Male child preference is back, with a vengeance.
India’s declining total fertility ratio (TFR), in both rural and urban areas, may be good news, but read along with the sex-ratio at birth (SRB), the country may be headed towards a demographic disaster. Thanks to many factors, such as the improvement in education levels, especially among women, and access to healthcare and contraception for women, the TFR fell to 2.2 in 2017—just above the WHO recommended replacement level of 2.1. The SRB, as per the Sample Registration System (SRS) data, however, fell to an all-time low of 896 in FY17.
As per a Times of India analysis, this means 117 lakh girls are missing in the country. This is unfortunate since the SRB had been improving over the past few years; it was 909 females for every 1,000 men in the three years ending 2013. More worrying, the SRB is lower in urban areas; at 890, it is much lower than the 898 in rural areas. And, while the SRB rose in states like Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Maharashtra and Gujarat that were traditionally seen as laggards, a state like Kerala that had a high SBR traditionally saw a big dip, from 974 to 948.
While the fall in fertility rate is welcome, combined with the decline in the SBR, this means India is likely to continue to see a fall in fertility rates; over the next couple of decades, India could be looking at a big dependency problem. The sex ratio skew hints at illegal sex determination and related termination of pregnancy thriving despite the laws to crack down on this. A crackdown in Punjab—a state with one of the worst SBRs in the country—resulted in, so far this year, 60 sex-determination centres being caught.
Factor in the advances in assisted reproductive technologies, and the fact that India’s IVF market is booming, and sex selection becomes a formidable beast to defeat. Given how the existing laws banning sex selection have not been able to prevent it from happening illegally, the Indian Medical Association had demanded the repeal of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act earlier this year, saying that the law unfairly puts the onus of stalling sex selection also on the medical and para-medical fraternity. However, against the backdrop that the SRS paints, such a demand is not only unsound, it is harmful too. For its part, the government must realise that its Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao needs to be retargetted—it is focussed primarily on the poor and in rural areas whereas the problem is equally large in urban areas and among the not-so-poor.