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India's census: The good and bad news

Soutik Biswas | 12:00 UK time, Thursday, 31 March 2011

Indian people

India's latest census - and the country's 15th since 1872 - brings good and bad tidings.

The country has added 181 million new people over the past decade, the equivalent of the population of Brazil, which is the fifth largest country in the world. With 1.21 billion people, India now accounts for 17% of the world's population. UN forecasters say that by 2030 India will overtake China as the world's most populous nation.

The good news is that at 17.64%, the rate of growth between 2001-2011 represents the sharpest decline over a decade since Independence. The growth rate was at its lowest between 1941-1951 when it was 13.3%: that was a time of famine, religious killings and the transfer of populations in the run-up to partition. The growth rate was more than 24% between 1961 and 1981. So a 17.64% growth rate points to a slowing down that will cheer those who are concerned about how India will bear the burden of its massive population.

The bad news for those with such concerns is that India still has more than a billion people, and this number is rising. Indian politicians and policy planners speak eloquently about how this population will fetch demographic dividends, and ensure India's growth story.

But such optimism may be unfounded if the state is unable to harness this potential. It is very easy, warn social scientists, for this demographic dividend to turn into a deficit with millions of uneducated, unskilled and unemployed young people on the streets, angry and a threat to peace and social stability. "There is nothing to brag about our population growing and crossing China. Do we know how we are going to skill all these people?" asks India's top demographer, Ashish Bose.

The government would like to say that the dip in population growth has to do with pushing a successful contraception programme in the country. But social scientists say that with rising urbanisation, it is no surprise that population growth is on the decline. Increasing urbanisation leads to nuclear families in small homes paying high rents in increasingly expensive cities. Having more children does not help matters.

The biggest shock in this census is the decline in the child gender ratio at 914 girls (under the age of six) for every 1,000 boys. This is the lowest since Independence and it looks like a precipitous drop from a high of 976 girls in the 1961 census.

Social scientists and demographers believe that the decline in the number of girls all over the country - in 27 states and union territories - points to deeply entrenched social attitudes towards women, despite economic liberalisation and increasing work opportunities.

They link sex determination tests and female foeticide - banned in India, but still quite widespread due to lax enforcement - to the rising costs of dowry, a practice which even the burgeoning middle classes have been unable to get rid of. "Marriages have become costlier, dowries have been pricier, so there is a lot of social resistance to having girl children in the family," says Mr Bose.

One demographer told me that when they went counting a family during the census in the patriarchal northern state of Haryana, he found that it didn't count the girls. When asked why, they told him that the girls would be leaving the family after marriage anyway.

The government says it will reconsider its policies to make sure that this shameful trend is arrested. I take this to mean that they want to make sure that anti-sex determination laws are enforced strongly. But increasing the numbers of girls requires a shift in attitudes and more imaginative policies. In Bihar, for example, the government is giving away free bicycles to girls to go to school. And Gujarat has launched vigorous drives to check female foeticide and educate girls.

The census has also thrown up an interesting conundrum. How do you explain that the overall gender imbalance has narrowed when the number of baby girls being born has plummeted? This census found 940 females to 1,000 men, up from 933 females in 2001. This is the highest since 1971, and just a shade lower than 1961. This contradiction confounds social scientists. Is this a statistical discrepancy which needs to be investigated further?

One more piece of good news. The literacy rate has shot up to 74% from about 65% in the last count. More hearteningly, new female literates outnumbered male literates during the past decade. Ten states and union terriorities achieved a literacy rate of above 85%. The quality of education may be uneven and debatable, but this is an achievement India can be proud of.


  • Comment number 1.

    What a shameful truth about the sex ratio for a country that is upheld as one of the BRIC nations, an emerging market and a shining example of high economic growth rate. Even in this day and age dowry is so prevalent even in urban modern areas. The government policies alone won't matter, we require industry captains such as Narayan Murthy and others to encourage their employees to lead by example or media to have socially relevant programming, and tougher enforcement by police to catch those practising this crime and many other steps. Only then will Indians start to reduce the gender bias in their minds.

  • Comment number 2.

