10 Feb 2018 19:38 IST

Of sons and ‘meta-sons’

Son preference economic survey BL on Campus

The preference for sons is still so great in some regions that it impacts other social indicators

This year’s Economic Survey, whose lead author is Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian, had a pink-coloured cover, signifying solidarity with gender equality and women’s empowerment.

The Survey, presented just a couple of days before the Budget, has an interesting chapter titled ‘Gender and meta son-preference: Is development itself an antidote?’

The chapter starts out with two contrasting quotes. One by Tamil poet Subramania Bharati extolling women’s empowerment and the other by Hindi poet Maithilisharan Gupt lamenting the woeful status of women in our society.

The analysts who compiled the Survey look at 17 indicators of women’s ‘agency, attitudes and outcomes’. The data are analysed between two time points — 2005-06 and 2015-16.

Improved indicators

The indicators used to judge the outcomes include: women’s involvement in decisions about their own health, large household purchases, their own earnings, contraception, preference of equal or more number of daughters over sons, employment, education, physical violence, and so on.

Son preference economic survey BL on Campus


The major findings of the Survey were that on 14 out of the 17 indicators, there has been an improvement over the two time periods, which of course varied across the States.

Only in three indicators — decisions about contraception, employment and sex ratio at last birth — has there been a negative outcome in 2015-16 over 2005-06.

The Survey points out that the percentage of women making their own decisions about their health has risen over 12 percentage points — a sure indicator of their empowerment.

It also points out that in 10 indicators India’s improvement is in sync with countries that tread a similar economic development path.

Son preference

An analysis of whether gender outcomes correspond to increase in wealth, for India as well as other countries, was also carried, out, and the Survey’s key finding was that in 15 indicators India’s performance responded more positively than other countries of equal economic standing.

There were two other important findings — one was the ascendancy of North-Eastern States in the status of women; and, two, the stubborn persistence of a ‘son preference’. This was one area that was totally immune to — or, as the Survey calls it, ‘inoculated’ against — any increase in wealth.

A State-wise analysis shows that States from the North-East consistently outperformed the others, especially those in the northern and central hinterland. When it comes to social development, it is usually the southern States that outshine others — Himachal Pradesh being the exception in the north.

After all, it was the poor social development of the large northern and central Indian States that prompted demographer Ashish Bose to coin the term ‘BIMARU’.

Model States

But the Survey points out the North-Eastern States have become model States women it comes to gender development and women’s empowerment outpacing the States from South.

In fact, the analysis shows that States such as Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu should be performing better given their higher economic development and growth. This must certainly spur the governments and policy-makers in these two States into action.

It was Amartya Sen who, along with Jean Dreze, did seminal work in the area of social development and first coined the term ‘missing women’. These are women who are ‘missing’ thanks to sex-selective abortions (which is banned but still thrives in some parts of the country) and neglect of the girl child after birth.

The Survey’s shocking finding is that there were 63 million ‘missing women’ in India in 2014 and more than two million go ‘missing’ across age groups every year! The more important and interesting section of this chapter, however, is on the meta-son preference, which throws up the more important issue of ‘unwanted girls’.

A meta-son preference is when parents continue to have children until they have the ‘desired number of sons’. So unlike the ‘missing women’ which skews the sex ratio (number of women per thousand men), a meta-son preference may not skew the sex ratio, as the parents end up having more daughters too.

Gender discrimination

More crucially, though, it opens up the scope for discrimination against girl children within the family, where the more preferred sons get better access to nutrition, health and education.

A State-wise analysis shows that Meghalaya tops in greater gender equality, showing the least ‘meta-son’ preference, whereas Punjab and Haryana, not surprisingly, display the most, or should one say worst, signs of son and meta-son preference.

At the policy level, the Survey lauds the government’s initiatives — especially the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao, and Sukanya Samriddhi Yojana schemes. The government’s move on 26-weeks of mandatory maternity leave for women employees and compulsory creche facilities at work also find mention.

On being rapped by the Supreme Court for being an extra-Constitutional body, recently Haryana’s Khap elders ticked off the apex court, asking it to keep off their traditions. They also chillingly added that if the apex court kept interfering with their traditions they would stop having girl children!

Apparently, the country still has a long way to travel on gender equality.