The Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, of the central government, recently released the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5). One of the data points mentioned in the report i.e. sex ratio, has made headlines. India has more women than men now, and this is being seen as a big breakthrough towards achieving a balanced sex ratio.
The nodal agency, International Institute for Population Sciences (Mumbai), has been helped by a group of survey organisations and population research centres, in completing this massive exercise.
The NFHS-5 (2019-’21) has done data profiling related to some important indicators like: population, fertility, family planning, contraception, vaccination, nutrition and feeding practices, Anemia (lack of red blood cells), maternal and child death, institutional deliveries etc.
It includes information on 131 key indicators in all. Its sample size consists of 6.1 lakh households from 707 districts, covering almost 7 lakh women and approximately 1 lakh men.
The factsheet regarding population point towards a revolutionary change. The report shows that we now have 1,020 women for every 1,000 men. In NFHS-4 (2015-16), we had 991 women for every 1,000 men.
This is being seen as a landmark achievement for India, which was given the “missing women” tag by economist Amartya Sen in 1990.
One of the other highlights of this report is that the total fertility rate (TFR) of India has come down from 2.2 to 2.0 at the national level i.e., we are below the replacement level.
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There has also been notable improvement in the contraceptive prevalence rate (CPR), and other indicators such as immunisation, institutional deliveries, child nutrition indicators and women having operational bank accounts.
But, the interpretation and analysis of government data needs a careful and sound approach, not a hasty attempt. The NFHS-5 itself advises readers to be cautious while comparing trends, as some states and UTs (union territories) may have a smaller sample size.
The government conducts the NFHS to provide authentic and comparable data, related to health and family welfare.
The government directs agencies to gather information on reproductive and child health, population, family welfare, nutrition and women empowerment, along with other crucial facts—to foster existing programmes and for evolving new policies.
The government also tracks our progress towards achieving sustainable development goals via this data. So, the data as well as its correct interpretation is much needed. The government conducts a decadal census, to get a bird’s eye view on the people who are being governed, as well as the governance mechanisms.
But, this needs a hefty investment in terms of time and money. Secondly, the government can’t always wait for a decade to pass, to look at the impact of its policies, as well as to modify existing policies and frame new ones.
Hence, the NFHS helps fulfill these objectives by providing a worm’s eye view about the recent past.
The numbers presented in recently released NFHS-5, regarding adult women per 1,000 men, should not be decoded on a standalone basis. There are 1,020 women at the national level (1,037 in rural India and 985 in urban India) per 1,000 men.
In NFHS-4, it was 991 women per 1,000 men. In the 2011 census, there were 933 women per 1,000 men. All these figures do not stand on the same level. This is because the adult sex ratio mentioned in the report has been collected on the basis of de facto enumeration.
This means that only the number of men and women who were present in the household on the last night of the survey, have been counted.
Therefore, it can’t be ruled out that there is a possibility of migrant, rural men and women being away from their homes on the last night of the de facto enumeration.
Along with this, the NFHS counts women belonging to specific demographic categories only. Similarly, it’s not reasonable to generalise these figures for the whole country because it also includes states and UTs with too small a sample size.
Therefore, concluding that India has more women than men now, can be dangerous and misleading.
But, this doesn’t mean that nothing positive can be concluded from the NFHS-5. The report shows signs of demographic shift in India and this is the good news. It can’t be denied that there has been a significant improvement in the adult sex ratio, particularly in the last three decades.
In my opinion, this change can be partly attributed to the proper implementation of government schemes like the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao Yojana; Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana; Mukhyamantri Lakshmi Laadli Yojana, Mukhyamantri Kanya Suraksha Yojana etc.
Numerous initiatives were launched by state governments such as supporting girls who are pursuing higher education by providing them with monetary rewards, providing scholarships to girls for competitive exams etc.
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Also, awareness programmes regarding girls’ education and gender equality—all this has resulted in bringing behavioural changes in the society. Even the sex ratio at birth has improved from 919 to 929 girls for every 1,000 boys, in the NFHS-5.
So, the current report has both, cause for cheer and alarm for India, with reference to its sex ratio. It signifies that the treatment of the gender problem is going in the right direction, but the magnitude of the recovery can only be fully understood and calculated after the census.