 2015, the preference for sons has been getting darker in rural areas more recently. Under natural circumstances, sex ratio at birth falls between 950 and 955, according to research.

One of the world's largest families at Baktawng village, Mizoram. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters.

One of the world's largest families at Baktawng village, Mizoram. Photograph: Adnan Abidi/Reuters.

“Use of sex-selection techniques is the biggest cause, and it refuses to budge. Indians want less children now, but want them as sons. Major behavioural changes are needed to address this issue,” said Poonam Muttreja, executive director at the Population Foundation of India, a think tank.

Babies just born in a Lucknow hospital. Photograph: Pawan Kumar/Reuters.

Indians want less children now, but want them as sons. Photograph: Pawan Kumar/Reuters.

The last economic survey authored by former Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian (2017-18) had underlined the “meta-preference” towards sons in detail. It had also showed that sex ratio for the last child in states such as Punjab and Haryana was less than even 500.

Sex ratio at birth has already been lower in cities than villages. But the SRS data also shows that it is Telangana, Delhi, Kerala, along with Bihar, that have shown the sharpest worsening in recent years. In Telangana, SRB declined 21 points, from 918 to 897 from 2015 to 2017. While the case in Delhi and Kerala is similar, that in Bihar is different.

People crowd a boat on the Ichamati river at Hasnabad, West Bengal. Photograph: Parth Sanyal/Reuters.

India's working-age population will grow by roughly 9.7 million per year during 2021-31. Photograph: Parth Sanyal/Reuters.

“Social norms that prefer male children result in lack of nutrition in girls in relatively poorer states such as Bihar. But in more urbanised states, it is the richer households that are preferring more sons due to flawed social and economic reasons,” said Muttreja.

The SRS data also demonstrated that the proportion of “economically active” population (15-59) as well as old-age population (60 plus) in India is rising. While the former constitutes 65.4 per cent of the populace, the latter was at 8.2 per cent in 2017.

Ahmedabad school children mark World Population Day. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters.

Ahmedabad school children mark World Population Day. Photograph: Amit Dave/Reuters.

The latest economic survey had warned about the waning demographic dividend in India.

“India's working-age population will grow by roughly 9.7 million per year during 2021-2031 and 4.2 million per year during 2031-2041. Meanwhile, the proportion of elementary school-going children, i.e. 5 to 14 age group, will witness significant declines,” it said, adding that India needs to prepare for ageing, too.

The declining fertility rate has two outliers: TFR has increased only in the urban areas of West Bengal and Jammu & Kashmir, from 1.2 to 1.3 in the former, while from 1.0 to 1.2 in the latter.

Abhishek Waghmare in Mumbai
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