1. Column: No proof required; The end of the son preference begins

Column: No proof required; The end of the son preference begins

The rise and fall of the emerging middle-class mirrors changes in the sex ratio at birth.

By: and | Updated: August 15, 2015 12:28 AM

Exactly a year ago, in his Independence Day address, prime minister Modi highlighted the unpleasant reality that India was a kudi-maar (daughter-killing) nation. He said, “Have we seen our sex ratio? Who is creating this imbalance in society? Not the Almighty. I appeal to doctors not to kill the girl child.” This was a first—a PM openly discussing the shame of our traditional society, the fact that we had wantonly killed the girl child and had been doing so for centuries. Prior to the advent of Modi’s “unscrupulous doctors” practicing abortion of the girl foetus, Indian parents had enforced a son-preference society through neglect, or infanticide, of the girl child.

Modi also pointed to the culpability of parents who treated daughters and sons unequally. He zeroed into a key ingredient of gender inequality—discrimination in educational opportunities between sons and daughters—and coined the slogan “Beti bachao, beti padhao”. Social scientists have for long pointed out that intra-household discrimination in food, education and health care translates into higher girl child mortality and lesser human capability development among girls and women. But what India began to do from the 1980s and much more starkly, from 2001 onwards, was to eliminate daughters even before they could be born. Or even before they could be conceived (by using pre-conception sex selection methods such as sperm sorting, pre-implantation genetic diagnosis, etc). Gender-biased sex selection had become the fashionable way of planning the desired family, one which had few or, preferably, no daughters.

Nature produces a stylised constant at birth—105 boys born for every 100 girls born (this is equivalent to the Indian version of the neutral sex ratio, 950 girls born for every 1,000 boys). Nature also produces a higher mortality rate for boys such that by the early teens, an equal number of boys and girls are present in society. That is as it should be in civilised societies. In India, the sex ratio at birth (SRB) averaged around 110 in the mid-1980s. Both in the mid-1990s and mid-2000s (2004, to be precise) the sex-ratio peaked at around 113 boys for every 100 girls born. In 2000-2002, the SRB was 112 boys to a 100 girls; it began improving in 2005-2007, and the latest (2012) estimate produced by the Sample Registration System (SRS) is 110.

The story is one of transformation: in eight years (2005-2012), the sex ratio improved by approximately the same amount that it had lost in the previous twenty years. This means that the number of girls killed at birth has declined. According to a new report by the UNFPA, How many girls are missing at birth in India: Trends in the Sex Ratio at Birth, 2001-2012, the missing number of girls has come down to 290,000 in 2012, much lower than the average of 450,000 for the previous 12 years. What happened?

According to our research, a major reason for this turn-around is the changing mix of the share of the middle-class in the population (Sex Ratio at Birth—The Role of Class and Education, UNFPA, forthcoming). On a broad-brush basis, a society has four classes—the absolute poor, the not-poor but not-middle-class which we call the emerging middle class (EMC); the middle-class and the rich. The middle-class is defined according to the poverty line in rich economies; in 2011, it was approximately equal to PPP $12 per person per day. This middle-class line separates the poor from the beginning of the middle-class in developed societies.

The concept of the EMC is those who are poor by international standards (income below PPP $12 or R221 per person per day as per 2014 prices) but not poor by domestic standards. The latter, in India’s case, is an income level corresponding to R59/day (PPP $ 3.2 a day) , somewhat higher than the Tendulkar consumption poverty line of R37 per day. So, the range of incomes for which a person’s income is between the income poverty line (R59/day) and the international poverty/middle-class line (R221 per day) are defined by us to be the emerging middle class. The difference between the two middle-classes is important, very important. They differ in terms of income, of course, but also in terms of their attitudes and behaviour.

The EMC consists of people who have climbed out of poverty and whose goal is to become members of the middle-class, a class that no longer has worries about slipping back below the poverty line. The class status affects the demand for both the number of children and its sex composition. But changing the latter involves significant expenditure. The poor, while they may want to affect the sex of their child, cannot afford to do so. The international middle-class has education and values which does not favour sex selection. They emphasise child quality a lot more than child quantity, so they tend not to sex select. Summarising, the poor are too poor to afford sex selection; the emerging middle-class has the desire and ability to execute sex selection; the stable middle-class has the financial ability but no longer the desire to select the sex of progeny.

If this framework is broadly acceptable (and we find it to be empirically valid), a major explanation for trends in the proportion practising sex selection in India is the size of the emerging middle class. Its size grew post the 1980s, coming to a peak in the early part of the 21st century. In 1984, the poor accounted for 57% of the population and the EMC for 40.5%. In 2004, the proportions were 28.2% poor, 59% EMC and 12.8% middle-class. By 2012, the proportion of EMC was at 59%, after reaching a peak of 62% in 2009, and middle-class had risen to 30.4%. According to trends, the size of the EMC is expected to decline to less than 32% by 2025. With this decline, the sex ratio at birth in 2025 is expected to be the lowest ever, and close to the neutral 105 level.

In 2011, we had first offered this optimistic scenario based on SRS data till 2008 and NSS data for 2009-10. The latter showed that India had achieved a turnaround and that, primarily because of the growth of the middle class, the SRS sex ratio would show this turn-around when data became available. Our results were met with considerable scepticism by editors and experts alike—hence, a week later, we presented a second paper detailing the basis of our results (The girl child’s future, November 5, 2011, and More girls being born not less, November 12, 2011, The Indian Express).

We are somewhat surprised (but pleasantly so!) that our forecast turned out to be very accurate, and this emboldens us in making our prediction that after a decade, daughter-discrimination will officially end in most parts of the country (excepting Haryana, and to a lesser extent, Punjab). But who knows, maybe the demonstration effect will end the scourge sooner than predicted by our model.

Bhalla is contributing editor, The Financial Express, and senior India analyst, The Observatory Group, a New York-based policy advisory group; Kaur is professor of sociology, Department of Humanities, IIT Delhi

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