The preference of much of South Asia’s families for male children has been well documented in both academic and popular papers. Often, male preference is attributed to “cultural” factors grounded in both social/community preference and perception (like status or standing in the community) and in economics (males viewed as more likely to provide money for the family). While the historical extent of male preference is outside the scope of this post, we can safely say that male preference at birth (manifested by female infanticide, the killing of female foetuses, and sex-selective abortions) has been ongoing for at least the past 30 years, probably longer. The population impact has been terrible, according to United Nations Population Fund paper published in 2010, India is “missing” over 600,000 girls, and that’s only from prenatal selection (or sex-selective abortion) between 2001 and 2007. In other words, that does not count infanticide making the number of missing higher.
Today’s post looks at the demographic impact of this “cultural” preference on geography through the case of Haryana, a state in India’s northwest. But first, how do we know there is a preference among families and society for males? Aside from the anecdotal “cultural” evidence, depictions in media and so on, there are demographic statistics we rely on. As part of the preliminary results of the 2011 Indian Census, the Indian government published the total sex ratio (the number of women per 1,000 men) of its states and territories based on the results from the 2011 and 2001 censuses. Available on wikipedia (as well as the Census website, and reproduced below), we find that Haryana is among the worst states for the total sex ratio, 877 women per 1,000 men. The total sex ratio is reflective of the population at-large, and while it does reveal male preference over time it doesn’t reflect current levels (or the persistence) of male preference at birth. The child sex ratio (defined as the ratio of girls to 1,000 boys aged 0 to 6) is another measure of sexual imbalance in a young population, but it is also influenced by such factors as non-registration of female children. Finally, the sex ratio at birth (defined as the number of female babies born per 1,000 male babies) captures male preference at birth, including sex-selective abortions, but misses infanticide. When looking at these numbers, its important to keep in mind what other factors (besides the one you’re looking for) is potentially influencing the statistic.
Haryan’s child sex ratio betrays a continuing preference for males (and potentially, under-reporting of females). According to the Census data, the 2011 child sex ratio was 830 girls per 1,000 boys (compared with 877 girls per 1,000 boys in the total population). The child sex ratio has only a slight disparity between rural and urban areas with rural areas reporting 831 girls and urban areas reporting 829 girls per 1,000 boys. The all India child sex ratio is 914 girls per 1,000 boys (as reported in the Economic Times), as that article notes, this is actually a decrease from 2001, when the ratio was 927. The Haryana data also betrays a significant decrease in the child sex ratio, from 964 girls to the current ratio of 830. This is very large decrease and I wonder if it is a typo (perhaps 864?) or an example in a collapse in the reporting of female children in the system?
Even without the revelation of the lower sex ratio between the decadal censuses, the lower sex ratio is significant. Depending on the demographer you ask, a “normal” sex ratio is just over 1,000 girls to 1,000 boys. The reason for this is that females are naturally stronger than males, not strong as in physical strength, but in terms of physiological resilience. Female babies are stronger and women tend to live longer. Examine population pyramids for any country and you will almost always find larger numbers of elderly women (especially in the 80s, 90s, and 100+ age ranges) than men. Sorry guys, but we are the weaker of the species and we try to make up for it with physical prowess (which kills or maims us and generally shortens our life spans anyways, see: war).
While this low child sex ratio in Haryana (and India in general, with the notable exception of Kerala state) implies a continuing problem for the next generation or two, the geographic behavior of Haryana residents has already been affected. According to the Times of India article that inspired this post, a study funded by the Norwegian embassy in India found that the “skewed” sex ratio in Haryana is forcing “poor, upper caste youths” to “hunt for brides” in other states of India; Assam, Odisha, Bihar, Maharashtra, and West Bengal. One of the key findings of course is that the unbalanced sex ratio in Haryana is disproportionately affecting poorer upper caste men. For a bit of background, India is infamous for its caste which, generally, organizes the population into four broad-based classes and “out-castes” (from which we derive the term “outcast”). Of course, each caste group is further sub-divided so that even among the top caste (or Brahmin) there are higher sub-castes than others. What makes the caste system infamous is its rigidity, its direct and indirect influence on your life chances, and of course, that it still exists (though steps are being taken to lessen its influence). Its similar to civil rights movement in the United States, and that’s not even completed yet, everything is a work in progress. At any rate, rich upper caste youth in Haryana have a greater chance of marrying other upper caste women in Haryana (since there’s less women they can be pickier).
Another very interesting finding is that “shortage of women is not common across all caste groups in the conjugal regions, but is endemic in dominant caste groups of Jats and Yadavs.” The implication is that this situation is a rich person’s problem. Like most societies, the rich in India have the most vested interest in maintaining the status quo: the caste system (of which they sit atop), dowry, and other such “traditional” notions. But the interesting turn of events is that some of the dominant caste group’s are, literally, unable to propagate their own communities. While more detailed census information would be needed to ascertain whether the population is decreasing, that some upper caste men have to leave the state to find a wife is indicative of the problem. And of course, the article discusses one of the ways that women can climb the caste ladder – their families lie about their caste to the new-comers.
Ultimately, these two developments: potential population decline of high caste groups and the progeny of upper-caste and not-upper caste marriages will have to be absorbed by Haryana’s, and probably India’s, society. This is unlikely to be a problem unique to Haryana, as the table of child sex ratios below reveals. It seems that demography is either going to force high caste population groups to either abandon their traditional preference for males or their preference for marrying only other high caste females. In effect, demography is challenging the future viability of the caste system. And there’s already inkling of social discontent, as the article reports, out-of-town brides as stigmatized as “bought” (or “sold” by their parents) by other, presumably locally-born, women. One wonders what will become of the children, who will have to grow up with similar taunts and questions of their actual caste? And since this is a widespread problem in Haryana, might future communities and cultural organizations appear there emphasizing far away places like Odisha or Assam? Might this, eventually, be the spark that eventually overcomes regionalism in India, creating an actual “Indian” identity?