12 November 2018

Studying mortality to advance social development

Options Winter 2018/19: Nandita Saikia joined the World Population Program as an IIASA postdoc in August 2017. Her research interests include population health and mortality, and migration analysis.

 © Nandita Saikia

© Nandita Saikia

Q: You do a lot of research around mortality rates in India. What led you to this line of research? 

A: Fertility rates have been declining worldwide, but in parts of India, it remains high. Most Indian demographers focus on fertility in their research, but in my first research project on mortality analysis, I found it to be a powerful indicator of any kind of inequality. Examining life expectancy or under five mortality rate by population subgroups can, for example, give a solid idea of the level of development or any inequality among them. In my research, I have demonstrated wide regional and socioeconomic variation in India by examining various sets of mortality indicators. 

Using mortality as an indicator also allows other factors such as gender to emerge. When you investigate gender discrimination, effects are often very difficult to measure, but population mortality gives a more objective result. A recent study for instance, dealt with gender discrimination after birth. We found that there is an average of 239,000 excess deaths per year of girls under the age of five in India due to gender bias. The results of this study were widely publicized, so awareness of this issue has been raised, which is a first step towards addressing the problems that led to this tragedy.  

Q: Did you have any mentors that influenced you to pursue a career in research? 

A: My parents were passionate about educating my sisters and I, and at school, my teachers were always encouraging me to continue my studies. While at university in Assam, the part of India where I am from, I had two professors who encouraged me to do a PhD once I had completed my studies there. This was not something that I had previously considered, but they convinced me to continue my studies at the International Institute for Population Sciences in Mumbai. The environment at the institute was very professional, and I was able to complete my MPhil and PhD degrees under the tutelage of some great teachers. Here at IIASA, I am also working with some truly inspirational people and that keeps me motivated to keep doing what I do. 

Q: What is next for you in your career? 

A: I teach and supervise MPhil and PhD scholars of Population Studies at the Centre for the Study of Regional Development at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, so after I finish my postdoc work at IIASA, I will return there. My main goal is however to produce scientific evidence that can help reduce inequality and improve people’s health and wellbeing. Every time I come to Europe, I see how researchers are providing science-based information to policymakers. Evidence based policies are crucial for a large and diverse country like India and I hope that my work can contribute to better policymaking in my home country. 

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Last edited: 15 November 2018

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