James Lamont is the FT's South Asian bureau chief
Close to 10 per cent of Indian households are opting to have only one child as they seek to concentrate their resources to maximize earning opportunities for their offspring in a scramble for jobs.
The trend is most pronounced among educated people in metropolitan areas, research by the Delhi-based National Council of Applied Economic Research shows.
Eight per cent of women across India were opting for just one child, according to research by Alaka Basu, visiting professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, and Sonalde Desai of the University of Maryland.
Among the highest income group, the proportion of one-child mothers was 11 per cent. Nearly a quarter of college-educated women said they would prefer to have a single child.
India's cultural environment has traditionally strongly favoured large families. However, new social and demographic trends within Asian society are emerging as the region rises economically and more conservative values wane. Many more Asian women are marrying later in life or not marrying at all.
"Among the urban middle classes [in India], it is no longer unusual to find families stopping at one child, even when this child is a girl," according to the study, titled Middle class dreams; India's one child families.
"It's a new phenomenon," said Ms. Desai, who described the results as potentially leading to a sharpening of social inequality in a country of 1.2-billion overwhelmingly young people where large families are the norm. "We've always been preoccupied [in India] by population growth."
She estimated that a decade ago, nearer 5 per cent of couples would have opted for a single child.
The research shows that competition for jobs in a fast-growth economy was the greatest determinant of the single child trend in India. Couples with a single child did not consume or work more, or enjoy greater leisure time. What marked them out from larger families was their greater investment in their children to help them attain white collar jobs.
Single children received more education expenditure, were more likely to be enrolled in private school, and by the time they reached 11 years of age were more likely to be able to do basic arithmetic.
"Education has grown, but jobs have not," said Ms. Desai. "There's a great deal more competition."
Many Indian industrialists characterise the past 10 years of higher economic growth as "jobless growth". They say they have invested in more technology to raise production rather than turn to employment in a country with highly restrictive labour laws.
A.R. Nanda, the former executive director of the Population Foundation of India, described the growing number of one child families as "unanticipated". He said that the "Little Emperor" syndrome, as single children are sometimes called in China, was being felt in India in wealthier and more educated households.