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Monday, October 20, 2003

India's Demographic Divide

Following-on Kaushik's post about India's lack of homogeneity. This is also reflected in the demographics. Forgive me if I cite at length from Tim Dyson's paper at the recent UN 'declining fertility' experts meeting. The good news is that fertility is coming down - this is India's great window of opportunity. The bad news: it ain't even.

Although massive generalisations are involved, the main point ........is that northern and southern parts of the Indian subcontinent appear to have long been governed by rather different demographic regimes. The north always seems to have experienced somewhat higher levels of fertility and mortality, an earlier age at marriage for women and greater excess female mortality.......... Fertility is highest in the four core northern states. And census child woman ratios (CWRs) suggest that until about the last third of the twentieth century fertility in Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat was also comparatively high. Fertility always seems to have been comparatively low in the south; and the southern states experienced fertility declines earlier than the core northern states. Interestingly analysis using district-level CWRs for the period 1951-91 shows fertility decline spreading gradually throughout southern India from an initial 'bridgehead' in the extreme south; this is followed a little later by a second slower emanation of fertility decline from a bridgehead in Punjab/Haryana in the north. As previously intimated, differences in the timing of fertility declines have probably accentuated the current size of the former north/south differential. But the key point is that this differential probably existed prior to the onset of the fertility transition. ................the exceptional masculinity of India's population is largely a northern feature. This differential too is deeply ingrained and of longstanding. Sex ratios from the census have always been unusually masculine in the north - especially in Punjab/Haryana and neighbouring areas of western UP.

The explanation for this demographic contrast is complex (Dyson and Moore, 1983). But for present purposes it will suffice to say that northern society tends to place greater stress upon the male line. The main social units are patrilineally related groups of males (i.e. fathers and sons). Marriages rules are exogamic; 'wife-giving' groups are socially inferior to 'wife-taking' groups; and dowry (i.e. resources which go from the bride's family to that of the groom) is the main marriage transaction. Therefore in the northern kinship system as well as being a fundamental arrangement for the having and rearing of children (especially male heirs) marriage represents a statement of the relationship between different groups. It is central to the structure of the wider society. When women marry they often move over long distances into households where they are strangers. Their levels of personal autonomy are extremely low and son preference is very strong. A daughter will usually require the provision of a dowry. Producing a son is the chief route for a bride to raise her status. It is often said that son preference in India reflects the Hindu requirement for a son to light the funeral pyre. But this rite can be performed by others than a son, and the highest level of religious merit also requires that a daughter be given in marriage. So the real basis for strong son preference - and daughter neglect - lies in the fundamental arrangements of kinship, inheritance and marriage..............

In my view there are several reasons why the basic north/south contrast will mean that during the foreseeable future, say the next twenty-five years, below-replacement fertility is much more likely to prevail in southern than in northern India. First, there is the basic fact that fertility seems always to have been a little lower in the south. Of course, because something is of longstanding does not mean that it will necessarily persist, but at the same time this consideration cannot be entirely discounted. Second, other things equal, the particularly strong level of son preference found in the north should tend to promote somewhat higher levels of fertility there. Third, as argued above, in the north the institution of marriage is pivotal to the construction of the wider society. This is relevant chiefly because it implies that it will take northern women longer to explore avenues of life apart from the domestic domain. Indeed, southern women have long had a significant advantage in terms of their levels of 'freedom', 'autonomy', 'personal
decision-making', call it what you will.

It is also important to note that, in general, south Indian society and economy are appreciably more dynamic than those of the north. This is not to deny the existence of 'bright spots' in the north, such as Delhi, Punjab and Haryana (although these places all have relatively small populations). Gujarat too is as socially and economically dynamic as is Maharashtra immediately to its south. But, that said, travelling around India there is certainly a lack of 'buzz' about the northern, inland, Gangetic core. In contrast, south India, both its urban and its rural parts, has a very different feel. Thus, compared to the core northern states, rates of per capita income growth have generally been much faster in the south. The southern states also tend to be more urban. In addition, most of the more vibrant, big urban centres - e.g. Mumbai, Pune, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Chennai - are located in the south. It is these cities, especially, which have benefited from the liberalisation of the economy since the early 1990s, and where many new investment opportunities have been created. These are the main locations for the growing numbers of high-tech jobs, places where the newly installed high-capacity telephone lines have led to the establishment of large call-centres (often employing young women) which service overseas markets.

Please excuse the length of the post. Any takers?

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