India has more women than men for the first time in its recorded history and is no longer experiencing a population boom, according to a government survey that indicates significant societal shifts in the country.
The fifth National Family and Health Survey (NFHS) carried out by the government between 2019 and 2021 has found India now has 1,020 women for every 1,000 men.
The survey of about 650,000 households also found that India’s reproductive rate had dropped to an average of 2, which is the first time it has been below replacement fertility levels. In urban areas, it was even lower at 1.6.
This means that not enough children are being born to replace the older generation, suggesting that India’s population of close to 1.4 billion may be near its peak, and is a significant shift for a country where in the 1950s women had an average of six children.
India’s swing towards a predominately female population is also a remarkable moment for a country which for centuries has been one of “missing women”, referring to the millions of girls killed before or just after being born due to a societal stigma to giving birth to a daughter. It indicates strides are being made in tackling sex-selective abortions, female foeticide and neglect of girls and women, which have deeply impacted on the female population.
In 1990, when the Indian Nobel prize-winning economist Amartya Sen first wrote of India’s 37 million missing women due to these factors, the ratio of women to men was 927 women to 1,000 men.
Poonam Muttreja, the executive director of the Population Foundation of India, said: “It is heartening to see the improvements in the overall sex ratio. It reflects the strides that the country has made towards gender equality and women’s empowerment.”
Muttreja emphasised that a full picture of India’s shifting sex ratio would not become clear until the census, which was due to happen in 2021 but currently postponed, was carried out. India’s last census occurred in 2011.
Despite apparent progress, according to the survey, the gender ratio at birth still remains at 929 women for every 1,000 men, indicating that the issue of sex selection and female foeticide has not been eliminated.
“With greater access to literacy and education, the aspirations of women are fast changing,” said Muttreja. “Girls are asserting themselves and taking charge of their lives, and will play a critical role in the growth and development of the country in the future.”
The findings on India’s falling fertility rate may also have political implications. Several Indian states, such as Assam and Uttar Pradesh, have floated population control bills, including limiting access to state benefits, rations and government jobs to those who have more than two children.
They have been proposed on the basis that India’s population needs to be brought under control. Yet these bills are also considered to have a communal tinge, and play to fears of the Hindu right wing that the Muslim population in India is surging and creating a “dangerous demographic imbalance”.
India is still not expected to experience a fall in its population, currently the second largest in the world, for another 30 or 40 years, in part because more than 30% are between the ages of 10 and 30 and are likely to have children over the next two decades.
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