For a legal deterrent

Print edition : October 07, 2005

RECENTLY a young filmmaker presented the country with Matrubhoomi, a film with a grim warning, that we might become a nation without women. Most people think it inconceivable, but if we believe the Census figures - and we have no reason not to - the threat is real.

India has a sex ratio worse than that of Bangladesh, Pakistan and even Sudan. While the overall sex ratio went up from 927 in the 1991 Census to 933 in 2001, India's child (age group 0-6) sex ratio has slipped alarmingly, from 945 to 927. Even by the most conservative estimate, we have lost over 1.5 million girls during this 10-year period.

What is strange is that the guilty - both doctors and parents - are neither poor nor ignorant. As the First Report on Religion Data, 2001 (released by the Registrar-General and Census Commissioner of India) has proved, the sex ratio is the lowest in relatively prosperous, educated regions. By contrast, tribal populations, which are often poor and illiterate, have a positive sex ratio. (Of the 41 districts, which have more women than men, 31 are tribal ones.)

The government takes the stand that "mere legislation is not enough" since the problem has its roots in social prejudices. It has launched the `save the girl child' campaign and set up the National Monitoring and Inspection Committee. Workshops are conducted, posters are printed, and advertisements released in various media; even religious leaders are asked to cooperate.

However, as the experience in Morena demonstrates, it is not spiritual guidance or social awareness but a firm administration and the possible threat of legal action that serves as a deterrent.

Dr. Puneet Bedi, a specialist in foetal medicine, has been trying to counter the adverse sex ratio for over two decades. He has little faith in social awareness as a tool unless there is a legal deterrent. "I've recently been to a nursing home, where I saw a dead (girl) foetus lying under the mother's bed... and they're harping on awareness!" he said. "The problem has assumed genocidal proportions. Calling it a `social evil' amounts to legitimising the crime. Everybody knows that this technological wonder (ultrasound) is being used at random, to diagnose and kill girls. Foeticide is performed by trained professionals, with licences and registration numbers; it is a multi-billion-rupee industry."

To establish the doctor-client nexus, activists talk of mapping ultrasound facilities in India. The relationship becomes evident as one superimposes these facilities against district-wise maps reflecting falling sex ratios.

Increasingly, medical professionals are questioning the need for sonographies in normal pregnancies, which detect only 50 per cent of genital defects. Dr. Bedi argues that only public health institutions should be given licences to operate ultrasound machines. "Only 2 per cent of all pregnancies are abnormal and only 1 per cent seriously abnormal. Compare this to the fact that 10 per cent of all foetuses are aborted; 20 per cent of all girl foetuses are killed."

By February 2005, India had 25,770 registered units (including genetic testing laboratories, mobile machines, clinics and nursing homes). Dr. Bedi estimates that there are many more. "There could be anywhere between 60,000 and 70,000 machines. There are about 600 in Delhi alone," he said.

Yet, only 300 cases are registered under the PNDT Act, of which 214 relate to non-registration and 10 relate to non-maintenance of records. Only 24 cases are about communicating the sex of the foetus. Not a single person has ever been successfully prosecuted.

Meanwhile, the government also needs to keep track of technology. Ultrasonography is the cheapest and most widely accessible technology available in India. But there are also techniques such as amniocentesis and chronic villi biopsy (CVB) that can be misused. In fact, there are online stores abroad offering to sell home-testing kits for as little as $25.

One blood test can reveal the sex of the foetus as early as six weeks into the pregnancy. The sheer volumes would make local manufacturing and distribution extremely feasible in India, and many fear that if a home-testing product became available at cheap prices, the 2011 Census officials might end up echoing the words of that anonymous anganwadi worker - "Ladkiyan hon to darj karein".

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