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Fertility rates fall but problem of missing girl child persists

By DM Deshpande

The Registrar General of India has come out with Sample Registration System (SRS) figures for the year 2017. It has both good news and bad news. First the good news, India is on the cusp of stabilizing its population growth to replacement levels. The total fertility rate (TFR) has come down from 2.3 to 2.2.  It means increasingly Indian families are showing preference for families with fewer children.  Not only has the TFR dipped, there are visible signs that it will go down further to below 2.1, which is the replacement level. At this level, the population stabilizes with almost no increase or decrease in total numbers. If a couple on an average leave behind 2 children, then total population remains the same. Yet 2.1 is considered as universal replacement level because of infant mortalities, accidents terminal diseases etc.

So all those skeptics who swore by neo-Malthusian theory that population will grow in geometric proportion till a famine, starvation or civil strife restores balance are proved wrong. Literacy, education, up-liftment from abysmal poverty levels and above all better health care including access to contraceptives have ensured that the population growth is stunted. In short social and economic progress has resulted in positive outcomes on demographic front. However, the bad news is that the sex ratio, that is, the number of females to males has deteriorated. In 2015-17, number of female babies born to every 1000 males has fallen to a record low of 896. This translates into devastating tale of 11.7 million missing girl children. Preference for male child seems to continue unabated throughout India. Southern states including the state of Kerala too, which otherwise have excellent record, have a sex ratio that is skewed heavily in favour of boys. 

Falling sex ratio is further collaborated by the Economic Survey of 2017-18 which points out that it has fallen to 1.82:1. Ideally it should be 1.05:1. This has manifested itself in increased crimes against women, human trafficking and acute scarcity of brides in some parts of India. If allowed to continue, this has the potent to create social disorder and psychological problems in the society.

Clearly, pro-active measures are needed from the government and specified non-government organisations to arrest this disturbing trend. The government especially, needs to go beyond slogans ‘beti padhao, beti bachao’. It is imperative to involve local communities, give appropriate financial incentives to girl children and conduct gender sensitization programs on a scale larger than envisaged so far. Sex determination tests, even after having been declared illegal, continue in several parts of both urban and rural India. The culprit is the law enforcement agency because  very often with connivance of political class the guilty gets away scot-free. This has to be fixed at the earliest.

The fall in fertility rates should finally put to rest some of the raging controversies. Decline in fertility rates for Muslim women is faster than Hindu women as per the National Family Health Survey (NFHS) recently. In fact Muslim women in southern states have a lower TFR when compared with their Hindu counterparts in northern India. While TFR has declined pan India, it has declined the most in backward states. Yet Bihar is the worst performing state in this regard. At least the pet theories of some people going rounds that we will be swamped by growing Muslim population ought to come to a halt.

This is akin to an advanced notice. How do we manage this transition of demographic change will determine how well we progress socio-economically. South and west India will see ageing population and need for migrant people from the North. There are visible and disturbing signs of sub-nationalism and parochial sentiments on the rise. Ham handed imposition of Hindi may revoke sharp reactions especially in Tamil Nadu. Entire political class need to be sensitized about the demographic developments and how they lead their respective states as thought leaders for economic progress. Growing elderly population will need higher public investment in health care, pensions and social security. These are obviously different challenges but we have some time to prepare and face them as a nation.        

*The writer is in the field of higher education- teaching, research and administration for nearly four decades. Presently he is the Vice Chancellor of ISBM University, Chattisgarh

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