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China–IndiaPathways of Economic and Social Development$

Delia Davin and Barbara Harriss-White

Print publication date: 2014

Print ISBN-13: 9780197265673

Published to British Academy Scholarship Online: January 2015

DOI: 10.5871/bacad/9780197265673.001.0001

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The Social Consequences of Demographic Change in India

The Social Consequences of Demographic Change in India

(p.115) 6 The Social Consequences of Demographic Change in India

Patricia Jeffery

British Academy

Abstract and Keywords

Since the mid-1960s, India has experienced several notable shifts in its population dynamics that will have social implications for decades to come. This paper first sketches some of the central parameters of a complex picture that is characterised by regional and intra-regional contrasts. The main body of the paper considers the likely impact of these demographic processes by addressing the following themes: whether India is likely to benefit from the ‘demographic dividend’ derived from declining fertility; whether declining fertility combined with sex selective abortion might result in a ‘marriage squeeze’ that disadvantages young men and results in a decline in the significance of dowry payments; whether low fertility will impact positively on gender politics (including women’s access to employment and their position within their marital homes); and the implications of an increasingly ageing population for the intergenerational contract.

Keywords:   India, demographic change, demographic dividend, marriage squeeze, dowry, gender politics, population ageing, intergenerational contract

SINCE THE MID-1960s, India’s population dynamics have been characterized by several notable shifts that will have social implications for decades to come. This chapter sketches some of the central parameters of a complex demographic picture—in particular: marked interregional differences in the timing and extent of fertility decline (earlier and deeper in much of the south, later and still ongoing in the large northern states); complex intraregional variations associated with rural–urban residence, economic position, caste, and religious community; and striking regional contrasts in ‘daughter aversion’ (most extreme in parts of north-west India, though with pockets in the south and evidence of spread to new regions). The main body of the chapter addresses the likely impact of these demographic processes through the following themes: the demographic dividend, the marriage squeeze, the implications of fertility decline for women, population ageing, and the intergenerational contract.

Declining mortality, declining fertility

After independence, death rates began declining, largely owing to greater access to preventive and curative medical care, reductions in childhood diseases, and greater food security (Dyson, 2010). Subsequently, fertility rates also began declining, owing initially to the rising age of marriage for women, later because of increased use of ‘modern’ contraception (Visaria, 2004a).

India’s fertility transition is, however, marked by persistent regional differences (Guilmoto and Rajan, 2001; Dyson, 2004; Visaria, 2004a). Since 1951, fertility decline has gradually spread from coastal areas (especially in the south and south-east) to most of India, arriving most recently in the Gangetic plain (Guilmoto and Rajan, 2001). Parts of southern India already (p.116) have below-replacement fertility, while continuing population growth in the north is largely attributable to the lag in fertility decline. Visaria (2004a), however, predicts a gradual regional convergence as preferred family size approaches two children and unmet need for contraception declines everywhere. Nevertheless, regional contrasts in fertility decline will mark the population age and sex profiles for some decades, with young populations and slower population ageing in the north, but more rapid population ageing in the south.

Intraregional differences in fertility decline are also striking. Census and survey data do not always permit firm conclusions on the relationship between fertility and economic position, but, broadly speaking, fertility is lowest among the wealthiest urban dwellers and highest among poor villagers, especially in the northern states. Generally, fertility remains higher among Scheduled Castes and Tribes (SCs and STs) and Muslims (Jeffery and Jeffery, 1997; Dharmalingam and Morgan, 2004; Jeffery and Jeffery, 2006; Jeffery, Jeffrey, and Jeffrey, 2008), although these profiles are heavily marked by regional differences.

Explanations for fertility decline are diverse. Most accounts prefer to see it as an outcome of people’s responses to the consequences of mortality decline (Visaria, 2004a; Bhattacharya, 2006), rather than India’s family programme, whose major demographic impact has been providing contraception to couples who wish to limit their fertility. Increased certainties about child survival may generate fears about the costs of childrearing and encourage parents to adopt contraception swiftly after having their desired number of children (Basu, 1999). Additionally, rising aspirations—for fewer, ‘better-quality’ (for example, more educated) children, for more consumer goods—raise childrearing costs (Basu, 1999, 2002). Caldwell (2005: 736), for instance, considers that ‘the pressure to have fewer children results principally not from forward-looking educated parents but from forward-looking investing parents’.