    On the question of "how did the overall sex ratio increase when child sex ratio crashed?", the answer is due to increased life-expectancy which has favoured females (their life expectancy until 1981 was lower than that of males--greatly due to high numbers of childbirth-deaths).

    Also, the impact of Gujarat's (and other states, as well as Delhi's) drives to check female foeticide is evident--EPIC FAIL (government is usually this when it takes up areas other than national-defence, infrastructure, foreign-affairs and internal-security--as has not only been proven repeatedly in India, but even right here in the US)!

  • Comment number 3.

    some of you might be think it is totally unrelated to the the column but the picture that you posted with the blog and the Main News on the front page of this story Show Women with Head scarf .. infact the tag for the main news story pic is "India has a diverse population of a billion-plus people" for the same picture. I personally think you all need find a different picture to say what ever story you are trying saying .. there is old "saying" ... a picture is worth 1000 words. - JUST A THOUGHT..

  • Comment number 4.

    The most effective “contraceptive” is an educated woman. Indeed it has been seen that improvement in the educational status of women results in an improvement of various social and health indices including children’s health, and a reduction in the fertility rate.

    The government should focus on improving the quality of education, especially for girls. For this it is not enough if they allocate more funds for education, but also improve the administrative system by giving the parents and local councils a role in the management of schools. They should invest in teacher training, etc.

    The skewed sex ratio is alarming and shameful. These primitive social attitudes can be changed only through a concerted campaign against them. They should inspire youngsters to take a pledge to shun practices such as dowry. Also, they should enact a law to ensure that the wealth of the parents is divided equally between the children.

  • Comment number 5.

    According to former FICCI Secretary General , Amit Mitra, India needs about 14% annual GDP growth for next 25 years and more “equitable” distribution of wealth/development to become decently “developed” country. India needs about $1.75 trillion to build roads, utilities and other infrastructure over the next decade, according to Goldman Sachs, which ties the growth story to the success of its infrastructure story. In that analysis, it was only about economic issues were taken into account. And then if I bring an analogy with one day cricket- our asking rate is 14 at the beginning of the innings but we are getting 9, then asking run rate to win the game will increase proportionally. And that’s exactly what happening in India. We do not provide enough schools, universities, basic civil infrastructure (housing, public health, general hygiene etc) for the people we are adding each year in our country. Expenditure and supervision in basic education, general infrastructure is far from adequate to cater this increasing population. Just one example- The “right to education” bill is practically dead as states and central Govt is yet to come up with required funding and political willingness to make it a reality.

  • Comment number 6.

    On top of that our inability to rise above our typical mindset and social discrimination against weaker sections of the society (be it against girl-gender based discrimination, religious, caste and so on). Indian society is still very hierarchical and feudal. We do not EARN “leadership” or “respect” but are imposed on Indians since childhood. We are prevented from asking questions (be it against religion, caste, gender, social/family hierarchy etc), challenge existing knowledge or "leadership" (in home and/or in office) and that become our habit when we grow up. That's way we are "among the least innovative countries in the World (along with China). That has huge consequences on overall development of India. Economic development alone can NEVER solve such socio-political issues.

  • Comment number 7.

    I like to comment on "The literacy rate has shot up to 74% from about 65% in the last count.". I have reasons to think that this 74% data is not much reliable and is much lower in reality. My home district in West Bengal has been declared as "fully literate", but when I did not informal survey or if you talk (of course, in private- away from media) to any government official who deals with general public (e.g bank officials, BDO, DM etc) they will tell you a totally different story. That 100% data is highly inflated for political (for local politicians) and administrative reasons; as the concerned "panhayat" (village political body)and district and govt officials are remunerated on that "great achievement".

  • Comment number 8.

    Correction to my previous post:
    My home district in West Bengal has been declared as "fully literate", but (when I did an informal survey or) if you talk (of course, in private- "not on the record" or media) to any government official who deals with general public (e.g bank officials, BDO, DM etc) they will tell you a totally different story.
    In reality that literacy rate will be around 50% at best; including those who just learned to draw a picture in the name of "signing his/her own name" (as sign of "literacy"). Those who can draw their own "signature" can do that from any direction and considered as "literate".

