The real bad news

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

By Chirag Shah
Published: Friday 15 October 2004

-- (Credit: Mridul)"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.
A mistake that cost It began with an inadvertent error in the presentation of the data. Census commissioner Jayant Kumar Banthia released the report on September 6, 2004. The press release said that the population growth rate of Hindus had declined in 1991-2001, while that of Muslims increased in the same period. The Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (bjp) expressed "grave concern" over the increase of Muslim population growth, calling for an even growth and uniform adoption of population control measures by all the communities.

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."

Population growth rates
They’ve declined for most communities
1961-71 1971-87



All religions
24.8 24.8




23.4 24.2



31.2 30.8



36 19.2



32 26.2



17 25.4 36 23.2
Jains 28.5 23.7 4 26
Others 97.7 26.6 13.2 111.3
not stated
-65.7 67.1 573.5 76.3
Note: Adjusted population growth rates, excluding Assam and Jammu & Kashmir for all decades. All figures in per cent
The adjusted figures show the population growth rates of both Hindus and Muslims falling significantly between 1991 and 2001 (see table: Population growth rates). P N Mari Bhatt, professor at the Institute of Economic Growth, New Delhi, ponders over the faux pas: "The Census figures released are always based on adjusted data. When the population data of Census 2001 was released, the adjusted figures were highlighted."

Given the embarrassment to the Union government, the Census commissioner was summoned several times by the Union ministry of home affairs, which is in charge of the Census of India. "This was a mistake. The commissioner had clarified that the technical documents have the necessary explanation. So all the political upheaval is unfortunate," rues Bhatt. The Union government has already announced a probe into the error. The National Minority Commission, too, has constituted a four-member panel chaired by Ashish Bose to study religion data and prepare a non-political report.
Missing the bigger picture The political fuss over the religion data has undermined the real issues that the report illustrates. The path-breaking data can be used to assess the progress made by different religious groups and strategise for the future. "The focus has to change for any meaningful deliberations on the data, as a result of which some policy directions can be sought through a consensus," Bhatt explains. "The media has just sensationalised the report, nothing else. Earlier it used to be a quiet affair," says Bose. The data tells us a lot about the various communities in India if you look at the sex ratio, child sex ratio, population in the 0-6 age group, literacy rates and economic activities. But the media dwelt too much on the population growth rate.

The disappearing girl child
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).

Have money, will raise only boys
Sikhs and Jains, prosperous communities, show a poverty of girls

Overall Sex ratio

Child sex ratio
(0-6 years)

Proportion in India's total population**

literacy rate**

Female literacy rate** Female work participation rate**





53.2 27.5





50.1 14.1





90.6 9.2





63.1 20.2





76.2 28.7





61.7 31.7





33.2 44.2
*as number of females per 1,000 males **as per cent

Is it possible to arrest this growing disparity? "Frankly, no law or policy would work. Look at the Pre-Netal Diagnostics Technique, Regulation and Prevention of Misuse Act. It has been rendered totally ineffective. It is a supply side problem; supply is creating its own demand. Only technology and doctors are to be blamed. The only solution is to hand over the issue to women's groups," says Bose.

The overall sex ratio is also dismal, though better than the child sex ratio. The data reveals some startling figures among different religious group. There are 931 Hindu women for every 1,000 Hindu men. The figure among Muslims is slightly better: 936/1,000. The national average is 933 women for every 1,000 men. Christians have the highest sex ratio: 1,009 females per 1,000 males; Sikhs record the lowest overall sex ratio: 893/1,000.

Literacy: better than perceived
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.

Religion census: is it needed?
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.

Religion or region?
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."

The north-south divide
The northern states are prosperous but they kill their daughters






Tamil Nadu








Andhra Pradesh


Child sex ratio (0-6) as number of girls per 1,000 boys
The southern states report Muslim population growth rates lower than the national average, because the population growth rates in general are lower here. The same holds true for Christians -- though the community has the highest child sex ratio across the country, its child sex ratio is down to 870/1,000 in Punjab. States such as Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat depict a bias against the girl child regardless of religious affiliation. This is reminiscent of India's north-south divide over economic and social indicators, which clearly gets reflected in many of the key development indicators. Economists have long discussed how social services function much better in south Indian villages as compared to those in the north. One of the reasons is the poor status of women in the north. Historically Punjab has reported good economic indicators but is poor on social indicators. In Kerala, the reverse is true. The report would add strength to the cause of a region-based approach to development, as opposed to a one-size-fits-all approach.

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