GenderStats 9: Life Expectancy

28 January 2022 | Gender, Human Development

Figure 1

(Select the mid-year using the slider in the top right corner and hover over a state to see its average male and female life-expectancy in that year along with all-India numbers. Data for Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Telangana prior to 2014-18 refers to the undivided state values of MP, Bihar, UP and Andhra Pradesh respectively)

Life expectancy at birth – defined by the WHO as the average number of years a newborn is expected to live given current mortality rates – is an important marker of a country’s healthcare system and human development. According to the United Nations – World Population Prospects, India had an average life expectancy of only 35 years in the year 1950. India has experienced significant increases in life expectancy since then. According to the SRS Abridged Life Tables 2014-18, life expectancy in India was 69.4 years in 2014-18, a marked improvement from nearly 50 years in the early 1970s.

In a previous Picture This post, we compared life expectancies across different Indian states with that of different countries. Here, we examine how life expectancies differ across genders from the 1970s till today. In 2014-18, women’s life expectancy was approximately 4% greater than that of men, at 70.7 years for the former as compared to 68.2 for the latter. While India has made huge strides over the years, it still has a long way to go. In the year 2016, for instance, India’s female life expectancy was 70.14 years, lower than all other countries of South Asia. Only Pakistan experienced a worse female life expectancy (at 67.7 years), while Sri Lanka had the highest at nearly 80 years, even higher than that of China. The average of high-income countries was 83.4 years.

It wasn’t always the case that women in India lived longer than men. The period 1975-80 shows that at the all-India level, women and men had roughly equal life expectancies, 52.1 years for the former compared to 52.5 years for the latter. Nearly 8 out of 15 states (for which we have data) had lower female life-expectancies than men. The lowest Female/Male life expectancy ratio was in Uttar Pradesh at 0.90 (48.5 years for men and 43.8 years for women) followed by Haryana with a ratio of 0.93 (56.7 years for men and 52.5 years for women). Kerala had the highest gender life expectancy ratio of 1.06 in 1979, with men living for 63.5 years and women 67.6.

A clear geographical trend is visible during the 1970s. With the exception of Rajasthan, every North Indian state had lower life expectancies for women relative to men, while in the South, every state had higher female life expectancies, with the exception of Tamil Nadu. Data for Bihar and Bengal were not available for this period, and hence cannot be compared.

By 2014-18, we see evidence of a steady improvement in life expectancy for both men and women, with women living longer than men in nearly all states. The exceptions are Bihar (with women living for 68.7 years and men 69.4 years) and Jharkhand (68.5 years for women and 70 years for men). Kerala and Delhi display the highest life expectancies for women, at nearly 78 years and 77 years respectively.

An interesting pattern now emerges: more states in the North have a higher female-to-male ratio as compared to the South, with only Kerala and Tamil Nadu have a ratio on par with those of Northern states. The southern states of Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, which showed superior indicators in the 1970s, now lag behind several northern states in terms of female life expectancy. While women in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana live for nearly 71 years, women in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh enjoy higher life spans, despite having worse outcomes in the 1970s.

Indeed, after Kerala and Delhi, women in Himachal Pradesh enjoyed the longest life span at nearly 77 years. This is a huge change compared to women’s life-spans in the state being limited to only 55 years in the late 1970s. Himachal Pradesh also displayed the highest ratio, with women living nearly 10% longer than men, enjoying roughly 7 years of life more than men.