  • Comment number 9.

    I agree with more effective contraceptive is the women folk.NOW POPULATION CANNOT BE CONTROLLED AS FAR AS THE RELIGIOUS FEVER IS CONTROLLED IN THE WORLD.
    The beurocrats and politicians claims "fully literate", for their benifits when we did an survey in Kerala it was found as exagerations like the Akshaya computer literacy programme in Malappuram District and Kerala -all the datas were fake figures and even the Govt and international organisations were misled and they gave awards to computer literacy in the district.I could not understand how the international agencies are accounting these facts and recording these false thins when Indian bureaucrats are the most corrupted in the world. If you talk we will find that bureaucrats made money out of literacy and computer literacy but only 10-15% were spent in the targets. Politicians and Govt officials making money on false statements and international organizations of repute also approve that trusting them.

  • Comment number 10.

    I went to a temple in maharashtra during my last visit to india. The priest there blessed myself + wife to have a son. he was surprised when we asked him to bless us to have a daughter. he got the real shock when we told him we already have twin daughters and want third child to be a girl. The looks I got from him.,, I could never forget.
    No wonder sex ratio is deteriorating

  • Comment number 11.

    Poor families in India naively believe that more children mean more "working hands", and thus bring more sorrow to themselves. Surprisingly, our politicians and policy planners are making the same mistake!

  • Comment number 12.


  • Comment number 13.

    Wow, out of the good news and bad news everyone including the author chose to focus on the negative aspects. Yes the ratio is bad but there are other developing countries that fare worse like China which has 119 guys to 100 girls. So this is a concern but not alarming. I'm sure, since girls are increasingly becoming the breadwinner, and with the higher literacy rates, if anyone bothered to ingest that positive aspect, then the imbalance will sort itself out.


  • Comment number 14.

    Most of the comments are right when they talk of attitude change in our country. This can be bought about by education in real terms (not the ability to draw your name). The despicable trend of killing our unborn children (female foeticide ) has to become socially unacceptable and a criminal offense with strict implementation if it has to stop.

  • Comment number 15.

    I strongly concur with some of the readers comments on falsified numbers in the census.

    I work for one of the IT biggies in India and most people would tell you, I expect the corporate sector in the country to stand above the ethical shortcomings and cases of corruption we see in a public sector company. My past experiences in American MNCs gave me hope an a lot of expectations.

    However, in an Indian company it looks like ethics take a definite back seat. Project data is falsified so that discrepancies do not 'show up' on the system. Project monitoring tools and systems in place are 'hacked' and this knowledge is passed on from manager to manager. The focus is not on doing a good job, but to 'look' like they are doing a good job. Considering that these people keep moving around so much, I believe these practices are followed in the entire industry.

    So many articles focus on attrition in IT companies as a result of greedy employees. What they don't see is that when the biggies can recruit 25% of their workforce in a year from colleges, they don't care about who leaves the company. So employees are treated as short term resources, who can be made use of and pressurized until they leave and improve the bottom line.

    Such a myopic attitude has resulted in houses of cards waiting to crash. Whistle blowing is new to India, but at this rate it will happen soon!

  • Comment number 16.

    "Poor families in India naively believe that more children mean more "working hands", and thus bring more sorrow to themselves. Surprisingly, our politicians and policy planners are making the same mistake!"

    It's amazing isn't it!

  • Comment number 17.

    Some years ago I was associated with a Calcutta hospital (name of city then).

    The medical knowledge and will to work and learn was impressive,the equipment antiquated.

    The poverty frightening, the courage wonderful but the prejudices large i.e.the homophile portion of the population,the existance of aids patients,
    even for the educated their existence was denied.

    I noticed with interest the large number of offers of Ultrasound examinations for ex. on the main street of Puri, and made a gentle but effective examination of the causes for this.

    The ultrasound was used often for women in early pregnancy and when a female fetus was found an abortion was often arranged.

    This is so long age that it may well have affected the recent census.i.e. the male /female ratio census statistics.

  • Comment number 18.

    everything written here has already been reported in the papers! this article feels like a collection of reports from different news papers..

