Friday, January 18, 2008

Girl/Boy Ratio in India

I read with interest an article in the Delhi newspapers. A motion in Parliament was passed, with overwhelming support, requiring children to take care and financial responsibility for their parents in old age. Presumably, the next step is for a committee to draft a suitable law to be brought back to the floor of Parliament for debate and a vote. Parliamentarians, it was said, gave impassioned speeches with tears in their eyes, lamenting the state to which Indian values had descended to make such a law necessary. The care of elders is a sacred duty and something that families had always before performed as a matter of course.

What prompted this measure is an increase in the number of elders who have been “abandoned” by their children to fend for themselves, straining the limited social services of the government. The system is overwhelmed with other problems and provision for the elderly is simply not something that can be added to the burden. Society has become more fluid, people are less rooted to their ancestral villages and the tight social networks as of the past have loosened. People now live longer too and young people are less willing to shoulder these costs and traditional responsibilities.

As I read the article I couldn’t help but wonder how such a law would be administered and how it could possibly be crafted to be fair. It sounded a bit like political grandstanding and perhaps nothing will come of it. On the surface it sounds noble but I wonder if the consequences have been fully considered? If children are forced to be responsible, by law, for aging parents, which child will bear that responsibility? In a patriarchal society such as India, the financial impact will fall first upon the son and his family. A daughter, upon marriage, traditionally leaves her family home to join her husband’s and it is her duty to look after her husband’s parents in old age. Sons bring wives and wealth into a family, daughters leave and take wealth away, so having a son is important. Parents go to great lengths to insure their son’s education and financial success because he is their “Social Security.” Would enforced elder care not increase this pressure more?

India does not have a Social Security System as does the United States and only a small percentage of elders receive a pension or have an independent income large enough to cover their financial needs. Old age is a perilous time in India when only a few have adequate savings, a source of assured income, investments, a business, or inherited wealth to manage life on their own. Thus, you see extended families and parents living with their children. It is one’s family that must be relied upon and this is how it is in most of the world. Without children or an extended network of cousins, nieces or nephews, life can be hard and it is understandable why there is such an emphasis placed upon marriage, children and family in India.

Unfortunately, there is also a dark side to this—female foeticide. It is a sad fact of modern India that the number of boys in the population heavily outweighs that of girls. The boy-girl ratio in the age group 0-6 in India has fallen from a healthy 972 girls per 1000 boys in 1901 to 927 in 2001. Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Gujarat have 790-870 girls per 1000 boys. The ratio is better for girls in tribal communities and worse in the cities, probably because of education and urban access to clinics and prenatal diagnostics. Although India passed a law in 1994 making pre-birth sex determination illegal, if one can pay the appropriate “fee,” just about any service can be had. It’s OK to let the first child be selected by chance but if it is a girl, something more than chance is needed for the next one.

I find it notable that the states with the worst ratios are in the northwest where we live. Is this why I sometimes see masses of young men on the street but rarely big groups of young women outside of school. Of course, the men are working, but I wonder what effect this imbalance has upon society. In some villages, the ratio is so bad that young men have little hope of marrying locally, if at all, creating a good business for importers of brides from the south and West Bengal. I have wondered, “Why is the ratio so bad here?” I would guess one reason could be a greater emphasis on dowry. It would be a good study for some ambitious student. Modern families foreswear dowry in theory, but when it comes time to marry, old traditions assert themselves even though dowry is supposedly illegal. If statistics are to be believed, a tradition once confined to the upper castes has now spread throughout all segments of society, fueled by India’s growing prosperity and materialism. A mass of consumer “stuff” is demanded by the groom’s family and forked over by the bride’s to insure a good match (Remember, India is a land of arranged marriages.) If it isn’t delivered, the newly married girl might find herself in peril. The Delhi prison has a "mother-in-law wing" to house those ladies who did away with their son's wives who didn't deliver the goods.

Family wealth is another factor for the preference for boys. Traditionally, families of substance are unwilling to allow their inheritance to pass into the hands of another family unrelated by blood to their own. Kerala, a matriarchal state, might be an exception, but even there, statistics show a preference for boys. Of course it is dangerous to make generalizations, but I will do it anyway. Boys, by and large, are treated better than girls in India in middle and upper class homes. This is probably true in the villages too but I haven't the experience to know for sure. Boys are pampered and catered to in the family home and rarely lift a finger to help with chores if the family can afford a servant, whereas girls do help around the house and serve their brothers, all of which fosters a sense of male entitlement. I’m sure families love their daughters dearly, but old customs and tradition exerts a subtle pressure. “Girls have a cost. Boys are an asset.”

India is trying really hard to change these old ways but it’s an ancient culture and can only change slowly. I’m happy to see the emphasis placed upon education here, for boys and girls alike. As the country prospers, young women will begin to demand, and be granted, greater opportunities and more autonomy. It’s my feeling they will be the major force that transforms India into a modern country. Ironically, India has not been reluctant to elevate women to positions of political leadership, as exemplified by Indira Gandhi and her daughter-in-law Sonia, so perhaps America has something to learn from that. This is a time a great change in India, when old ways are being challenged by new realities. Just as during the gold rush in California, it was mostly men who pioneered, dug the mines, established the foundations and built the industry, but it was the women who civilized the West into a modern society. I think something similar, and good, will happen in India during the coming century.

I’m sorry if this is all a bit depressing, but I find it striking and can’t help but take notice. I’ll end with a couple of quotes from The Hindu, a major daily in India.

Ward rounds in a hospital in the small town of Mokama. I am examining a young woman who delivered her second baby the previous night. I tell the mother that her baby is healthy and beautiful. She turns away, sullen and silent. "It's a girl," says the nurse. "That's why."

The couple sitting opposite me in the clinic are young and wealthy. She is three months into her third pregnancy and wants to know the sex of the unborn baby. Their two bright-eyed daughters aged four and two are playing outside. I explain. It is against the law; the number of girls in our country is dwindling; all-girl families are often high achievers. The husband's patience begins to wear thin. They leave my clinic with the frown of those who will not come back to me. I find out later that the woman "miscarried" in Bangalore. Yet again, a doctor careless of the law, and one more added to the list of unborn girls, now numbering millions.