Liberate by growth

Ila Patnaik Posted online: Tue Apr 05 2011, 00:35 hrs
The Indian Express

For every 1,000 boys in India, there are only 933 girls in the age group of children up to 6 years old. Blaming the failure of the health regulatory system in preventing female foeticide is a superficial response. The bias against the girl child is a much deeper disease. The child sex ratio is only a symptom of that disease. As long as the deeper problems remain with us, the preference for the male child and his better care during childhood are likely to stay. These deeper problems are cultural, sociological and economic. Though increased literacy and GDP growth are not sufficient conditions to overcome them, they are necessary conditions. Increasing paid employment of women outside the home, or family farm, is a precondition for caring better for our daughters.

India is among the worst in the world in reversing discrimination against girls. We do not want girls. If we don’t kill them before they are born, then we neglect them after they are. A study on child mortality shows that while in the rest of the world in the age group of one to five years male and female children are equally likely to die from disease, in India (and in Pakistan and Bangladesh) girls are 30 to 50 per cent more likely to die. The cause is sheer neglect. For example, it has been found that 33 per cent of girls with high fever or respiratory infection are more likely to remain untreated compared with boys.

Why is the girl child discriminated against? A number of studies have traced the preference for sons to either higher expected returns from the labour of male children or anticipated old-age support systems. The systematic neglect of daughters has been linked to the cost of marriage and dowry. Well-being of girls is seen to improve where women have greater earning opportunities. This outcome is seen to be a rational investment (in terms of time and money) decision of parents, as boys are expected to contribute more to the household.

Amartya Sen has argued that two contrasting explanations have been offered to account for the neglect of women. He says that while there is truth in both, neither of them is adequate. The first emphasises cultural differences between the East and the West. Sex ratios in Japan bunk this explanation. Unlike most of Asia, sex ratios in Japan are similar to those in the US and Europe. The rise of women to powerful political positions, and the relatively better electoral success of women in India, Pakistan and Bangladesh in contrast to the West, also does not support this view.

The economic development view emphasizes a simple, straightforward relationship between GDP and the sex ratio. The main argument is that all countries with a bias against women are poor. If poverty was to explain the sex ratio, then Sub-Saharan Africa should not have seen the excess of women that it does. Within India, Punjab and Haryana, the richer states, should have done better than Kerala, where the ratio is in favour of women. Similarly, in China the sex ratio became worse after economic reform and speeding up of economic growth. Looking at the results of the provisional estimates of the India Census 2011, the same argument can be made. India has witnessed high per capita income in the last decade, yet its child sex ratio has worsened.

If simple GDP growth is not the story, how does one explain the discrimination against the girl child? Sen argues that economic, social and cultural factors interact in a complex way to explain regional differences in the sex ratio. Empirical evidence suggests that working outside the home for a wage has the biggest impact. First, outside employment for wages does not merely provide women with an income to make a living, and rely on themselves; it also changes their social status, giving them the role of a bread-winner. This brings social respect, outside experience and less vulnerability. If this allows women to support their parents in their old age, it improves the way girls are treated at home. This change in social status does not come when women engage in housework or even work on family farms or family-run enterprises. Even though the work is productive, when it is not possible to separately recognize the contribution of a woman, her contribution does not have the same effect.

This helps explain the Chinese puzzle. Changes in Chinese agriculture that accompanied reform made it difficult to delineate women’s contribution to the family’s farm. This increased the pro-male bias and helps explain worsening sex ratios despite higher GDP growth.

Worsening sex ratios can thus be addressed not by merely banning female foeticide, but by far-reaching measures that change the status of girls in the eyes of their parents. If discrimination against the female child is a rational response by investing parents, then the task is to reduce the bias in favour of the male child.

Government polices can help in changing the perception of parents by bringing change in opportunities for gainful employment of women. Better educated girls are more likely to get jobs. However, the problem in India is not limited to female education. Making the education system work is a challenge. The advances in enrolment are only a step in the right direction. The next task is to make sure children learn.

More jobs get created with GDP growth. A better regulatory environment that encourages investment and brings about employment opportunities will bring jobs for men and women. Law and order and contract enforcement improve working conditions. For this India needs better governance.

When parents have no health insurance or old-age pension, their dependence on their sons is greater. If the state helps develop and regulate old-age security systems and health schemes, it can reduce the male bias. Even after these changes, South Asia may take years to undergo the cultural and social changes that are necessary for improving the status of women.

While it is important to improve the status of women in many small ways by giving them better legal rights and opportunities, the child sex ratio statistics should serve as a reminder of the unfinished agenda of economic reforms and better governance, without which daughters will continue to be neglected.