  • Comment number 19.

    It is a bit disheartening to see how Indians always view their own achievements through cynical eyes. The numbers coming out of a census of a population as large as a billion are statistical averages that iron out many local deviations and will be different from anecdotal evidences we might have. This does not diminish the fact that the exercise of mapping out the demographics of a country as large as ours is extremely difficult and has been done commendably. We have also embarked on providing unique IDs to all citizens and every few years conduct free and largely fair elections with this multitude. Nobody else in the world does all of these at these scales. Hats off to those who brave the sun and the wind to travel from door to door seeking data, and to those who crank the numbers to churn out meaningful averages.
    Proper statistics help us prioritise developmental programmes, direct deliveries. Contrary to popular middle class belief, the number of good and well-meaning officials still out number the corrupt and/or lazy and there are a large number of them who understand what to do with these numbers. It just tells me that we may still be imperfect in many quarters but there are a number of things that we are doing better than anybody else.

  • Comment number 20.

    Let me apolohize if I piread you, but I don't see any discordance between the gender imbalance at birth and in the whole population, since male and female life expectation is not the same.
    But should we consider this imbalance a bad news ? Yes, of course, if we consider what it means as far as the status of women in a society is concerned. No, if we care about the excessive population of India, since the number of women between 15 and 49 is what determinates the future population growth.

  • Comment number 21.

    Given that we are a rather mobile, 'globe-trotting' population, at any given point in time I wonder how many of the 1.21 billion Indians are actually in India? That would certainly make an interesting study.

  • Comment number 22.

    This population level and worse growth is unsustainable. The pressure it puts on the world's resources, climate, and atmosphere is hugely damaging for everyone's quality of life in the future and the ecological balance we have already upset with other plants and animals we share this finite globe with. Humanity remains guilty of not exercising the reponsibility our ingenuity and mastery of our natural environment demands if we are to grow our quality of life in the future.
    Entrenched religious views invented by humanity in centuries and millenia past continue to block the application of reason and science to solve our headlong rush to huge environmental and ecological disasters we are creating with our runaway population increasingly bent on ever more consumption and growth. We are more virulant a threat to the survival of life on earth than any plague could ever be.

  • Comment number 23.

    It is good to know that the Indian population grew less during the recent decade as compared to the earlier ones. Nevertheless, I agree with prof. Bose that it cannot be a source of pride that the Indian population is growing and will overtake China in a couple of decades. It is more important is to understand the reasons for the lower growth. One cause of the lower growth is undoubtedly the economic growth, rapid urbanisation and easier access to contraceptives which has resulted in a trend towards smaller families. However this trend contains an extremely disturbing element, namely, the decreasing number of girls and the increasing son-preference, particularly in among the urban educated. As Mr. Biswas has pointed out the sex ratio, in particular the child sex ratio, has shown an alarming decline during the last decade, a trend that has continued for the past 60 years. More and more females fetuses are being aborted all over India.This trend is a very clear indicator of how women are treated in the Indian society. Until there is radical change in this negative attitude, I see no reason whatsoever to be proud of a growing population with a preponderance of males. The increase in female literacy is not a source of great pride either unless the figures refers to the female population above 15 years.
    While the decline in Indian population is welcome, the alarming decline in sex ratio is not. I am certain there will be more bad news once the disaggregated population figures are released. It is time that the Indian society at large, and the government, realise that a nation without women would not be a particularly pleasant place to live.

  • Comment number 24.

    What is also more imporant is divergence / disparity of household income, basic ameniteis of drinking water, educaiton . Any social fabric is vulnerable based on the extent of disparity.

  • Comment number 25.

    one way to eradicate female infanticide is to ged rid of antiquated traditions like dowrys and such like. Give equality to woman and allow them the same status as men. Only then will it not matter whether you have sons or daughters. Come on India, you are poised to become a world superpower within 100 years. The least you can do is become grown up about these superstitious traditions and educate the population. The west also went through similar upheavals during the victorian industrial revolution with hugely increased birthrates. After social and economic changes over the past 100 years, the west is now seeing a decrease in birthrates, at least among the indigenous population.