Another approach, following Dyson and Moore (1983), focuses on regional differences in fertility decline in relation to kinship organization and women’s autonomy, with northern areas characterized by patrilocal marriage and women’s low bargaining power in their marital homes (Krishnan, 2001), and low levels of women’s autonomy and formal education that hamper women’s capacity to make decisions about fertility (e.g., Drèze and Murthi, 2001; Drèze and Sen, 2002). Yet, if regional differences in gender politics and kinship may give some handle on regional differences in fertility decline, there is little firm evidence that intraregional differences, such as those between Hindus and Muslims, reflect consistent differences in women’s autonomy (Jejeebhoy and Sathar, 2001; Morgan et al., 2002). Indeed, defining ‘autonomy’ is as complex as evaluating what its relationship might be to education and (p.117) fertility decision-making (Jeffery and Basu, 1996; Visaria, 2004a). Moreover, educated women initially predominated in fertility decline figures, but about 65 per cent of fertility decline by 1990 was among illiterate women, attributed to rising aspirations (Bhat, 2002) or a diffusion effect within households and local communities (McNay, Arokiasamy, and Cassen, 2003). Furthermore, fertility decline seems not to necessitate improvements in women’s autonomy or educational status, and is often more readily understood in relation to rising aspirations and wider economic changes (Basu, 2002; Bhattacharya, 2006). Perhaps, though, people’s motives and the available means to limit fertility are extremely varied and there is no single grand narrative, whether one resting on women’s autonomy or on social and economic parameters (Basu, 1999).

Additionally, India’s fertility decline has been sex-biased. This is an important downside of ‘prosperity optimism’ (Agnihotri, 2000: ch. 8), which again suggests that fertility decline does not necessarily require improvements in women’s autonomy. The sex bias in fertility decline has been spatially nonrandom (Guilmoto and Attané, 2007): India’s increasingly masculine child sex ratios (CSRs) are most striking in what Oldenburg (1992) notably termed the ‘Bermuda triangle for girls’, parts of north and north-west India that have historically had masculine CSRs (Visaria, 2004b; Arokiasamy, 2007), with gradual spatial diffusion to contiguous areas as couples aim both to limit their fertility and affect the sex balance of their children (Guilmoto and Attané, 2007; Guilmoto, 2008). Parts of south India not previously noted for masculine CSRs now also have increasingly masculine CSRs, however (Basu, 1999; Agnihotri, 2001).

Until the 1980s, masculine CSRs were basically explicable in terms of the differential care of girls and boys. In the northern states, female disadvantage still sets in very soon after the neonatal period (Arokiasamy and Gautam, 2008). From the mid-1980s, new technologies to determine foetal sex in utero became widely available and affordable, and sex-selective abortions now account for some of the increasingly masculine CSRs (Patel, 2007)—a phenomenon that raises uncomfortable questions about women’s agency (Bhattacharya, 2006).1 Reliable information about the incidence and social distribution of sex-selective abortions is scarce, however (see Guilmoto, 2009). Some argue that sex-selective abortion is replacing differential care (e.g., Goodkind, 1996). Others consider that girls face ‘double jeopardy’ from neglect compounded by sex-selective abortion (Sudha and Rajan, 2003) and that sex-selective abortion can coexist with the continuation of discrimination against those girls who are born (Agnihotri, 2003). Das Gupta and Bhat (1997) consider that discrimination against girls increases when fertility declines (p.118) faster than the desired number of sons, and they predicted that sex-selective abortions would play an increasing role in determining the CSR, while Bhat and Zavier (2003) consider that the ‘son preference’ effect can more effectively be put into practice because of available technology. It seems that educated, wealthy urban residents are more likely than poorer rural residents to practise sex-selective abortions, but that they do not discriminate against girls they allow to be born; by contrast, excess female child mortality is more marked for children of poorer and uneducated mothers (Agnihotri, 2003; Arokiasamy, 2007). It also appears that the economically advantaged pioneer sex-selective abortions. The practice gradually seeps down the class hierarchy within localities (Guilmoto and Attané, 2007; Guilmoto, 2008). while the spread of masculine CSRs to new areas begins in urban centres and gradually spreads to rural areas (Agnihotri, 2003). Sex ratios at birth are most masculine for Sikhs and Jains, followed by Hindus (Bhat and Zavier, 2007; Guilmoto, 2008). Masculine CSRs among SCs are intensifying, narrowing the gap between them and the general population (Bhat and Zavier, 2003; Siddhanta, Agnihotri, and Nandy, 2009). Broadly, Muslims match the overarching regional patterns, yet within regions Muslims have less masculine CSRs than their neighbours (Guilmoto, 2008): Muslims express lower son preferences, rarely practise sex-selective abortion (Bhat and Zavier, 2003, 2007), and their children (including girls) have a mortality advantage that cannot readily be explained by wealth and education differentials (unlike among caste Hindus and SCs) (Bhalotra, Valente, and van Soest, 2010).

