India’s demographic profile – particularly its unusually youthful population and large reservoir of skilled professionals – is now regarded as a key element of its ascent to the top rank of world powers. While China, the world’s other “population billionaire,” is rapidly growing grayer, India is projected to add about a quarter of a billion workers to its labor force over the next two decades. As a spate of new reports (here, here and here) highlight, this “youth bulge,” by expanding the national pool of savings and investment, will be a critical driver of the country’s economic prosperity.
Talk about a “demographic dividend” is now ubiquitous and even includes Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, who believes it is the basis for the dawning “Indian Century.” Yet there are reasons for skepticism – not least due to the vast inadequacies of the educational system – that this dividend is as large or potent as many make it out. (And just this week, New Delhi hosted an international conference that made it clear not even India is immune to the challenges of an aging population.) But as a new study reminds us yet again, there is another troubling demographic trend that will dim the country’s prospects: a rather pronounced deficit of females.
According to an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal, India will have 20 percent more men than women by 2030 and the ratio is currently even higher in many parts of northern India, especially Punjab and Haryana but also Gujarat, New Delhi and Uttar Pradesh. According to some estimates, there will be 28 million more Indian men than women by 2020.
Abnormally high male-to-female ratios have long existed in many parts of India, as well as in other Asian countries like China, South Korea, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Twenty years ago, Amartya Sen, the renowned Indian economist and Nobel Prize winner, estimated that Asia was “missing” some 100 million women. A decade ago, two Western scholars, Valerie M. Hudson and Andrea Den Boer (here and here) concluded that China and India together accounted for 62-68 million missing females in Asia. Others, too, have written about the phenomenon, which the Chinese term “bare branches” – referring to the voids in family trees caused by male offspring unable to carry on the family line because they cannot find wives.
The stark gender imbalance in many parts of India is the result of a deeply ingrained cultural preference for male heirs, combined for the widespread use of ultrasound technology for the purposes of gender-selective abortions. Such abortions have been illegal in India since 1994, but the practice – along with female infanticide – remains prevalent nonetheless. A 2006 article in the British medical journal The Lancet estimated that a half million female fetuses are aborted each year in India due solely to gender selection. Indeed, there is striking evidence that the practice has increased despite rising income levels within India and is even practiced among non-resident Indians residing in Western countries. UNICEF, for example, has found that the number of sex-selective abortions has significantly increased since 1991 and that a higher percentage of boys are now born in most parts of India than was the case a decade ago.
The artificial deficit of females represents an incalculable loss of human capital in a country that desperately requires much more. But the flip side of the gender imbalance also presents a welter of problems. Hudson and Den Boer point to the dangers to domestic stability and international security caused by the growing populations of young adult men unable to find marriage partners and without a stake in the social order that comes from starting families. The increased competition for brides caused by skewed male-to-female ratios is inevitably won by young men with better prospects, giving their cohorts from the lower socioeconomic classes even more reason for socially disruptive behavior. These young men, for instance, are more susceptible to recruitment into criminal gangs and extremist groups. There is already a fair amount of statistical evidence demonstrating a robust link between gender imbalances and violent crime in India.
Hudson and Den Boer also fear an increase in sectarian and ethnic violence in both India and Pakistan, along with increased authoritarianism as hard-pressed governments attempt to deal with an ever-expanding sub-class of unmarried young adult men lacking stable social bonds. Time will tell whether the worst of these fears are borne out in South Asia, but it is undeniable that the problems of gender imbalance are already cutting into India’s developmental prospects.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this writing are solely of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of League of India, its Editorial Board or the business and socio-political interests that they might represent.
This article was first published at India Foreign Policy Blogs here