There is a set pattern to economic surveys that are tabled in Parliament every year ahead of the Union Budget. While they deal with the performance that has taken place and that which is likely to happen, most of the material is of the usual kind: Growth, employment, global interest rates, international crude price, inflation, exports and imports, and so on and so forth. It’s rare for such survey documents to look beyond the obvious. Last year’s Economic Survey of India (ESI) did throw up one tantalising concept — universal basic income — but it finds no mention in the ESI presented this January 29. Instead, we have three interesting chapters that are novel in that the subjects they deal with are not the sort that generally finds mention in ESIs. They deal with gender ratio, judicial promptness and science and technology. This makes the ESI 2018 a path-breaking exercise. Because, while there is a general consensus that these issues strongly impact the economic well-being of a nation, such surveys of the past had given them the short shrift. For now, it’s important to discuss that chapter dealing with an issue that is presently one of the most discussed and debated: Gender justice.
The gender subject forms Chapter 7 in Volume One of the survey, and is titled, ‘Gender and Son Meta-Preference: Is Development Itself an Antidote?’. Provocative headline, certainly, and the study does not disappoint in the approach it takes. It begins with quotes from poets Subramania Bharati and Maithili Sharan Gupt; there is a hashtag MeToo for good measure. In a detailed study supplemented with charts and tables, ESI 2108 talks of the ‘unwanted girl child’. In the introduction, it says, “…There may be a meta-preference manifesting itself in fertility stopping rules contingent on the sex of the last child, which notionally creates ‘unwanted’ girls, estimated at about 21 million.” The survey then goes on to recommend that “consigning these odious categories to history soon should be society’s objective”, and to suggest ways and means of doing so. To put it simplistically, the study found that the birth of a son at some stage in the raising of a family led to couples to call an end to more children, whereas the birth of a girl led to further offsprings in the hope of the couple getting a son or two.
The report notes, “While active sex selection via foetal abortions is widely prevalent, son preference can also manifest itself in a subtler form. Parents may choose to keep having children until they get the desired number of sons. A son ‘meta’ preference — even though it does not lead to sex-selective abortion — may nevertheless be detrimental to female children because it may lead to fewer resources devoted to them.” Of course, this alone need not lead to a skewed sex ratio. The survey adopts a different measure for that. It says, “One indicator that potentially gets at this is the sex ration of the last child (SRLC). A preference for sons will manifest itself in being heavily skewed in favour of boys.”
The ESI 2018 observes that it appears unclear whether the implantation of the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act of 1994 (which bans sex determination of the foetus) has contributed largely or only in some measure to the stabilisation that has come in the sex ratio, given that social preference, too have changed because of various Government schemes directed towards the benefit of the girl child. Nonetheless, the issue remains a matter of concern. As the survey says on the basis of a host of figures it has accessed and analysed, “Families, where a son is born, are more likely to stop having children than families where a girl is born. This is suggestive of parents employing ‘stopping rules’ — having children till a son is born and stopping thereafter.” The exception, the survey report adds, is with regards to the first child — even a first-born son may not end further addition to the family.
There is a chart which summarises the results of female gender role in various aspects such as health, marriage, education, employment, conception, sexual violence etc. Then there are charts based on material provided by Government agencies such as the Central Statistics Office and the Directorate of Health Services that indicate issues of age at first-born female set against the real per capita income (2011-16); women not using sterilisation as a conceptual method (2011-16); average gender score for Indian States (2005-06); and gender score versus per capita income for Indian States (2015). There is also a chart based on the World Development Indicators and Penn World Tables, which offers a comparison with other countries in the matter of sex ratio at birth and real per capita income (1970 and 2014).
Why are the above indicators important from the economic point of view? First, women constitute a significant part of the country’s population, and without their well-being, the country’s fiscal health cannot be ensured. Second, if women (or the girl children) are deprived of — or at least largely denied — the resources that are available within a family’s means, they will not be able to progress either educationally or nutritionally. Being physically or educationally weak, they are then unable to contribute to the potential they ought to have, to the country’s economic growth. It’s not a coincidence that countries which have a good sex ratio and which provide ample opportunities for the female population — in health, education and employment — are the most prosperous economically.
It’s true that India has done well over the years in many parameters of the gender dimension — it has improved in 12 out of the 17 variables established by agencies through their research work. But the enormous amount of what remains to be done is still so vast that it threatens to derail the future if it is not immediately addressed. Let’s not forget the grim data which had been recently put out by a McKinsey study. One of the agency’s economists had pithily stated, “The decline of women participation (in the country’s workforce) is a decline in our GDP.” This came in the wake of statistics that Indian women contributed just 17 percent of the national GDP — less than half the global average of 37 percent. It was said that advancing women’s equality to international standards could help India increase its GDP growth by 16 percent.
Interestingly, the ESI 2018 which devoted an entire chapter to the gender subject was helmed by the country’s Chief Economic Advisor Arvind Subramanian, who had, during the McKinsey event, presented a keynote address dwelling strongly on the need to empower Indian women and the girl child.
(The writer is senior political commentator and public affairs analyst.)