Son preferences and ‘daughter aversion’ are often explained by reference to parental fears about having to provide daughters with dowries—the jewellery, household goods, cash, and so on provided by the bride’s parents and wider kin network that go to the bride’s husband’s home.2 Dowry has a long history, especially in northern India, a region with longstanding masculine sex ratios. More recently, writers and activists have addressed dowry: its escalation, dowry demands, the harassment and even murder of young married women whose dowries are deemed insufficient, and its recent spread to areas where it was rare previously (or only an urban elite phenomenon), such as parts of the south.3

Further, in most of India marriage is patrilocal, that is, the bride moves to her husband’s home) (e.g., see Banerjee and Jain, 2001; Agrawal and Unisa, 2007), (p.119) and outlays made by the groom’s parents—such as providing a residence for their son and daughter-in-law—remain within the groom’s family. Marriage migration also occurs in less prestigious marriages involving brideprice or bride purchase. Typically, the groom’s family reaps long-term advantages: the daughter-in-law’s labour, her childbearing and childrearing capacity, and care in old age (see below). Daughters, then, benefit their inlaws rather than their parents (e.g., see Sudha and Rajan, 2003) and women’s marriage migration provides a strong disincentive to rearing daughters even when there is no dowry system (Das Gupta et al., 2003).

Social consequences of India’s demographic transition

Fertility will probably continue to decline in India, with a gradual convergence between the different regions, but predictions about the gender bias in this process are contested. Some demographers predict that India’s sex ratios will continue to become more masculine (Das Gupta and Bhat, 1997; Mayer, 1999) and that son preferences will continue to be manifest for some decades, especially if the social and economic root causes are not removed (Guilmoto and Attané, 2007). Others predict that son preferences will decline (Visaria, 2004a), and there are indications that the sex ratio at birth has begun to plateau (Bhat and Zavier, 2003). Regional differences will probably persist, with the north-west having masculine CSRs for some years before they begin to plateau (Das Gupta, Chung, and Li, 2009) and regions where fertility decline is coming later (much of the rest of north India) showing a worsening of CSRs, at least for a time (Guilmoto, 2009).

Perhaps the one safe prediction is that fertility decline, population ageing, and masculine CSRs will leave their stamp on social and economic life, but their impact will operate at different paces in different regions and for different social groups, and India’s demographic profile will be marked by regional, class, and other diversities well into the twenty-first century. With this in mind, I now explore some implications for family life and household processes. Obtaining employment, marrying, and having children are major aspects of people’s transitions to adulthood in India. Many people in much of India will find it difficult to achieve these transitions successfully, however, because of how demographic processes intersect with other social and economic phenomena. I organize the discussion first around how the demographic dividend and the marriage squeeze affect people’s ability to achieve these transitions. I then consider how these issues and fertility decline impact on women, before turning to population ageing and the intergenerational contract.

(p.120) Demographic dividend

The demographic dividend (or bonus) refers to a short-term window of opportunity that may arise when fertility declines. The child dependency ratio falls because there are proportionally more people in the working age groups (usually 15–59 or to 64) to provide for smaller proportions of dependent children. This may generate savings at both national and household level that can be devoted to social and economic investment, for instance in education and health care. Gradually, though, with increasing longevity and as people of working age exit from economic activity, the old-age dependency ratio rises (see below), and this window of opportunity closes.

It is very unlikely, however, that the demographic dividend will materialize for India as a whole (Acharya, Cassen, and McNay, 2004: 204–205). Put simply, being of ‘working age’ is not the same as being ‘economically active’ (Basu, 2011). The agricultural sector has not absorbed all the new potential workers, over 90 per cent of workers are in the informal sector, employment is increasingly casualized (with particularly high levels of youth unemployment, including among educated young people), and income inequalities are widening (McNay, Unni, and Cassen, 2004). Yet the workingage population will increase by 1.5 times between 2001 and 2026 (McNay, Unni, and Cassen, 2004: 170), probably not all of whom will obtain secure or well-paid employment (Acharya, Cassen, and McNay, 2004: 206 ff.). Indeed, India’s apparently spectacular economic performance in recent years has been characterized as ‘jobless growth’, with jobs in IT and its spin-offs recruiting only small numbers of highly trained people (for example, Joshi 2010). And, crucially, women of ‘working age’ continue to have relatively low rates of economic activity, especially in the north (Desai, 2010; Basu, 2011) (see below). The demographic dividend, then, will not necessarily generate an economic and social one.

