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Explained Ideas: Why India must urgently step up efforts to improve its sex ratio

The skewed sex ratio could upset the gains from a falling fertility rate, write Rangarajan and Satia.

In their joint opinion piece in The Indian Express, C Rangarajan (former Chairman, Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council) and J K Satia (Professor Emeritus, Indian Institute of Public Health) argue that there is an urgent need to reach young people both for reproductive health education and services as well as to cultivate gender equity norms.

Here’s why.

Fertility has been declining in India for some time now. The Sample Registration System (SRS) Statistical Report (2018) estimated the Total Fertility Rate (TFR), the number of children a mother would have at the current pattern of fertility during her lifetime, as 2.2 in the year 2018.

Fertility is likely to continue to decline and it is estimated that replacement TFR of 2.1 would soon be, if not already, reached for India as a whole.

Many people believe that the population would stabilise or begin to reduce in a few years once replacement fertility is reached.

“This is not so because of the population momentum effect, a result of more people entering the reproductive age group of 15-49 years due to the past high-level of fertility. For instance, the replacement fertility level was reached in Kerala around 1990, but its annual population growth rate was 0.7 per cent in 2018, nearly 30 years later,” state the authors. That is why the UN Population Division has estimated that India’s population would possibly peak at 161 crore around 2061.

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But the most troubling statistics in the SRS report are for sex ratio at birth.

Biologically normal sex ratio at birth is 1,050 males to 1,000 females or 950 females to 1,000 males.

The SRS reports show that sex ratio at birth in India, measured as the number of females per 1,000 males, declined marginally from 906 in 2011 to 899 in 2018.

There is considerable son preference in all states, except possibly in Kerala and Chhattisgarh. The UNFPA State of World Population 2020 estimated the sex ratio at birth in India as 910, lower than all the countries in the world except China.

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“This is a cause for concern because this adverse ratio results in a gross imbalance in the number of men and women and its inevitable impact on marriage systems as well as other harms to women,” they state.

Thus, much more attention is needed on this issue.

“Increasing female education and economic prosperity help to improve the ratio,” they point out. It is hoped that a balanced sex ratio at birth could be realised over time, although this does not seem to be happening during the period 2011-18.

“In view of the complexity of son preference resulting in gender-biased sex selection, government actions need to be supplemented by improving women’s status in the society,” they argue.

In conclusion, there is an urgent need to reach young people both for reproductive health education and services as well as to cultivate gender equity norms. This could reduce the effect of population momentum and accelerate progress towards reaching a more normal sex-ratio at birth. India’s population future depends on it.

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