The missing million and other horror stories

There are nearly one million fewer girls than boys in India and not enough is being done to change this.

Census 2011 has brought out a terrifying figure. As per the Single Year Age Data released recently, for children below the age of one, there are nearly one million fewer girls than boys. Further, in the age group 0-4, the difference in the number of girls and boys is 4.46 million. Is this normal? If not, why are these girls missing? Is it that fewer girls are being born, or are fewer of them surviving?”


Global figures indicate that the ratio of female live births to male live births is approximately 950-975 per 1000 under normal biological circumstances, i.e., when there is no discrimination between the sexes. On the other hand, infant mortality is biologically expected to be higher for male infants than for female infants, meaning that fewer male infants are expected to survive till age 1 as compared to female infants. Taking both these facts together, the female to male ratio for age less than 1 should be well above 950-975. But the ratio as per the above figures is around 910. Therefore, this situation is definitely not normal, and the reasons need to be examined and addressed.

Well before the Single Year Age data is released, the Census of India publishes two basic gender indicators- the Sex Ratio, which is the number of females per 1000 males in the total population count, and the Child Sex Ratio (CSR), which is the number of females per 1000 males in the age group 0-6.

The graph below shows how the Sex Ratio and the Child Sex Ratio indicators have changed over the last fifty years. While the Sex Ratio has varied in a narrow band, first falling and then rising, the CSR has been falling sharply and steadily. The rise in the Sex Ratio is related to a shift in female and male adult mortality and life expectancy over this period, life expectancy is now higher for females than for males thus, in line with the rest of the world; the inflexion point at which the female figure rose beyond the male figure came in the late 70s.

This situation has come about due to a substantial improvement in health, nutrition, and economic conditions in general. How is it then that this improvement has not translated into better chances for girl children to survive, and is instead correlated to a sharp fall in the ratio of girls?

To investigate the reasons, we first need to find out at what stage are the girls falling out of the count- before birth or after? A look at the available data can give some answers.

Chart 1(Source-Census of India)

This is where data from the Sample Registration Survey (SRS), conducted bi-annually by the Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India, comes in. The SRS is the only reliable and regular source of vital statistics in India, including birth, death and fertility rates. It provides estimates of the Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB), i.e. the number of female live births per 1000 male live births. It also provides the Infant Mortality Rate or IMR (deaths per 1000 live births at age less than 1) and the Under 5 Mortality Rate or U5MR (deaths per 1000 live births at age less than 5).

The table below shows the SRB as per SRS 2012 for India and major states by rural and urban areas. The urban figures are in most cases lower than the rural figures, and are lower than 900 in several states. Urban Haryana and Jharkhand and rural Punjab have the worst rates of slightly more than 850- meaning that well over 100 girls per 1000 boys are not being born in these areas.

chart 2


(Source-SRS 2012, Registrar General & Census Commissioner India)

Coming to the aspect of survival after birth, it is found that, for children in general, IMR and U5MR have substantially improved over the past decade.

However, there are substantial differences in the male and female IMR and U5MR. The Infant Mortality Rate for males and females differs, at 41 vs. 44, while the Under 5 Mortality Rate (U5MR) shows an even sharper variation, 49 vs. 56. This is in contrast to the normal situation where male IMR/U5MR is expected to be slightly higher than the female figure.

It is found that the IMR shows a small but consistent gap between males and females across all states. However, the gap in U5MR is remarkably high in several states, especially for rural areas. The table shows U5MR, for India and major states, for rural and urban areas. Rajasthan, Chhattisgarh, UP, Madhya Pradesh, Assam and even prosperous Haryana and Punjab show very high differences.

Chart 3


Source-SRS 2012, Registrar General & Census Commissioner India

Thus it appears that the bulk of the missing girls are simply not being born, and a smaller proportion fail to survive beyond infancy and early childhood.

What needs to be examined is why and how is this happening?

The likely reason for a low Sex Ratio at Birth is well known- female foeticide as a result of ultrasound based sex determination. The issue was first highlighted in the 1991 Census, in which it was found that the Child Sex Ratio had fallen below 900 in Punjab, Haryana, Western UP and parts of Gujarat. The Pre Conception and Pre Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994 was enacted in its wake. Though the law is a powerful one, it appears to be sorely lacking in implementation.

The gender report from NFHS3, the National Family Health Survey Round 3 which was conducted in 2005-06, presents some chilling facts about SRB differentials. It shows that SRB worsens with increased wealth of the households; it worsens with increased education of the mother; and most importantly it is much worse for the last birth than for all births. The overall conclusion from the report is that as households become more prosperous, the economic imperative of having a small family becomes stronger. This, combined with the cultural preference for having at least one son, leads to sex selection, if not in the first birth, then in the last desired birth, which is usually the second or third child. Also, better medical facilities, especially commercial private medical establishments, make it easy to avail of sex selection techniques. This situation creates a vicious cycle in which social pressures and commercial interests combine. Thus, the model of development and prosperity playing out in the country turns out to be less of the solution and more of the cause for the bad SRB.

The solution lies in strong political will to ensure cultural change as well as implementation of the PNDT Act. In some states, such as Punjab, where the ratios were earlier even worse than they are now, there has been substantial improvement through these factors. Maharashtra has done well in implementing the Act. In most states, however, the situation has remained static or become worse since the last Census. A lot, therefore, needs to done, and done soon.

Regarding the gaps in IMR and U5MR, it could be that female infanticide still prevails in some parts of the country. That apart, it is probable that girl children are less likely to get proper medical care when ill, and are thus less likely to survive. The NFHS3 gender report shows a small but significant gender gap in immunisation rates, though not so much in malnutrition. Perhaps the CAB (Clinical, Anthropometric and Biochemical) component of the Annual Health Survey, presently being conducted by the Registrar General and Census Commissioner, will tell us more about the contributing factors.

The long-term consequences of heavy gender imbalances are not hard to imagine. Already we know of villages in Haryana where there are no brides to be had and therefore girls are imported from poorer states for the purpose. At any rate, girls deserve to live. And we are not yet doing enough to ensure it.

Picture: Roshnii