There will, however, be considerable interregional contrasts, and very different employment prospects and trajectories for people in different class positions within regions. Some demographic dividend may be experienced in parts of the south with relatively long histories of fertility decline and considerable job creation in industrial and other economic enterprises. Some of the large northern states, by contrast, are characterized by late and slow fertility decline and a record of sluggish job creation (Acharya, Cassen, and McNay, 2004: 217; Dyson, 2010: 40–41): increasingly fragmented landholdings become less viable and reduce job opportunities for the landless/ land-poor, and the bulk of the potentially employed experience ‘informal’ employment, often poorly paid and insecure, and/or extended periods of under- and unemployment. Education provides no guaranteed route into (p.121) secure employment (Jeffrey, Jeffery, and Jeffery, 2008), and young men may wait for years to achieve economic independence (Jeffrey, 2010). Such employment difficulties have significant implications for young men’s ability to marry and create families (to which I now turn), and the intergenerational contract (see below).

Marriage squeeze

The ‘marriage squeeze’ refers to imbalances in the numbers of men and women in the potential marriage pool. In India, men usually marry women a few years younger, and assessments of the marriage squeeze thus necessitate comparing the relevant age cohorts. In post-independence India, reductions in child mortality before fertility declined meant that younger cohorts were larger (although the potential ‘surplus’ of females was somewhat reduced by excess female child mortality). Moreover, improvements in adult women’s survival reduced levels of widowerhood, and thus the proportions of men seeking second marriages (Bhat and Halli, 1999). Gradually, ‘shortages’ of potential bridegrooms developed. With fertility decline, especially when this is rapid, however, the number of younger cohorts begins to be smaller than older ones, creating ‘shortages’ of potential brides that are further exacerbated, in some regions, by sex-selective abortion and excess female child mortality.

A commonsense understanding has developed positing that dowry escalation is linked to ‘surpluses’ of females and increasing competition for bridegrooms. Some commentators have also suggested that the increasing ‘shortages’ of brides could result in the tapering off of dowry (e.g., Bhat and Halli, 1999; Das Gupta and Li, 1999; Das Gupta et al., 2003). The relationship between numerical ‘surpluses’ and ‘shortages’ of brides and marriage payments (such as dowry and its escalation) is much more complex than this approach suggests, however. As Sudha and Rajan comment, shortages of marriageable women will not enhance their value on the marriage market: the ‘marriage squeeze’ has been associated with an increase and spread in dowry to regions and social groups where it had not been common, and ‘shortfalls in the “supply” of women will lead to their being subject to greater restrictions, control and violence’ (Sudha and Rajan, 2003: 4368).4

It is far from straightforward to predict what will happen to marriage practices—people’s ability to marry, economic exchanges, and so on—because so many crucial considerations are not factored into demographic statistics. Large-scale studies usually enable disaggregation between rural and urban (p.122) residents down to the district level, and SCs and STs are routinely detailed separately, but other castes tend to be enumerated in combined lists, people’s religious community membership is not always registered, and estimating people’s economic position is fraught with complexity. Yet these and other criteria (such as appearance and education) channel people’s decisions when selecting marriage partners.

Most marriages in India are negotiated by parents and family elders, for whom a demographic ‘shortage’ of females may not map onto a perceived shortage of females in the relevant marriage pool. Indeed, throughout my own research in rural western Uttar Pradesh since the early 1980s, villagers have insisted that there is a shortage of (suitable) grooms. Aziz (1983: 604) attributed the element of compulsion in dowry to a shift from the ‘normal eligible bachelor to a “fancy” product’ (with English education, formal sector job, etc.). Educated and employed young men receive more offers of marriage than uneducated unemployed young men—and they can hold out for a substantial dowry, too. Grooms’ parents often regard the dowry as recompense for the expenses of educating sons and getting them into employment (bribes, the costs of establishing a business), and particular occupations and castes may have specified rate charts (Banerjee and Jain, 2001). More generally, men are increasingly unwilling to marry without a cash incentive because of the growing uncertainties about men’s livelihood prospects, while some men aim to fulfil their desire for consumer goods by way of their wife’s dowry (Banerjee and Jain, 2001: 106–108).5 Additionally, concerns over girls’ ‘security’ pressurize girls’ parents to settle them quickly in good marriages, even if that curtails their education (Banerjee and Jain, 2001; cf. Aziz, 1983: 604, who describes girls as ‘perishable commodities’). Providing a generous dowry also enhances their social standing, and may protect brides from harassment by in-laws who wished for larger dowries.6 All told, the families of well-placed grooms tend to have the upper hand in marriage negotiations. Given the employment prospects outlined in the previous section, this is likely to be even more common in the decades to come. In other words, the relative sizes of age cohorts of males and females alone can give little insight into how marriages come about (Billig, 1991).7

