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India's penchant for male child continues almost unabated
"My mother wanted a son. My sister wanted a son, too. And now, this department also needs only a man," a 28-year-old man says this in context of preference of a government department for recruitment in the heart of the national capital.

This is a clear reflection of the long-standing and deep-rooted notion of male-preference in Indian society, citing physical weakness of women, security concerns, dowry and religious beliefs.

Economic Survey 2017-18 points out that Indian household's penchant for male child is at odds with the development strides the country has been making. Son-preference, as the survey calls it, is one of those areas where development of the country is not proving to be an antidote.  Fondness of Indian families and couples for male child leads to sex selective abortion, skewed sex ratio at birth and beyond and resulted into loss of 63 million women.

While son preference through foetal abortions is widely prevalent despite Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PNDT) Act in place, the new scenario that emerges is subtler. In what the survey terms 'meta preference' for a son, parents continue to have children until they get a son or the desired number of sons. A common manifestation of this can be seen in families with number of girls and one son, usually the last one among the sibling. It simply implies that the parents continued to have children till they got at least one boy.

The survey highlights that though the son 'meta' preference is not based on sex-selection abortion and does not lead to skewed sex ratio necessarily, it may prove detrimental to female children as it means lesser resources of families for the female children. This has been measured using the indicator Sex Ratio of Last Child (SRLC) which heavily skewed in favour of boys.

When it comes to states, Meghalaya stands out as the ideal one which has both, sex ratio at birth and SRLC close to the benchmark. Many states such as Kerala do not practice sex selective abortions but indicate some son 'meta' preference. Northern states especially Haryana and Punjab, continue to stand at odds with their economic prosperity and perform poorly on sex ratio at birth and SRLC. It implies that parents in these states are unlikely to stop producing children after having a daughter. Bihar, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Jharkhand are among the lagging performers. Delhi's performance worsened in a decade.

On the contrary, not-so-rich economically prosperous North-eastern states (with the exception of Tripura and Arunachal) and Goa, model for rest of the country in this matter, continue to outperform other states on parameters of sex ratio at birth at all point of time and show no son preference.  

The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) also reveals that as an exception parents produce second child even when the first child is boy but merely as a pure family size preference. Though the government has launched schemes such as 'Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, Sukanya Samridhi and introduced many other financial incentives and educational campaigns, sex ratio in the age group of 0 to 6 years is approaching 1200 males per 1000 females in Haryana and Punjab, even they are among the richest states. This clearly indicates negative correlation between income and sex ration. In this context, the economic survey draws an analogy with China, another oriental society with preference for son. The sex ratio in this global hub of manufacturing worsened and increased from 1070 in 1970 to 1156 in 2014 after the country brought in one-child policy. The sex ratio in the same period increased substantially in India as well from 1060 to 1108. Both the countries made great strides in economy in these decades, another indication of development being odds with development.

No prize for guessing the reasons cited for such a son preference in Indian society - patrilocality (women having to move to husbands' houses after marriage), patrilineality (property passing on to sons rather than daughters), dowry (which leads to extra costs of having girls), old age support from sons and rituals performed by sons. The survey estimates 21 million girls born out of 'meta preference' for son, whereas the skewed sex ratio in favour of boys led to 63 million "missing" women. Surprisingly, skewed sex ratio is prevalent in families of Indian origin even in Canada.

The economic survey says that many gender outcomes exhibit a convergence pattern, improving with wealth to a greater extent in India than in similar countries such as involvement in decision about their own health, large household purchases, sexual violence, median age at first child birth and marriage, earning more than or equal to husband etc.

But, it has a long way to go in terms of balanced sex ratio and gender equality. The society needs to be sensitized about instrumental and intrinsic value of raising the role and status of women. As International Monetary Fund (IMF) Chief, Christian Lagarde said it that Indian economy can grow by 27 per cent if women's participation in the workforce is at par with men. The survey also recognises that development itself cannot be banked upon to improve the status of women. This challenge will have to be shared by government, civil society and other stakeholders.

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