DELHIIndia is the opposite of China. It has vast social, ethnic and
linguistic diversity, while China, excluding some recently acquired fringe
territories, is relatively homogeneous. Modern China has extreme historical
discontinuities, while India's evolution across the past 100 years is in many
ways almost seamless. There are few better places to observe the continuity and
diversity of India than in the census that has been undertaken every 10 years
since 1881. Results of the 2001 census published this year tell us what has
happened to population, birthrates, literacy rates and the sex balance in the
last 10 years in every district of India's 28 states and seven union
The census gives comparative data on some
of these topics going back 100 years. In doing so, while it charts the growth
and progress of India, it underlines how tenacious is the country's regional
Take Kerala, the small state on the
southwestern seaboard. Although income levels are below the national average, it
has the highest literacy rate, 91 percent, compared with an average of 65
percent. But that is nothing new. It has had the highest rate for decades, back
to 1951, the first census after independence, when the national literacy rate
was 18 percent, and even to 1901, when the national rate was 10 percent for men
and 1 percent for women. Literacy gaps between the states have narrowed.
Progress in the last decade has been especially rapid, more due to private
initiatives and electronic media than to state governments, which are
responsible for education. But there are still districts in the socially
backward northern states where female literacy is under 20 percent.
It is no coincidence that Kerala also
happens to be the state with the lowest birthrate and the highest life
expectancy, and the only state where there are more women - 1,058 per 1,000 men.
That statistic is normally an indicator of social equality. Kerala's figure
compares with an all-India average of 933, which puts it in the same sexual
inequality league as China (944) and far below Indonesia, Nigeria and Brazil.
For India as a whole, the female ratio
has declined from 972 in 1901 despite education and lower maternal mortality. As
in China, the situation may be deteriorating because of access to gender choice.
Some differences in education, sex
balance and fertility rates can be partly attributed to state governments.
For instance, well-governed (by Marxists)
West Bengal now has a literacy rate 20 percentage points higher than
neighboring, chaotic Bihar.
But generally the consistency of regional
trends over so many decades and governments suggests that regional social,
cultural and historical factors are far stronger influences than official
As for star social (but not economic)
performer Kerala, its population is evenly balanced between Hindus, Christians
and Muslims. They think of themselves as Malayalis, as Kerala people are known,
with distinct language, culture and social traditions - including a matrilineal
system - rather than according to religious affiliations. As the census
confirms, it has been that way for at least 100 years.
There is no typical India, only an
arithmetical average. India's love of continuity and its resistance to
homogenization are infuriating but in many ways admirable.