Das Gupta and Li (1999) comment that poor people are particularly badly hit by marriage squeezes: when men are in surplus, poor men find it hard (p.123) to marry, and when women are in surplus, poor women cannot compete for the few marriageable men. I would put it somewhat differently. It is more productive to visualize a sliding scale of multiple marriage squeezes within caste and religious communities operating at different levels of the class hierarchy simultaneously, favouring ‘suitable boys’ at the top, who are sought out as grooms, and compromising the marriage chances of men without resources or employment prospects. Virtually all young women can marry, but they tend to be siphoned up the system, dowry continues to be a sine qua non for marriage higher up the class hierarchy, and poor men experience shortages of women (Billig, 1991). The available data are not always sufficiently detailed and disaggregated to allow for an analysis incorporating economic and social diversities as well as demographic data. Yet it is vital to think in terms of diverse and fragmented marriage markets (not one marriage market), because that is how marriage negotiations play out on the ground.

Interregional differences in the timing and extent of fertility decline (and other demographic parameters) are echoed in longstanding regional differences in marriage practices and employment generation. The ‘crisis of masculinity’ (Chowdhry, 2005) and wide class differences in men’s ability to marry at a conventionally appropriate age, and the economic exchanges associated with marriage are likely to be most acute in the populous states of north and north-west India, where employment opportunities are particularly limited. In the south, fertility declined sooner and with less sex bias than in the north, and there are generally more employment opportunities. Further, urban India may look rather different from the rural areas: for instance, urban middle-class consumption ambitions put greater pressure on brides’ families to provide generous dowries much earlier than in the rural areas. Yet, even in villages, dowries now include new consumer goods and large sums of cash. In addition, marriages continue to be mainly arranged by family elders, and this will probably remain the norm for many years to come. Although ‘love marriages’ are widely regarded as dishonourable, they do occur, probably more commonly in urban areas, and they rarely entail dowry or brideprice payments. To the extent that such marriages become more common, we might expect to see a shift in marriage practices.

Overall, however, recent data suggest that economic inequality has increased during the period of economic liberalization, so we should not expect the homogenization of marriage markets in the near future (Sarkar and Mehta, 2010). Educated and securely employed men will probably continue to command large dowries when they marry. And increasing numbers of poor men will probably have to wait many years to marry or will simply fail to marry at all, which Guilmoto (2010) predicts will undermine the patriarchal system from which son preferences derive—although he also predicts more forced marriage, trafficking of women, and rape. One does not need to agree with (p.124) all the predictions of Hudson and den Boer (2004) that the growing numbers of unmarried young men in India (and Asia more generally) pose a threat to national and international security through rising levels of criminality and violence (in general, as well as against women). But this does not mean that we should ignore the crisis of masculinity faced by young men who cannot achieve the respectable adult roles of husband and breadwinner.

Implications of fertility decline for women

In the middle of the twenty-first century, most young women will still marry, since parents will probably continue to arrange most marriages and few women will be able to opt out of marriage. Typically, rural and uneducated women in the north marry at younger ages than urban women, those who complete secondary and tertiary education, and women in the south. Overall, however, women’s age of marriage has increased in recent decades, but only to the late teens or early 20s, partly because girls’ education is now an important counter in marriage negotiations. This is unlikely to increase greatly in the foreseeable future, since girls’ parents are juggling girls’ education (which might delay marriage) against family honour (which pushes towards earlier marriage).

Well-educated young men in secure employment will probably have little difficulty in attracting brides with a dowry, and they may continue to marry in their 20s. Young men who lack sufficient economic security to attract offers of marriage face a very different situation. Where there are several brothers, one may be married relatively young, in order to meet the household’s needs for women’s labour, with the remaining brothers delaying their marriage until their 30s or later (or possibly sharing their brother’s wife in de facto fraternal polyandry: Jeffery and Jeffery, 1997: 229ff.) In addition, local shortages of brides can be shortcircuited by importing brides from other regions, with payments being made by the groom and his kin rather than dowry coming from the bride’s family. Long-distance brides generally come from the northern hills, the eastern Gangetic plain, north-east India, Bangladesh, and, more recently, Kerala. Such a class-differentiated scenario has a long history in north-west India. Nevertheless, long-distance brides have been attracting increasing attention in recent years (Jeffery, Jeffery, and Lyon, 1989: 39–40; Jeffery and Jeffery, 1996: 231–244; Das Gupta and Li, 1999; Kaur, 2004, 2008; Blanchet, 2005; Jeffery, forthcoming). In such instances, age gaps between spouses would probably widen and hamper the development of more companionate marriage; this is likely to be particularly conspicuous in the north and north-west, where age gaps between spouses have generally been smaller than in the south.

