Members Only
lock close icon

More Women Than Men, Stable Population: Read Between the Lines of NFHS Data

Does NFHS-5 data show that we are no longer a son-preferring nation? And, has our population begun to stabilise?

Mythreyee Ramesh
<div class="paragraphs"><p>Does it show that we are no longer a son-preferring nation? And, has our population begun to stabilise?</p></div>

Does it show that we are no longer a son-preferring nation? And, has our population begun to stabilise?

(Photo: Kamran Akhtar/TheQuint)


The National Family Health Survey (NFHS) was first done in the year 1992. Almost two decades later – the fifth edition of the survey, released on Wednesday, 24 November, threw two numbers that took India by surprise.

  • One: The proportion of women in the country exceeded that of men – 1,020 women for every 1,000 men.

  • Two: India's Total Fertility Rate slipped to 2 – indicating that the country no longer faced a population explosion threat.

So, do these numbers confirm the signs of a demographic shift in India? Does it show that we are no longer a son-preferring nation? And, has our population begun to stabilise?

Take the data with a pinch of salt, experts told The Quint, explaining that there's a lot of reading between the lines that's required to decipher the NFHS data.

Difference Between Sex Ratio and Sex Ratio at Birth

In the third edition of the National Family Health Survey (NFHS-3), conducted between 2005 and 2006, India's sex ratio was equal – 1000 females to 1000 males. In its fourth edition (2015-2016), the proportion of women to men dipped again – 991:1000.

When the fifth edition numbers showed more proportion of women than men, a leading daily stated that India could no longer be called a country of "missing girls".

This is a wrong analysis – as sex ratio and sex ratio at birth are two different things, pointed Varna Sri Raman, Lead, Research and Knowledge Building, at Oxfam India.

"This is a case of eternal optimism as we still do not have full set of data to celebrate anything.

(Photo: Kamran Akhter/TheQuint)

How bad? According to the NFHS-5, sex ratio at birth is 929 females to 1000 males. This is only a marginal improvement from NFHS-4 where the ratio was 919:1000. This underlines that boys do continue to have better chances of survival as compared to girls.

Sanghamitra Singh, Senior Manager (Knowledge Management & Partnerships) at Population Foundation of India echos Raman.

"While there have been several programmes to sensitise people about the value of a girl child, the patriarchal notion of son preference very much exists in India. That is also evident from the other indicator that is present in the NFHS-5, which is the sex ratio at birth in the last five years. The sex ratio is in relation to total population. But sex ratio at birth shows that female births are still lesser than male births. So there is still prevailing son preference," Singh told The Quint.

(Photo: Kamran Akhter/TheQuint)

Women Are Living Longer Than Men

The improved sex ratio in terms of total population could also mean that among adults, women are living longer than men. "This could simply mean that women are surviving for longer now. This is a demographic trend, much like the other demographic trends. It is important to note that the data that has been released is not unit-level data," Raman told The Quint.

"If we look at other data sources to understand possible changes in the contributory factors, we see improvements in the life expectancy at birth in India, which is now more favourable to women as compared to their male counterparts. The female life expectancy at birth is higher at 70.7 years as compared to males, which is 68.2 years as per SRS estimates for the period 2014-18."
Sriram Haridass, UNFPA India Representative to The Quint

(Photo: Kamran Akhter/TheQuint)


India's Declining Fertility Rate

A state-wise break-up of numbers also shows, at face value, that India could be on its way to stabilise its population – with many states recording a Total Fertility Rate (TFR) of less than 2.

TFR is the average number of children each woman will bear.

According to the NFHS data, India's TFR is at 2 – which is the internationally accepted standard for the population to have peaked – and is headed for an eventual decline.

Only five states – Bihar, Meghalaya, Manipur, Jharkhand, and Uttar Pradesh – have a TFR above 2.

(Photo: Kamran Akhter/TheQuint)

"Lower TFR usually comes with economic development and greater education, and particularly those policies that pave the way for women's education and employment. States like Kerala have recorded declining TFR due to this. In India, overall, we have seen economic development and that is pushing the TFR down. However, there is an undeniable variability across the country. This will have to be studied at a greater depth."
Dr Srinath Reddy, President, Public Health Foundation of India

Is India's Population Really Shrinking?

Experts say that India is still expected to become the most populous country in the world as per United Nations projections – and that the population would peak at 1.6 to 1.8 billion – between 2040 and 2050.

"Although India has achieved replacement levels of fertility (TFR of 2.0 children per woman) and many states have also reached the same, notwithstanding such decline, the population will continue to grow for a while because of what is called the 'population momentum' effect. It is like a 'Jumbo Jet' – a large airplane – that has started its descent but will take some time to stop. After reaching the replacement levels of fertility, it usually takes two to three decades for the population to stabilise."
Sriram Haridass, UNFPA India Representative to The Quint

It is important to note that while the TFR has come down, India's young population (who make most of the population) is expected to continue to procreate.

"We were kind of expecting India to reach replacement level of fertility, which is fertility rate of 2.1. In NFHS-4, the TFR was 2.2, so for us to reach 2 is not surprising at all. Having said that, India has a large young population right now. Even though fertility has reached 2, the young population will continue to have children till our average age becomes higher and more people are out of that reproductive cycle," adds Sanghamitra Singh.

'Wait for the Census for Definite Data': Experts Sound Caution

To put it simply, while widely regarded, the NFHS still remains a representative survey.

"We must remember that this is a representative survey. While the NFHS-5 is a large-scale survey, it still covers around 6.1 lakh households in the country and they are representative of an entire 1.3 billion population. For a survey it is really large scale but to get an estimate of the sex ratio in the country, we will have to wait for the census data. The census is a more accurate depiction of population-related questions," PFI's Sanghamitra Singh said.

The NFHS survey also does not throw disintegrated data – in terms of religion and caste – nor does it throw light on how the subgroups are doing in terms of numbers like sex ratio and the TFR.

Dr Reddy explains this with an example – the correlation between sex ratio at birth and the TFR.

"The contribution to the improvement of sex ratio at birth interestingly comes from rural areas. It is more skewed in urban areas. So if rural TFR is 2 and 1.6 in urban areas, one needs to question if the greater gender preference is coming from urban India? This has to be studied in detail. It is a hypothesis that needs to be explored – but only the census can help us with that," Dr Reddy added.

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

Become a Member to unlock
  • Access to all paywalled content on site
  • Ad-free experience across The Quint
  • Early previews of our Special Projects

Published: 26 Nov 2021,08:44 AM IST