  • Comment number 26.

    This comment has been referred for further consideration. Explain.

  • Comment number 27.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 28.

    Men generally doesn’t like wearing condoms it’s not just in India, it’s the same story in any part of the world. Some of the alternative contraceptives are not effective as it should be. I know couple of women who had implanted the so called copper T came off without their knowledge during their cycle and had end up having children. The other alternative which is widely used is taking pills. Some doctors in India just prescribe the contraceptive pills without proper examination and tests. Some women who take prescription pills that are not suitable for their body also ends up with unwanted side effects. In India if you want any contraceptive pills you can get it in any pharmacy without any prescription.
    Doctors and pharmacies who act for their own benefits should be punished. Indian government should spend more money in educating the people about family planning and also about using different types of contraceptive methods with their benefits and side effects.

  • Comment number 29.

    India must actively promote the export of the excess young human labour to the countries of western europe & countries like Canada in North America & Japan & Singapore in Asia. These countries with a declining birth rate & an increasing elderly population would require a huge amount of young people to sustain their economic growth. Learning of English should be made compulsory in Government schools in India as countries like Canada need English speaking labour force in huge numbers. Phillipines is a country which is taking advantage of this situation because people there know English & hence we see a huge influx of legal filipinas who come to these countries & make life better for their relatives back home by dint of the huge remittances. India must realise this huge opportunity that exists in the western world for an English speaking population & must equip its growing population to seize this. Teaching of English is the most simple way. A huge number of care givers will be needed by countries like Canada, Japan & countries of western europe to look after its ageing population in the next 10/15 years. Lakhs of Indians can seize this opportunity.

  • Comment number 30.

    @Jay - you make a valid point about the suspect literacy rate, but is it not an exaggeration to say that our actual literacy rate is just 50%? The other thing is how you define basic literacy? Read and write? Signing one's name? That should be good enough isn't it, and those are the yardsticks India follows. How is literacy measured in other countries? School registrations? Can someone throw light please?

  • Comment number 31.

    Also there is not much clarity on why the sex ratio is healthier among adults while it is abysmal among the 0-6 years children? Is it because men migrate more and die earlier than women? Or are they many other reasons?

  • Comment number 32.

    In response to "Aamir" #26 - If you don't have anything useful to say about the topic in question, don't bother posting irrelevant comments here. If you think you are not Indian, then please find the door, leave, and stay out of this discussion board. We too take great offence when anyone tries to question the integrity of India.

  • Comment number 33.

    In response to "Siavonga" #32 - Can I also request you not to waste your time here by posting irrelevant comments which have nothing to do with the topic in question. I have great respect for India, its a wonderful country with diverse cultures and truely a sovereign nation. I never questioned its integrity. Its good to be a Patriot but one should not cross the line and become a Jingoist.. and yes no need to show me the door i know where it is, if you need showing i can help you with that (It is this approach which has messed up things for you guys).
    Mr Biswas Its not fair to put up a picture of Kashmir when you are discussing Indian census because majority of kashmiris don't consider themselves indians and you can't force people or can you?

    Thank you
    Aamir Bristol

  • Comment number 34.

    In response to Aamir; Jammu & Kashmir is an integral part of India & Mr. Biswas has every right to post a picture of any state of India to accompany an article on India. If any person resident in Kashmir does not consider hinself as part of India (as per Aamir, that is) he is welcome to remove himself from Indian soil & go elsewhere. Kashmiris are not so unintelligent that a person like Aamir decides whether they want to stay in India or not. Aamir can spend more of his time & decide whether Balochistan wants to stay with Pakistan as Balochis want independence from that country. Obviously this person is the self appointed guardian of people to decide in which country they would wish to stay.

  • Comment number 35.

    @ Ananya78 (#30).
    yes, I do agree that "literacy" is "the ability to read and write" and should be the actual measure to calculate "literacy". But the way it is practically used in many parts of India, including in my state (West Bengal) is the ability to sign one's own name. Even that ability is not fulfilled in many cases. The people DRAW signature, not sign/write.
    The figure 50% is my guess (and surely not accurate enough) after talking to some government and Bank officials. I only can say (with confidence) that the actual rate of literacy is well below 70%.
    Indian rate of literacy is well below not only as compared to developed countries but also many, much less developed countries like Vietnam (90%), Zambia (80%), Tanzania (77%) (that data is based on 2001 census- link is from 2004 BBC article)

  • Comment number 36.