Nevertheless, some demographic changes may have positive implications for women. Rising age of first pregnancy and low fertility reduce the incidence (p.125) of maternal mortality as well as maternal depletion owing to pregnancy, childbirth, and lactation. Increasingly, young women are having their children in quick succession shortly after marriage and then being sterilized. Nowadays, young women in India have often completed their childbearing before their mid-20s (Visaria, 2004a: 60ff.; Dyson, 2010: 36, 43). The social impact of lowered fertility and early completion of childbearing is hard to predict, however.

Paid employment for women

Some authors predict women’s greater involvement in the labour force, with the potential to enhance their position within their husbands’ families (McNay, Unni, and Cassen, 2004: 171; Visaria, 2004a: 73). But it is not inevitable that the time seemingly liberated by women’s abridged fertility will be devoted to paid employment, not least because job creation is not keeping pace with the increasing numbers of young men seeking employment. Despite class differences and locally specific employment opportunities, most young women will be unlikely to obtain suitable occupations (Desai, 2010). Poor women have long been compelled to perform dirty, ill-paid, insecure, and undesirable paid work; low fertility may make it easier to combine such employment with domestic and childrearing duties. In general, however, paid employment for married women is still considered rather undesirable, and women are commonly withdrawn from paid employment outside the home if the household’s economic position improves. For highly educated women, completing childbearing quickly may enable them to enter the labour force on favourable terms. But most women will probably continue to be largely based in their homes.

These presumptions mesh with parental perceptions that girls’ education is important primarily because it enhances marriageability (not employability). In contemporary India, potential grooms and their parents seek educated brides who possess refined housewifery skills and (especially) have ‘betterquality’ childrearing capacity: overseeing children’s homework and reducing outlays on tuitions, and investing huge effort in their children’s progress in the extremely competitive educational market (Donner, 2008).

Women’s marriage migration

Women’s marriage migration to their in-laws’ homes will almost certainly continue to be the norm, especially in the rural areas but also in many urban settings. To the extent that patrilocal residence persists, the buttresses and rationales for daughter aversion and son preferences will remain, given the need for care in old age (in addition to the costs of rearing and providing (p.126) dowries for daughters). Indeed, as Guilmoto (2009) argues, fertility decline does not reduce the need for a son, rather it increases the risk of being sonless. In a low-fertility regime, then, masculine CSRs are probably not a thing of the past, for the premium on ensuring that a small family has at least one son impacts on whether female infants are born or will survive childhood.

Furthermore, marriage migration has implications for girls who survive to become married women themselves. Especially in the south and also often among Muslims in the north, marriage distances are lower than for most women in the north, where large marriage distances, poor transport and communication facilities, and normative restrictions on who can visit women in their in-laws’ homes all hamper ready contact with outmarried daughters. Young married women’s disempowerment by virtue of their dislocation from their supportive childhood networks and the emotional upheaval that marriage brings is further heightened by controls over their mobility.8

But how will patterns of marriage migration fare in the wake of other social and economic changes? Das Gupta (2009) argues that the rationale for son preferences is ‘unravelling’, because expectations that brides will migrate to their in-laws’ home are being undermined, particularly by urbanization (which detaches people from the land) and by the state’s supplanting of the political importance of patrilineal clans. These processes, however, are likely to be uneven and very slow in much of India. Parts of south India are already significantly more urbanized than much of the north, and marriage patterns there generally do not entail as much separation of a married woman from her natal kin. In the large northern states, however, over 70 per cent of the population lives in rural areas.9 For landowners, women’s marriage migration has a strong economic rationale: sons remain in their natal village to farm, while their inmigrant wives bear sons to continue the patriline and perform other household services. The land-poor and landless have fewer economic reasons for continuing to marry their daughters out. Yet, while parents acknowledge the grief of separation from their married daughters, hegemonic taken-for-granted ideas about giving a daughter in marriage and receiving nothing in return serve to perpetuate women’s marriage migration.

In other words, especially in India’s north and north-west, women’s marriage migration is likely to be quite resilient, thus continuing young married women’s subordination and vulnerability to dowry demands, and violence and harassment in their marital homes. And, in a low-fertility regime, women will need to bear at least one son. Women are sometimes (p.127) coerced into sex-selective abortions—but they also have a significant stake in bearing sons to support them in old age. Without major improvements in women’s access to education, employment, property rights, and health care, ‘daughter aversion’ will probably persist. As Harriss-White (1999) argues, fertility decline coupled with increasing needs for old age support—a form of ‘demographic “structural adjustment” without precedent’ (pp. 148–149)—pull in the opposite direction from the Indian government’s piecemeal (and ineffective) efforts to eradicate dowry and sex-selective abortion. The changes set in motion by fertility decline, then, are not unambiguously beneficial to women.

