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No girls, please, we're Indian

India now has the dubious distinction of being known as the country that likes to ensure that girls are never born. We are facing a national emergency, an `epidemic' that will have far-reaching social consequences, says KALPANA SHARMA.

REUTERS

... the result of the preference for a son, the two-child norm, and gender-detection techniques.

IN the 1980s, it was a suspicion. In the 1990s, it was a near certainty. In 2001, it became indisputable fact. India may be known for many things but it now has the distinction of being known as the nation that likes to ensure that girls are never born. The 2001 census figures of the 0-6 years sex ratio are a stark illustration of this reality. We are facing a national emergency, an epidemic that will have far-reaching social consequences.

The adult sex ratio in India has been declining for several decades. That itself was reason for concern. But the sharp decline in the child sex ratio in the last decade from 945 to 927 is a devastating indictment of our society. Sex-detection and sex-selective abortions are today spreading like an infectious disease, from the rich to the poor, from the upper castes to the Scheduled Castes (SC) and even to the Scheduled Tribes (ST). No one wants girls anymore. Eliminate them now instead of dealing with the problems of raising a girl, goes the thinking behind the deadly actions.

In just two States

At a recent seminar in Delhi organised by Action India and the Nehru Memorial Library, the Census Commissioner, Dr. J. K. Banthia presented a visual horror story. He showed maps graded in different colours according to the 0-6 sex ratio. The growing number of districts where the 0-6 sex ratio has fallen below the 800 mark was deep red. And the reds were popping up in every State, in ever greater numbers.

The "Top of the Pops", so to speak, the districts with the worst child sex ratio were all in Punjab and Haryana, two of India's wealthiest States. The worst of these 10 was Fathegarh Sahib in Punjab with a child sex ratio of just 766. And the best of the worst was Gurdaspur, also in Punjab, with 789. What a range — 766 to 789 and all within two States. The other eight districts were Kurukshetra and Sonipat in Haryana and Patiala, Ambala, Mansa, Kapurthala, Bhatinda and Sangrur in Punjab.

The districts with the best child sex ratios were divided between Arunachal Pradesh, Jammu and Kashmir, Chhatisgarh, Orissa and Sikkim. East Kameng in Arunachal Pradesh had a child sex ratio of 1035 (that is 1,035 girls to every 1,000 boys) while North Sikkim, at the bottom of the list had a child sex ratio of 995. The national average is 927.

In the 1980s, when women's groups first exposed the use of technology, devised to detect genetic abnormalities, to determine the sex of the child, only a few people were alarmed. The media was virtually unresponsive. The problem seemed restricted to the metros. We thought that only the better off could afford the technology. No one expected that within two decades, sex-detection techniques would become so widespread, and affordable, that they would be available all over the country with devastating consequences on the child sex ratio. What is more alarming is that the disease of sex-selection is not restricted to certain castes and classes. Dr. Banthia's latest figures revealed that even among the SCs and STs, where the average child sex ratio has always been higher than in the general population and better than the national average, it has begun to dip substantially. Thus while in 1991, the child sex ratio for STs was 985 (against a national average of 945), in 2001 it had fallen to 973. And amongst SCs, the figures were 946 in 1991 and 938 in 2001.

A madness catching on

In 1991, not a single district in India had been recorded with a child sex ratio of less than 800. In 2001, there were 14. In 1991, only one district recorded a child sex ratio of between 800-849. In 2001, this number had risen to 31. At the other end of the spectrum in 1991, 21 districts had a child sex ratio of over 1,000. In 2001, only five districts were in this range. In other words, while the number of districts with abysmally low child sex ratios is increasing, the number with higher than average child sex ratios is declining. The madness is catching on.

There is now substantial data that reveals that private as well as government facilities are used for sex-selective abortions despite the law that prohibits it. Government doctors admit that there is no way they can ensure that a woman who comes to them for an abortion has not already detected the gender of the foetus. Reports have also shown that apart from abortions, if a female child is born despite all efforts to ensure that this does not happen, the baby is abandoned at the doorstep of hospitals. This has been documented in Punjab.

What are we to do about this problem? Surveys in Haryana and Punjab have revealed that some women genuinely believed that if their numbers decline, their value would increase because men will not find brides. Instead, men are buying brides from other States for as little as Rs. 5,000 (in Haryana a buffalo costs Rs. 40,000). These women are available to all the men in the family. Instead of being valued, women are now becoming targets of violence in districts with the lowest sex ratios.

Education makes no difference

There is also an assumption that education and economic independence will ensure that women assert their rights, including their right to reproductive choice. But a survey by Action India of women in Delhi revealed that even highly educated women have resorted to as many as eight abortions to ensure that they only give birth to a son. In this country, education and economic progress seem to make no dent on attitudes. On the contrary, these are getting more embedded.

Government intervention has been in the form of a law that is inadequate and poorly implemented. Furthermore, in its desire to curtail the growth of the population, the government has been pushing the two-child norm. Women's groups argue that the combination of son preference and the two-child norm, and the widespread availability of sex-detection techniques, will ensure that fewer girls will be born in the future.

Son preference, sex selection, female foeticide, whatever we want to call it, is a damning indictment of India in the 21st Century. Men, women, doctors, nurses, health workers, the media, and the government — we are all involved. We boast of our prowess in IT. Yet technology is being used in this country to fashion a future without women, or with very few of them. Is this progress?

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