The writer is a professor at the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, Delhi, express


A mass movement

Sitaram Yechury,April 04, 2011


Yes, we have done it. After 28 years, India has lifted the cricket World Cup. It has been a long journey, from listening on radio sets and watching on black and white TVs at the neighbour’s, to satellite TV sets showing the thrilling Saturday encounter several times over already.

The first results of Census 2011 show that we are home to 121 crore people, the largest numbers anywhere in the world, for whom, cricket is virtually a religion. China with 19.4% of the world’s population, as compared to our 17.5%, has mercifully not yet entered the field of cricket visibly.

The census operations in India, probably the largest such exercise anywhere in the world, have an immense importance in our history as well as in our contemporary lives. While delivering the Sixth Sumitra Chishti Memorial Lecture, Professor Ashish Bose, one of our foremost demographers, underlined the importance of the census by saying “census data have determined the destiny of the Indian subcontinent in many ways. The partition of India was based on the census data on religion. The reorganisation of states in 1957 on a linguistic basis used census data on languages (mother tongue), the delimitation of electoral constituencies, ever since India held its first general election in 1952 is based on census data”. Likewise, the determination of reserved seats for scheduled castes and scheduled tribes are based on census data. Equally important is the fact that the Finance Commission that recommends allocation of resources between the Centre and the states bases itself on the census as does the Planning Commission while preparing the Five Year Plans.

Census data has been central in formulating population policy. Consequently, to ensure the southern states that were more efficient in implementing the population policy do not lose out as against those states that weren’t as efficient in terms of their representation in Parliament, the Constitution had to be amended to freeze the number of seats in the Lok Sabha till 2026. Census data, however, also had the potential to be used to strengthen the process of political unification of modern India or to feed the disruptive tendencies that British colonialism so perfectly used for their divide-and-rule policies. During the transition towards independence, the census operations, pregnant with the possibility of Partition, assumed passionate expressions of strife.

Given such potential for conflict, the issue of caste-enumeration in the census had become a contentious issue in last year’s parliamentary proceedings. Having amended the Constitution to grant reservation and other benefits to the other backward classes (OBCs), it had become important to quantify the numbers that are entitled to such benefits. While the Mandal Commission did so many years ago, the current status is very opaque. It would be, therefore, necessary to arrive at some scientific assessment on this score. The census enumeration however, is based on voluntary disclosure of information. It thus lacks a scientific methodology to authenticate an individual’s claim. So the Left has suggested that the estimations of the OBCs must be based on a scientific evaluation and not on voluntary disclosures. This could have been done through surveys conducted by constitutional entities than through voluntary census enumeration.

But the UPA 2 government, under the by-now familiar ‘coalition compulsions’, decided to conduct a caste enumeration as a part of the Census 2011 operations conducted between June and September 2011. While one can’t have an ostrich mentality and ignore the powerful caste reality and consequent social oppression, such an enumeration should not be allowed to become yet another cause of tension. In this context, quite apart from the existing reality of anachronistic khap panchayats, the census data revealed the most disturbing reality of continuing gender discrimination. The child-sex ratio fell to the lowest level since independence: 914 females to 1,000 males. This atrocious, bordering on criminal, antipathy to the girl-child reflects the age-old hierarchical attitudes. What is worse is that the data shows that this phenomenon is most acutely manifested in what are considered as the most economically developed parts of the country.

This draws discussion towards the emergence of a modern India. On the one hand, we applaud our status as an emerging economy where our PM rubs shoulders with the high and mighty at the G20 high table. We aspire to be a nuclear powerhouse. Yet, on the other hand, the vast backyard of our society continues to live in the morass of traditional backwardness that is the complete anti-thesis of modernity.

This is the modern Indian paradox. Those considered ‘modern’, in terms of flaunting the latest gadgets and fashion, simultaneously perpetuate age-old prejudices based on caste and gender. Sociologist Dipankar Gupta defines a modern society as one that has the following characteristics: “Dignity of the individual; adherence to universalistic norms; elevation of individual achievement over privilege or dis-privilege of birth and accountability in public life.” The Iranian intellectual Jalal-e-Ahmed coined the term, ‘westoxification’ as opposed to westernised. He was referring to those who embrace western technology and the high life while negating the equality of opportunity. In the Indian context, a more appropriate term would be ‘modern toxicity’ as opposed to ‘modernity’. Unless we in India embrace modernity in its completeness, the dreams of India as an emerging economy would be impossible to achieve.

In order to win this battle of realising this modern idea of India, we need to immediately set right the policies that perpetuate the creation of two Indias – the privileged and the dispossessed in India.

Sitaram Yechury is CPI(M) Politburo member and Rajya Sabha MP.The views expressed by the author are personal.


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