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Literacy and Child Deaths
The New Hindu Growth Rate

by Devinder Sharma
September 28, 2004

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Literacy and population control have always been considered to be closely inter-related. It is generally believed that more the education level, the higher is the economic status and that automatically translates into a happy and prosperous family based on gender equity and growth.

Provisional data from India Census 2001 defies this popular logic. It provides us some shocking evidence that may need the sociologists, demographers and family planning specialists to do some rethinking. After all, how can one explain the steady growth in literacy spread quite evenly throughout the country and an equally inhuman practice of female foeticide keeping pace? Still worse is the fact that female foeticide (or female infanticide or female mortality if you may say so), reflected through the decline in child sex ratio, is alarmingly high in the states and communities that are economically much better off.

Despite all the hiccups and low investment in education, India has surely made an impressive progress in the field of literacy. Since the days of the British Raj when only 11 per cent of the Indian population was literate, Census 2001 shows a remarkable growth in literacy that exceeds 65 per cent of the population. Equally dramatic is the literacy growth that has swept the hitherto backward states of Madhya Pradesh, Chhatisgarh and Rajasthan. Within a decade these states have registered a stupendous growth in literacy, around 20-22 per cent, to almost touch the national average.

Among the communities, Census 2001 shows a demographic shift. After the Jains and Christians, it is the Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims who are the most educated. Although the Muslims lag behind in finding most work, Hindus and Christian dominate the employment chart. With a literacy rate of 72.7 per cent and work participation rate (WPR) of 37.7 per cent (it is low because a majority of the Sikhs tend to migrate to western countries) Sikhs constitute the creamy layer of the society. The Hindus follow closely with 65.1 per cent literacy and 40 per cent WPR. The Muslims measure up with 59 per cent literacy and 40 per cent WPR. In other words, Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims constitute the upper bracket of the socio-economic ladder.

The higher the economic status more should be the appreciation and respect for gender equality. It is true that women today dominate in almost every field of economic activity. Despite the politically incorrect demand for women reservation in parliament, women are leading in almost every sphere of life. Whether it is secondary education, higher education, medical sciences, trade, business and industry, sports, social services, activism, films and glamour, and you name it, the women are making it to the top. But somehow growing literacy and the resulting women empowerment has failed to stop the systematic killing of the girl child.

The more is the level of education, the more is the decline in child sex ratio – the number of females for every thousand males below the age of six. Ironically, it is the creamy layer -- Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims – who are the worst offenders. While in almost all the developed countries, the female lead in the sex ratio, it is in India that the males dominate the chart. Worse still is when we take a look at the child sex ratio, between the age group of zero to six. For the nation, the child sex ratio is 927. But the figures drop significantly when we see the community report card: 950 for Muslims, 925 for Hindus, and a shocking 786 for the Sikhs. Call it shocking or dismal, but the fact remains that the growing female foeticide and getting rid of the girl child before she reaches the age of six, is a dastardly crime.

The criminal trend has continued over the decades, and has kept pace with the growth in literacy. In 1961, the child sex ratio was 976.  Ten years later, in 1971, it declined to 964. The next decade was not so bad, with ratio almost stagnant at 962. In 1991 it declined to 945. In the decade 1991-2001, which coincides with the decade of economic liberalisation, the sharpest decline was witnessed – slipping to 927. State-wise, the decline is indicative of the perverse mindset that treats girls as an un-necessary economic burden. Much of northern India, comprising the Hindi speaking belt of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Delhi and Chandigarh top the chart when it comes to killing of the girl child.

Sex discrimination was always considered to be the result of lack of education But how does one explain that at a time when the economic growth is steady, hovering around 6 to 7 per cent on an average, and the country promises to touch the magical figure of eight per cent growth in gross domestic project, the systematic elimination of the girl child continues to rise unabatedly. Isn’t it a clear pointer to the dark side of socio-economic prosperity? Isn’t it an indicator of the failure of education to remove the social taboos and beliefs that continue to dog the developing society?

This is also substantiated by the fact that the decline in girl sex ratio is steep in the urban centres compared to the rural areas. The literacy growth is higher in the urban centres than in the rural areas. The trend is clearly suggestive of the growing need to eliminate the girl child in order to emerge economically stronger. Literacy and rising incomes only make it easy for couples to get rid of the girl child. Access to latest technology, which obviously comes at a high price, is responsible for the growing foeticide.  

Here is the modern India for you, fast heading towards a daughter-less nation. In an era of new economy based on knowledge-based systems and in a fast-track mode, the Hindu rate of growth has also acquired a new dimension. Here is the new Hindu rate of growth for you, linked to rising literacy – the higher the economic growth the more is the mass slaughter of the girl child.

Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based food and trade policy analyst. Responses can be emailed at

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