Population ageing and the ‘intergenerational contract’

Much of India is unlikely to experience the breathing space of a demographic dividend. Declining fertility and increasing longevity will inexorably result in increasing proportions of elderly people outside the normal working ages, many of them infirm, although some will undoubtedly need to be economically active, or would wish to be. And the problems that men of working age face in obtaining employment and family building are likely to persist. There will, then, be considerable challenges in meeting the day-to-day subsistence needs of those who can no longer earn and in providing health care for the elderly infirm. Crucially, there is little prospect of comprehensive provision of adequate state or occupational pensions, or of affordable good-quality health care or residential care for the infirm or destitute.

Few employed men are in occupations that provide pensions or health insurance, or indeed the surplus income that would enable substantial savings. Additionally, as cohorts age, poor unmarried men will be more prominent among the elderly, disproportionately men unable to marry because of their poor employment prospects. More strikingly, though, adult women’s life expectancies are now higher than men’s (partly owing to reductions in female mortality in the reproductive ages because of declining fertility) (Das Gupta and Bhat, 1997). This ‘feminization’ of old age raises several issues connected with women’s positions in the labour market and family systems. Disproportionately, women are not economically self-sufficient, and they are less likely than men to be in paid employment or to possess assets (land, shelter, savings, etc.) in their own right (Visaria, 2004b: 54). As is already the case, widows will probably be in the most difficult situations (Chen, 2000). Existing widows’ state pensions are inadequate to enable widows to subsist alone (and corruption in low level officialdom means that widows often cannot access all or even any of the state pension to which they are entitled). This means that most elderly people in India cannot be economically independent. (p.128) With increasing proportions of the elderly, this situation will worsen through the next few decades at least.

This takes us to the ‘intergenerational contract’ (or bargain), in which people in the working ‘generation’ transfer resources both to the young and to the elderly. In India, without significant social provision from either the state or the market, the intergenerational contract basically operates within the family (Collard, 2000). This is a long-term ‘contract’, as individuals move through the generations, sometimes providing for others, sometimes being provided for. Potentially, people in different generations have conflicting interests, so the robustness of the contract—the extent to which those who fail to fulfil their side of the bargain can be sanctioned—is crucial (Collard, 2000). Croll (2006) notes the widespread fear in Asia generally that ‘modernization’ will increase individualism. Young couples may be caught between wishing to invest heavily in their own children and their obligation to repay their debt to their parents. She argues, however, that people are reinterpreting and renegotiating the intergenerational contract, which becomes increasingly based on the benefits that accrue to all the parties. Parental investments in children may be intensified (which increases the sense of obligation), protracted to include helping adult children (childcare for grandchildren, domestic work), and spread (to include daughters). And parents may delay the transfer of resources (land, house, etc.) to retain a hold over their adult children. For Kabeer (2000), though, the intergenerational contract is risky, even when parents have some hold over their children, whether it be economic or emotional.

Somewhere between 80 and 90 per cent of India’s elderly live with adult children or other relatives, even in the urban areas (Croll, 2006), but predicting how long the intergenerational contract will continue to operate like this is complex. With young women these days increasingly completing their childbearing by their mid-20s, most people are grandparents by their late 40s (several years earlier would be typical in rural north India). While the grandchildren are small, the grandparents may still be economically active and/or able to provide childcare. For a while, the intergenerational contract may function to everyone’s benefit, although it cannot be guaranteed to operate straightforwardly to the benefit of the elderly. Sons might fail to support their ageing parents, and declining fertility only reduces parental options about sources of care. From the other side, low fertility and rising longevity both increase and protract the financial burden on each adult son of caring for elderly parents. With the burden of carework—of children as well as the elderly—falling predominantly on inmarried women, increasingly concentrated care responsibilities will present an additional obstacle to women’s labour force participation. Moreover, by the time the grandchildren’s education becomes most costly and they need to be settled in marriage, the grandparents will have become increasingly reliant on their adult children for (p.129) subsistence and meeting their health-care needs. To the extent that marriage ages rise, especially for men, this pincer effect is likely to be even more apparent. All these considerations could exacerbate the potential for conflicts, and might compromise the care that the elderly receive.

Of course, there will probably be multiple intergenerational contracts in India. Given regional differences in the timing and extent of fertility decline, population ageing also has regional dimensions, with ageing occurring most rapidly in states where fertility has been lowest for longest: Tamilnadu and Kerala, for instance, will be experiencing a decline in people aged 15–49 by 2026 (Dyson, 2004: 99ff.). In the north, by contrast, population ageing is proceeding more slowly, and for some decades to come most elderly people will continue to have several sons on whom they might rely.

