The most prosperous regions and communities in India have a bias against the female sex. Religion-based data shows us the biggest development challenge for the country
"The Census of India is a veritable goldmine of data, but one can get easily lost and not find even gold dust."
-- Ashish Bose, demographer
For the first time since its independence, India has data on population (0-6 years), number of literates, category and type of workers for each major religious group. The central message of the religion-based data is absolutely clear: the girl child is becoming more vulnerable even as economic prosperity is increasing in several states. The gender bias of prosperous northern states is glaring.
For long, it has been argued that higher female literacy will lead to female empowerment. The First Report on Religion Data, collected during the 2001 Census, questions this theory. In a country where quantifiable information is so badly needed to better understand the biggest development challenges, the report is a godsend. But instead of a learned discussion on how to redraw priorities to improve the status of women, political parties and some social groups have got down to petty posturing for perverse communal politics.
It didn't take too long to realise the error in the commissioner's presentation: the 2001 Census included data from Jammu and Kashmir (j&k), India's only Muslim majority state, which the 1991 Census had excluded. Demographer Ashish Bose, who was present at the release function, asked Banthia if the population growth rates were 'adjusted'. Banthia clarified that they were not. The Census office clarified the following day that the figures quoted were actually unadjusted. By then, the media had reported the unadjusted figures from the press release. Bose attributes the confusion to the haste with which the Census office released the report: "We should understand that they are badly overworked."
The most alarming revelation of the Census 2001 is the declining child sex ratio in the age group of 0-6 years. Clearly this is a worrying trend, though it isn't exactly news. Sikhs have recorded the lowest child sex ratio at 786 girls for 1,000 boys, followed by Jains (870/1,000). Those in the 'other religions and persuasions' category -- people who don't want to report their religion -- have recorded the highest child sex ratio of 976/1,000 across the country (see table: Have money, will raise only boys).
Literacy has a direct bearing on the development of the country. "The literacy rates for all religious groups are very encouraging, shattering many myths in circulation earlier when such a dataset was not available for the country as a whole," states the Census press release. But this doesn't reflect in development indicators.
Of India's total population, seven years of age and above, 64.8 per cent are literate. The literacy rate was highest among Jains (94.1 per cent). "It is a statistical fallacy. They are rich community residing in urban centres. So we have to be very careful before jumping to any conclusion," Bose cautions. Christians at 80.3 per cent and Buddhists at 72.7 per cent follow the Jains in literacy rates. The rate is marginally higher than the national average for Hindus and Sikhs. The lowest literacy rates are among people of 'other religions and persuasions' at 47 per cent. The literacy rates among Muslims reveal a worrying fact. Not only is the national average Muslim literacy rate low (59.1 per cent), as many as 16 states and Union territories have Muslim literacy rates lower than the average. This clearly calls for a policy intervention.
It is widely believed that literacy rates have a direct bearing on the population and overall development of the country. For example, Muslims show the highest growth rate of population and also have one of the lowest literacy rates. But Bhatt is quick to warn that this relationship doesn't always hold. He gives the example of Tamil Nadu, which has been able to keep a check on its fertility rate despite a low literacy rate. In the overall context, he explains it is a function of many variables.
Some of those dismayed by the controversy regarding population growth rates of Hindus and Muslims have said religion-based Census data should be done away with. They include Sriprakash Jaiswal, Union minister of state for home affairs, who reportedly said religion-based Census is not a good thing.
Bose argues contrariwise: "I hope they know what they are demanding. Today Muslims are demanding reservations; the Andhra Pradesh government has already agreed to it. If you don't have data on Muslims, how on the earth are you going to decide anything based on the religion? Why do we forget that the partition of India, that took place on religious grounds, was based on Census data? This bold initiative [of releasing religion-based Census data] has to be welcomed by all communities, policymakers, and researchers. So also all politicians."
There already has been a long-standing demand from various agencies for the religion data to be cross-classified by socio-economic characteristics of the religious communities, to help assess the level of development achieved. In fact, the National Statistical Commission, in its report for the year 2001, observed that the data on religion, caste and language -- cross-classified by literacy, work and workers category and migration -- is not published. These data would reveal the state of development of various communities.
What the religion-based data does clarify is that region plays a greater role than religion in development indicators (see table: The north-south divide). Several conclusions based on religion become totally insignificant. An example from the Census report: "There are regions in the country where all religions have a high literacy rate or low literacy rate. It thus appears that the religion effect may be weak in several parts of the country and the overall regional milieu and state of low or high development may be contributing to the improvement or stagnancy in literacy rates."
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