Although the child sex ratio (CSR) among the Scheduled Tribe population (957 girls per 1,000 boys) exceeds the same among the total population (918 girls per 1,000 boys), to the surprise of many social scientists and policy makers, the CSR figures have been deteriorating in many of the tribal dominated North Eastern states. For example, the ratios in the states of Sikkim, Nagaland, Manipur, Tripura, Meghalaya and Assam have all witnessed a dip between the last two Censuses.

To add to it, the same trend has been observed in tribal dominated Madhya Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.  

Traditionally, tribal societies or Scheduled Tribe (ST) groups have been considered to display greater gender parity vis-s-vis the rest. The 'surprise' element, therefore, lies in the fact that CSR among such groups has been falling, indicating a preference for a son, and by corollary, discrimination against the girl child.

CSR in tribal dominated states

Chart 1 below shows the number of districts in a particular state with ST population of more than 50 percent, and between 25 and 50 percent in 2011.

One can also see the percentage share of ST population in the total population of a particular state, which gives a fair idea of whether a state is tribal-dominated. For example, since the percentage share of ST population in Mizoram is 94.4 percent and it has got 8 districts with an ST population of more than 50 percent, the state can reasonably be said to be tribal-dominated.

Falling CSR in tribal districts

A new report titled Missing Girls: Mapping the Adverse Child Sex Ratio in India (Census 2011) reveals that although the CSR for most of the tribal districts (those having more than 25 percent tribal population) was above the national average of 918, the situation has significantly worsened in 2011. While in 2001, 120 tribal districts had a CSR of 950 or more, in 2011 this figure fell to 90 districts.

Brought out by the office of the Registrar General & Census Commissioner, the report compares 2001 and 2011 CSR maps to reveal small pockets of contiguous districts in the range of 900-949, extending from the west to the east of India. It finds that the districts in the North-eastern part of India have witnessed a decline in CSR below 950 between 2001 and 2011.

When tribal districts are compared with non-tribal ones, one notices that the decline in CSR diffuses from non-tribal to tribal areas, and there is a contiguous pattern to this phenomenon (as observed in the maps above).

CSR among ST groups

It is worth mentioning a report here, titled Statistical Profile of Scheduled Tribes in India 2013, which has published CSR figures for individual ST groups. By analysing the data provided in the report, it is seen that the tribal community of Langkai Tangsa (3500) in Arunachal Pradesh has the highest CSR as compared to other ST groups during 2011.

This result, however, contradicts the finding of a report in The Times of India, titled Scheduled tribes show worrying decline in child sex ratio (1 June, 2014). That report said,when it comes to the child sex ratio, there are only two tribal groups - the Bhottadas/Dhotadas and the Bhuias/Bhuyans, both from Orissa - which have a ratio of over 1,000."

Based on the Census 2011 data as provided in the report from the Ministry of Tribal Affairs, it could be said that there are many ST groups spread across various states which have CSR of more than 1,000.

Why is the CSR falling?

Media reports suggest that one of the reasons behind falling CSR among the ST population is that sex determination tests have been gaining popularity among them. With increased urbanisation, tribal groups have far greater access than earlier to modern technology, pre-natal ultrasonography being among them.

Many tribal communities are trying to ape the culture of upper castes, among whom the cultural preference for sons is quite widespread. Dominant castes in India still believe that it is the son who carries forward the lineage and looks after parents in their old age, apart from performing the funeral rights of parents. Sons are also preferred to daughters since they bring in dowry at the time of marriage. It seems that such beliefs are now increasingly percolating to the so called 'depressed' castes or STs.

Another factor behind falling CSR is the poor implementation of the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994 (PCPNDT Act). The PCPNDT Act could not be implemented or enforced seriously by either the central or state governments as a result of lack of political will.

In the report titled Laws and Son Preference in India: A Reality Check, lawyer Kirti Singh has revealed that in some states the PCPNDT Act did not even get notified till very recently. In one case of violation, action could not be initiated as notification of the Act had negligently not been published in the gazette.

It has been found that a number of clinics, counselling centres and laboratories do not maintain proper registers and records as specified under the PCPNDT rules. The case law under the PCPNDT Act shows that sometimes the Appropriate Authorities (AAs) are deliberately negligent in performing their functions. Singh, therefore, demands an amendment to the Act so that the AA can be held accountable under Section 25 for dereliction of duty.

The two-child norm, too, has had an adverse impact on gender equality, finds Kirti Singh. The two-child norm was adopted as the population policy in a number of states. In order to ensure conformity, certain states passed coercive legislation prohibiting persons with more than two children from holding posts in panchayats, urban local bodies etc. It has been widely reported by social activists and studies that such norms perpetuate the preference for sons and aversion towards daughters; most people, if they are forced to have a small family, automatically prefer sons to daughters.