Further, people’s capacity to provide for their elderly family members relates closely to their economic position (Collard, 2000; Kabeer, 2000). Poor people may be faced with particularly painful dilemmas—whether to provide for their children or care for their parents. While the wealthy might employ domestic servants and nursing staff to look after their elderly kin, men at the other end of the economic scale would struggle to spare the necessary resources even to feed their parents. Indeed, they may even have remained unmarried and thus have no wife to perform carework for their own parents, as well as having no children to care for them in their own old age. The working conditions and low incomes of the poor also mean that their health status is liable to be compromised at much younger ages than among the more wealthy (despite the rise in ‘diseases of affluence’). Yet the latter and their adult children will be least well placed to weather their need for health care or their inability to be economically active. In rural areas, people with land may try to retain a hold over their sons by deferring the transfer to ownership. The landless and landpoor, however, can exert little leverage over their sons, who may be employed locally but refuse to contribute to their parents’ upkeep, or may migrate in search of work and fail to send remittances. On the other hand, to the extent that people are increasingly detached from the land, we might also expect some shift in expectations that parents should rely on sons rather than daughters—although this seems to be a limited and mainly urban phenomenon so far.

Concluding comments

Regional differences have been historically important in India’s demographic transition, although they may narrow in the decades to come. But intraregional differences, of economic position, caste, religious community, and so on show no sign of waning. Thus, declining fertility and population ageing, in both of which gendered processes are central, will play out in very different ways.

(p.130) Predicting how social processes will operate over time is always a risky affair. That said, India as a whole is unlikely to benefit from the demographic dividend (although parts of the south may do so), because of the intractable problems of job creation that have dogged India’s economy for decades, and because women’s paid employment is so low. Enduring employment difficulties are also likely to be reflected in the continuing differentiation of marriage markets, with well-placed young men able to command high dowries when they marry, while poor young men finding it increasingly hard to marry. Although women may experience health benefits from low fertility, the social impact of low fertility is more ambiguous. Enhanced labour force participation by women is not guaranteed, but greater investment in ‘quality’ childrearing and increased responsibilities for care of the elderly are likely. If women’s marriage migration continues, the considerations that contribute to ‘daughter aversion’ will persist, with various adverse effects for gender politics. The gender and class implications of population ageing also suggest that ‘intergenerational contracts’ will be both diverse and characterized by tension and renegotiation.

There are, of course, numerous other issues on which there can be even less certainty: for instance, how India’s national and regional economies will intersect with global events in coming decades, or how social movements such as women’s activist groups might impinge on the various gender issues that have been alluded to above. And India does not readily lend itself to grand narratives: its diversity renders it all the more important not to simplify what is bound to be a complex and heterogeneous future.


This chapter was made possible by a British Academy/Leverhulme Trust Senior Research Fellowship and a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship (2009–10). I am grateful for the support of these institutions. They do not, of course, bear any responsibility for what I have written here. Thanks are also due to colleagues who have provided helpful comments on earlier drafts, in particular Delia Davin, Tim Dyson, Barbara Harriss-White, Patricia Uberoi, and an anonymous reviewer.


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(1) Indian demographers generally present sex ratio statistics in terms of females per 1,000 males. A normal sex ratio at birth (SRB) would be 930–960 (or 104–107 males per 100 females).

(2) Some items are given before the wedding (e.g., at engagement ceremonies), and gifts continue to go from the bride’s family to her in-laws on various occasions throughout her life. The dowry is not straightforwardly the bride’s personal property: some items are designated for specific individuals in her husband’s family, and her ability to control even household items is not necessarily complete: Sharma (1984) and Srinivas (1984).

(3) Basu (2005) and Bradley, Tomalin, and Subramaniam (2009) contain useful collections of papers addressing these issues.

(4) For a more extensive critique of the ‘marriage squeeze’ in relation to marriage payments, especially dowry, see Jeffery (forthcoming).

(5) Indeed, Das Gupta and Li (1999) note that dowry can attain a normative status—which would perhaps negate the tapering off in dowry inflation that they predict. See also Gupta et al. 2003).

(6) There is evidence that young men implicated in dowry murders can make second marriages relatively easily—which suggests that women are quite easily replaceable rather than being in short supply, at least in the upper economic reaches.

(7) To the best of my knowledge, there are no reliable national or even regional data on marriage payments, including whether dowry payments are increasing in real terms and the social and economic profiles of people making particular types and sizes of payments. See AIDWA (2003) for an account of people’s perceptions of how dowry has altered in character in recent decades.

(8) See for instance, Dyson and Moore (1983), Jeffery, Jeffery, and Lyon (1989), Palriwala and Uberoi (2005). Palriwala (1999) notes the importance of visiting the natal home to work there and also to receive gifts for the in-laws.

(9) Definitional problems, however, mean that many ‘rural’ areas deserve reclassification as urban. See Dyson (2010) and Dyson and Visaria (2004).