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The Hidden Paradoxes in India’s Latest Life Expectancy Figures

The Hidden Paradoxes in India’s Latest Life Expectancy Figures

Representative image: Photo: Aditya Romansa/Unsplash, CC BY-SA.

Life expectancy is the average number of years a person is expected to live. It varies across regions, time periods and age groups. For example, the average life expectancy of an Indian and a Finn would be different for the same time period. Similarly, the life expectancy of India itself has increased from 56.2 to 70.8 years between 1970-1975 and 2013-2017.

Intuitively, as a person ages, their life expectancy also tends to decrease: as you grow older, you have fewer years left to live. However, the Sample Registration System (SRS) data for life expectancy at birth and different ages seems to tell a different story.

Without looking at the data, you would think that the average life expectancy of children at birth must be the highest, followed by her expectancy at age one, then age two, then age three, and so on. However, the average life expectancy at birth for 2013-2017 was 69 years while the corresponding figure for age one was 70.8 years (see graph). That is, a child in India has a lower chance of survival at birth compared to a one-year-old. Broadly, this means the mortality risk for people in India is highest in the first year of life. Not surprisingly, according to UN data, India had the highest number of neonatal deaths in absolute terms in 2019, with an infant mortality rate of 30 deaths for every 1,000 live births.

Given India’s socio-economic context, the first year after birth is a precarious time – when a child faces many threats due to non-institutionalised births, illnesses, low degree of immunisation, poor breastfeeding practises and nutrition, complications at birth, etc.

This is why the paradoxical difference between life expectancy at birth and at one year is reflected in all SRS bulletin, back to the first survey in 1970-1975. However, more promisingly, this difference has shrunk over the years. In terms of absolute numbers, the difference between life expectancy at birth and age one was 6.5 years in 1970-75 and at present and is today down to 1.8 years. That is, while infant mortality continues to pose a serious risk, the threats have become less threatening.

The average life expectancy masks many differences, and any attempts to analyse the data would be incomplete without a gender lens. First, we observe that the life expectancy of females is higher than that of males across all age groups for 2013-2017. This finding is consistent with a biological precept  that females naturally have a higher survival advantage than males throughout their lives, and are relatively less prone to disease and mortality. A spatial analysis suggests all Indian states, barring Bihar and Jharkhand, conform to this pattern. In Bihar and Jharkhand, the average life expectancy at birth for males exceeds that of females, indicating gender discrimination and an anti-female bias in child survival.

This brings us to a related, and the next logical, question. Do male and female infants have the same mortality risk during the first year of their lives? Or does the anti-female bias also favour the survival of the male child over the female child in this time?

For a male child, the life expectancy at birth and at age one is 67.8 and 69.8 years, respectively – a difference of 2.6%. The corresponding figures for the female child are 70.4 and 72.4 years, respectively – a difference of 2.9%. The percentage difference is a reasonable indication of a child’s mortality risk. Accordingly, the higher percentage increase in a female child’s life expectancy at age one reflects a higher mortality risk in the first year of life, compared to that of a male child. The work of researchers like Amartya Sen, Jean Drèze, Martha Nussbaum and others has addressed this difference, identifying causes including mistreatment and neglect of girl children, differential access to healthcare, breastfeeding practises and nutrition.

Despite India’s progress in reducing child mortality at an annual rate of 4.4% from 1990 to 2018, the consequent benefits haven’t been shared  equally by male and female children. So any way forward to increase the average life expectancy in India will require a two-pronged approach: one with a greater focus on reducing infant mortality attributed to preventable causes and the other to consider gendered child survival in India, in view of the prevalent discrimination against the female child.

Phalasha Nagpal is a researcher at the Oxford Policy Management. She previously worked as a social policy analyst with the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister, under the mentorship of Bibek Debroy. The views expressed here are the author’s own.

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