States which still adhere to the two-child norm are Gujarat, Odisha, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Andhra Pradesh. States which have abolished the norm are Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.

Other factors which may affect CSR include gender gap in literacy rates and insurgency. A sharp gender gap in literacy not only indicates that women are far behind men, but also perpetuates gender-based inequality in society. Similarly, if a particular state suffers insurgency, it will invite the presence of army and paramilitary forces and have draconian laws imposed, so as to curb disturbances. Under such volatile circumstances, gross violation of human rights is very likely, with women being the worst victims. People here, therefore, tend to avoid having daughters and prefer having sons.

Caveat: Which is a better measure?

The report Missing Girls: Mapping the Adverse Child Sex Ratio in India (Census 2011) says that the sex ratio at birth (SRB) is a more robust indicator than the CSR, of the extent of gender-biased sex selection/abortion in practice. This is because unlike the CSR, which is affected by factors such as postbirth mortality, selective neglect of girls and so on, the SRB provides data of the number of girls born for every 1000 boys born.

Based on the implied sex ratio at birth (ISRB), calculated indirectly through a demographic technique of ‘reverse survival’ using the 0-6 age group, one can find that half of the Indian states (barring J&K) have witnessed a decline in their ISRB, and the range of decline has varied between -33 and -3 points, with Uttarakhand exhibiting maximum decline and Tamil Nadu recording the minimum decline.

However, 14 states have shown an increase in ISRB. Data shows that maximum increase in ISRB has been reported from states such as Punjab, Mizoram and Himachal Pradesh.

The ISRB for India as a whole has declined from 935 in 2001 to 923 in 2011 (girls born per 1,000 boys born). In districts like Jhajjar (782), Mahendragarh (775) and Rewari (787) in Haryana and Samba (779) in Jammu & Kashmir (apart from others), one observes low ISRB along with low CSR, implying both pre- and post-birth discrimination.

Will things change ever?

The imperative of improving the status of women in Indian society and mainstreaming their participation in all walks of life cannot be emphasised enough. Falling CSR is a matter of concern in this respect, and more so since the phenomenon is spreading from non-tribal to tribal populations. Worse still, the CSR in India is worsening despite the presence of a strong legal and policy framework and various government initiatives, including cash transfers and incentive schemes, various media and messaging efforts.

A skewed sex ratio may contribute to further decline in the status of women, resulting in increased gender violence, more frequent practices of polyandry and so on. The 12th Five Year Plan has expressed apprehensions that if falling CSR is not reversed, it will alter demography, erode gender justice, social cohesion and human development.Thus it called for focused interventions to improve the CSR, within an overall ‘National Strategy for Care and Protection of the Girl Child’.

The Plan document says that a girl child-specific District Plan of Action will be developed through decentralised planning processes, involvement of panchayati raj institutions and partnership with civil society organizations. It wished to link these initiatives with the proposed pilot interventions planned by the Ministry of Panchayati Raj, such as Rashtriya Gaurav Gram Sabha Awards to be given to panchayats that show a marked improvement in CSR and enhanced care and protection of the girl child. Similar policies are being pursued now by the new NDA Government at the Centre with vigour.

Recently, the Minister for Women and Child Development Smt. Maneka Gandhi announced that the Government plans to improve SRB by 10 basis points per year. She also said that the NDA Government has chosen 100 districts, each of which will be allocated upto Rs 1 crore under the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (Save and Educate the Girl Child) scheme during 2014-15.

The corpus of Rs. 100 crore (allocated under the Union Budget) for the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao scheme should, however, be increased to some reasonable amount, so that the entire country including the tribal districts can take advantage of it.

The Ministry of Women and Child Development has come out with action plans at the village, block as well as district levels so as to encourage the birth of girl children along with improvement in their educational levels. Ms. Gandhi has said that sarpanches need to be the nodal person in this endeavour and his/her role and responsibilities need to be defined.

The minister has asked for a number of steps for improving CSR, which includes promoting early registration of pregnancy in the first trimester, institutional deliveries and 100 percent birth registration, apart from campaigns to change people’s mindset and social behavior.

The Government is preparing a media plan whereby several short films are being prepared in regional languages, which will be made available for use on national TV channels and also cable channels. The district officers are encouraged to make extensive use of these short films during intervals at commercial film shows in theatres. They have been urged to use audio messages on declining CSR on FM, radio and community radio for maximum outreach.

What is also required is strict implementation of the PCPNDT Act and its monitoring at the district level. Appropriate Authorities should be made accountable for implementation of the PCPNDT Act. The Government should strictly monitor fertility centres, where obsessed parents conceive male children via ART (Assisted Reproductive Technologies). The fertility centres should be made accountable to disclose the gender of the aborted foetus.

Apart from working with NGOs, the Government should also work closely with community organisations and medical professionals to bring about a change in the mindset of people.