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Why female foeticide continues unabated

July 20, 2011 13:59 IST

Twenty-three years after the state's own legislation and thereafter, a legislation on the lines of the Centre's own formulation which came a few years thence is long enough to have got a proper and workable drill in place to prevent it, says Mahesh Vijapurkar.

It is an irony that Maharashtra, which has a law in place for 23 years to prevent pre-natal sex selection leading to abortion of the girl child, should continue to have the sex ratio in favour of the males. No doubt, the law did not come into being simply because the state thought it should correct the skewed ratio. It was won hard after many a public demonstrations in some of which the then state health secretary D T Joseph had participated.

That law was first enacted in 1988 and later changes were made to make it increasingly effective but it appears the purpose has not been served. The Centre woke up only much later. Society seems to be set on its course to reduce the number of girl children as is evidenced by the provisional data on sex ratios put out by the census commissioner. The ratio of 880 girls to 1,000 boys in the rural areas and 880 in the cities and towns is appalling. The significance is that the urban rural divide in this area is set to meet.

This persisting and worsening sex ratio is an eloquent comment on the implementation of the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act. The Maharasthra law was the forerunner of the law that later came to be on the statute. It is being flouted with impunity for there has been a significant dip in the numbers between the 2001 and 2011 censuses and one can be sure that this has not happened without the involvement of the medical profession.

Pre-selection of the gender of the unborn child is a fact of a 'progressive' Maharashtra. Soon it can go the way of another 'progressive' state -- Punjab!

The tragedy is that despite the first-starter advantage, of being a pioneer under tremendous pressure from civil society organisations, Maharashtra has fallen behind its own intent of curbing the malaise of killing the girl child in the womb because the preference is for a male child. This in a state that is increasingly urbanising, every decade notches up higher levels in literacy as well. It had gone up from 76.8 per cent to 82.91 per cent in a decade from 2001. All this 'progress' means little to the unborn girl child.

Twenty-three years -- not counting the period preceding the Maharashtra act when demonstrations were the norm and discussion in the media quite the practice -- is long enough to have persuaded families to respect a girl child and if one was to be born, bring it into this world.  One expected it to make a dent in the social norms that preferred the male progeny. But it has not happened as is evident from the recent raids and sealing of sonography facilities across the state. It seems that unborn girls are not wanted.

Another irony is that the government has claimed having come within the Millennium Development Goal of maternal mortality of 104, that is, the number of deaths per one-lakh live births. Maharashtra claims also to have improved institutional births, improved medicare -- if one believes what is written down in official records, which are always of doubtful veracity -- and yet, society has not changed enough to allow many a girl child to arrive into this world.

Look at the number of sonography machines sealed across Maharashtra after they found a spate of activity in curbing of female births in Beed district and one gets an idea about the strength of the arrangement which illicitly helped the detection of the gender leading to abortions if the foetus was female. These point clearly to the negligence, if not the connivance, of the state's machinery which is supposed to implement the PNDT Act. It is quite likely the health department would find escape saying they were short of staff!

Twenty-three years after the state's own legislation and thereafter, a legislation on the lines of the Centre's own formulation which came a few years thence is long enough to have got a proper and workable drill in place. The drill includes a powerful propaganda campaign enticing families -- it is difficult to hold only the pregnant mother responsible; the family is equally culpable, inducing the decision -- away from this practice. When fewer children could be ensured by propaganda promoting family planning, why not an end to female foeticide? All neighbourhoods know who has opted for foeticide. Why not shame the family?

How widespread is abortions which may include the gender of the foetus as a cause but not notified? The health authorities had reported 39,222 cases of abortions in one year last year though not one of them was, expectedly, due to gender selections reasons. The previous year had 95,332 cases. Of course, some may include the health of the mother and oddities that emerge during pregnancy which compel the abandonment of pregnancy. Not all cases, however, could be attributed to foeticide for ensuring only male progenies. But the numbers could hide pre-determination of gender.

Though NGOs have been warning about the trend, the authorities did not wake up. If they noted the fears of the civil society, not much was done to counter the trends. The latest provisional data from the Census 2011 is graphic enough to tell what it is. While urban areas have been beset with this problem, the rural areas are not far behind.

The worsening child sex ratios have been found even in such backward, largely rural, areas as Gadchiroli and Chandrapur where they are 961 and 958, which demographers say is due to a quicker decline in the past one decade than ever before. Beed and Jalgaon have 789 and 830 as the child sex ratio. Urban areas fared no better.

Of course, the government cannot do everything in this area all by itself. Nor, for that matter, can the civil society alone do battle on this front. They need to work together and register gains for Maharashtra has had a first-starter advantage which has been frittered away. But in the atmosphere of suspicion, of seeing civil society as an untouchable because of its fight against corruption, would they join hands and make a dent?

Mahesh Vijapurkar is a commentator on public affairs.

Mahesh Vijapurkar