    Dear Amir,
    People like you who think that Jammu & Kashmir is not part of India, should wait till you or your Pakistani supporters are able to make your dream a reality (if ever possible). Till then it will not be so wise to oppose Mr Bisaws or anyone else on that issue. If you want more on that topic, there are many blogs by Sawtik and also check the comments on those blogs 1 , 2, 3 etc.)

  • Comment number 37.

    @ Ananya78 (#30).
    The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) defines literacy as the "ability to identify, understand, interpret, create, communicate, compute and use printed and written materials associated with varying contexts. Literacy involves a continuum of learning in enabling individuals to achieve their goals, to develop their knowledge and potential, and to participate fully in their community and wider society."
    Teaching English literacy in the United States is dominated at present by a conception of literacy that focuses on a set of discrete decoding skills. From this perspective, literacy - or, rather, reading - comprises a number of subskills that can be taught to students. These skill sets include: phonological awareness, phonics (decoding), fluency, comprehension, and vocabulary. Mastering each of these sets of subskills is necessary for students to become proficient readers. (from same source).

  • Comment number 38.

    The highly distorted sex ratio is the cumulative result of our highly feudal and hierarchal society, full of religious-social superstitions (manly in the name of tradition). That arises mainly from our ignorance about our own past (before Muslim and then British invasions) and lack of PROPER education. “Education” must not be confused with degrees (irrespective of Indian or foreign degrees). That gave rise to many of our highly biased laws (regarding property inheritance, marriage act etc.) and more pathetic law implementation (even when there are laws to protect women- before or after birth and marriage). We do not know how it looks like (as a society) or feels like when women are freer. Majority of Indians males (and also many female) are naïve and stupid enough not to understand how a society and country is benefitted and how much male population too can have much better life when women enjoys more freedom. Indian men who lead in sexual violence, worst on gender equality can not even imagine how much they too will be benefitted (both physically and mentally/emotionally) when they have companies of stronger and freer women; leave alone the immense benefit that will bring to the nation (in terms of economic prosperity and minimizing many of our social crimes).
    Our religious and social superstitions are too strong due to our more than thousand years of foreign domination/rule and we are yet to overcome that.
    In recent times economic compulsions, mainly in cities, are forcing many traditional Indian families to allow women to work in more non-traditional areas and in odd hours. That is now changing the social dynamics of those societies. Those women who have tested little more freedom (which is also far less than average western societies in many cases) are tough to "domesticate" (by Indian males and traditional families). That number is growing fast, at least in cities. many such women do not like to get married (never or till late) or fond of too many children or bullied by her own or in-laws' family. That is a good sign.

  • Comment number 39.

    A recent survey by Pratham reveals shaming statistics. Only half (53.4 per cent) of children in class V can read class II textbooks. So nearly all Indian children dependent on public education services leave school without being able to read a story. Pratham found that only 65.8 per cent of children in class I can count to ten. Even without these bleak statistics, it takes only one visit to any government school anywhere in India to learn that India’s children are not being properly educated despite the fact that teachers now earn hefty salaries.

    Nearly 65% of class V students in rural areas of Tamil Nadu can’t read even a class II textbook in their mother tongue, 45% don’t know subtraction and nearly 81% can’t read simple English sentences, the Annual Status of Education Report for 2009, compiled by Delhi-based NGO Pratham Foundation, has revealed.

    Then consider the fact that Indian education sector, both basic and higher education, are simply another typical Indian business ventures, more interested in profit than “education” per se. I just read the article in Indian Express that says: even in such supposedly unprofitable ministries like education and health. Licences to set up schools and colleges have been so liberally distributed to politicians, that it is hard to find a major political leader these days who is not running some educational institution. It will be foolish to expect ANY education from such schools/universities.

    Such data do not support the perception of much development in Indian education and literacy scenario.


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