Editorial Notes

[Editorial Notes] Skewed sex ratio and falling fertility rate

As a matter of relief to India, the fertility rate of the country is falling. But the heavily skewed sex ratio in India which favours the male child could upset the gains from the falling fertility rate.
By IASToppers
October 17, 2020


  • Introduction
  • Total Fertility Rate in India
  • Replacement Total Fertility Rate
  • Population momentum effect
  • Estimated trends in India
  • Total Fertility Rate in States
  • Factors effecting fertility
  • The areas of concern
  • Way Forward
  • Conclusion

Skewed sex ratio and falling fertility rate

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The discussion on India’s population future was prompted by release of the Sample Registration System (SRS) Statistical Report (2018) and global population projections made by the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation (IHME), US.

Total Fertility Rate in India:

  • Total Fertility Rate (TFR) is the number of children a mother would have at the current pattern of fertility during her lifetime.
  • SRS report estimated the TFR as 2.2 in the year 2018. This indicates that fertility has been declining in India for some time now.
  • As fertility declines, so does the population growth rate.
  • This report estimated the natural annual population growth rate to be 1.38 per cent in 2018.
  • With India’s estimated population of 137 crore, this means that net 1.9 crore persons would have been added in 2018.

Replacement Total Fertility Rate:

  • According to the UN Population Division, a total fertility rate (TFR) of about 2.1 children per woman is called replacement-level fertility.
  • When two organisms have two offspring, this is known as replacement-level fertility, because they are exactly replacing themselves in numbers.
  • If replacement level fertility is sustained over a sufficiently long period, each generation will exactly replace itself.
  • The replacement level of TFR is dependent also on maternal mortality and child mortality, and, as such, it is higher in underdeveloped countries.
  • Fertility is likely to continue to decline and it is estimated that replacement TFR of 2.1 would soon be reached for India as a whole.

Population momentum effect:

  • Population momentum is how the population grows when reproduction is reduced to replacement-level fertility.
  • Population momentum is the growth of a population if reproduction were immediately reduced to replacement-level fertility.
  • This population growth is due to the current number of organisms in the childbearing age-range.
  • This means that the growth of the population happens on how big it already is.

Estimated trends in India:

  • Many people believe that the population would stabilise or begin to reduce in a few years once replacement fertility is reached.
  • This is not so because of the population momentum effect, a result of more people entering the reproductive age group of 15-49 years due to the past high-level of fertility.
  • For instance, the replacement fertility level was reached in Kerala around 1990, but its annual population growth rate was 0.7 per cent in 2018, nearly 30 years later.
  • The UN Population Division has estimated that India’s population would possibly peak at 161 crores around 2061 at the medium-fertility variant, and will be lower by about 10 per cent at the low fertility variant.
  • IHME estimated that it will peak at 160 crores in 2048.
  • Some of this momentum effect can be mitigated if young people delay childbearing and space their children.

Total Fertility Rate in States:

  • A comparison of 2011 and 2018 SRS statistical reports shows that TFR declined from 2.4 to 2.2 during this period.
  • Fertility declined in all major states. In 2011, 10 states had a fertility rate below the replacement rate.
  • This increased to 14 states (including two new newly carved states — Telangana and Uttarakhand).
  • The annual natural population growth rate also declined from 1.47 to 1.38 per cent during this period.
  • The six states with higher than national fertility rate (and their TFR) in 2018 are Bihar (3.2), Uttar Pradesh (2.9) Madhya Pradesh (2.7), Rajasthan (2.5), Jharkhand (2.5) and Chhattisgarh (2.4).

Factors effecting fertility:

  • Fertility largely depends upon social setting and programme strength.
  • Female education is a key indicator for social setting.
  • Higher the female education level, lower the fertility.
  • Illiterate women in the reproductive age group of 15-49 years have higher fertility than literate women in almost all states.
  • The percentage of illiterate women in the reproductive age group declined from 31.5 in 2011 to 13.0 per cent in 2018 as the older women with high illiteracy exited and younger women with a high proportion of them literate entered this age group.
  • The percentage of illiterate women in this age group was higher than 15 per cent in all the high-fertility states, which comprise nearly 40 per cent of India’s population.

The areas of concern:

1. Illiteracy and non-usage of contraception:

  • Programme strength is indicated by the unmet need for contraception, which has several components.
  • The National Family Health Survey (2015-16) provides us estimates for the unmet need at 12.9 per cent and contraceptive prevalence of 53.5 per cent for India.
  • Together, this puts the total demand for contraception at 66.4 per cent.
  • Bihar, with the highest fertility rate, also has the highest unmet need at 21.1 per cent and the lowest contraceptive prevalence rate of 24.1 per cent among all the major states.
  • Although female education levels are improving in Bihar, fertility for women with any education level is higher in 2018 compared to 2011.

2. Skewed Sex ratio:

  • The most troubling statistics in the report are for sex ratio at birth.
  • Biologically normal sex ratio at birth is 1,050 males to 1,000 females or 950 females to 1,000 males.
  • The SRS reports show that sex ratio at birth in India, measured as the number of females per 1,000 males, declined marginally from 906 in 2011 to 899 in 2018.
  • There is considerable son preference in all states, except possibly in Kerala and Chhattisgarh.
  • The UNFPA State of World Population 2020 estimated the sex ratio at birth in India as 910, lower than all the countries in the world except China.
  • This adverse ratio results in a gross imbalance in the number of men and women and its inevitable impact on marriage systems as well as other harms to women.

Way Forward:

  • Increasing female education and economic prosperity help to improve the present state of population growth and to realise a balanced sex ratio at birth.
  • The literacy of women in the reproductive age group if improved rapidly, we can be sure about continued fertility reduction.
  • In view of the complexity of son preference resulting in gender-biased sex selection, government actions need to be supplemented by improving women’s status in the society.
  • The National Awareness Programme for need of contraception and benefits of small family, coupled with initiatives on reduction of neonatal mortality rate must be started for younger people.
  • The young people should be provided with good quality reproductive health education and necessary medical services must be urgently strengthened in the country.


There is an urgent need to reach young people both for reproductive health education and services as well as to cultivate gender equity norms. This could reduce the effect of population momentum and accelerate progress towards reaching a more normal sex-ratio at birth which is essential for India’s population future.

Mains 2020 Editorial Notes

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