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Life and death in Salem

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

From being killed, to being abandoned, to being surrendered to the government, girl babies of Salem district still remain unwanted.

Nothing can give more joy to a woman than the birth of a child. All the pain and strain disappear at the first sight of the baby.

But not for me. I was unlucky enough to have a girl, after another girl (now seven) and two boys (five and three). The moment I heard it was a girl, I knew I had to steel my heart; I did not even breast-feed her. I knew, as did my husband, that we would have to do away with her. With an income of about Rs.150 a week, we simply could not afford to have another girl. Anyway, it was common to get rid of unwanted babies - an age-old practice in our area.

My husband Chellappa and I thought we would get rid of the baby at the hospital itself. But we did not, after the nurse warned us about over a dozen arrests having been made for killing babies and over half a dozen bodies of babies having been exhumed in the area in the past five months.

Discharged from hospital, I came home with the baby. Soon enough, neighbours began pressuring us to do away with the baby as bringing up two girls would be very difficult. We would not be able to afford even a change of dress for the two girls, leave alone dowries - a minimum of Rs.10,000 in cash and 10 sovereigns of gold each. But we feared arrest, and we also did not want to leave the baby in the government cradle.

Then my husband suggested that we hand over the baby to the Collector on a Grievance Day as it would hopefully ensure her care by the district administration.

Thus, we set out for Salem, 45 km from our village, to meet the Collector. On the way we met Valarmathi and Manickam, who had had a third baby girl nine days earlier. They also decided to come with us to hand over their new-born to the Collector.

Both I and Valarmathi took from the Collector certificates that we had surrendered our babies.

Many baby girls in my area were saved from death by the cradle baby scheme, introduced by Jayalalithaa amma (in 1992, by the former Chief Minister). But after her government's term the scheme languished, and no one left their babies in the government cradles anymore. Now again, after a lot of campaigning for the scheme by the new government, people are leaving their babies in the cradles.

But I have had no second thoughts. If it was a boy I would have kept him, and if I had not left the new-born in the government cradle or handed her over to the Collector, I would have killed her, and perhaps been in jail by now. But Valarmathi and Manickam could not get over what they had done, and got the baby back within a week. What choice did we have? I am scared of tubectomy as I am weak, and my husband cannot go in for sterilisation as he has to climb trees to tap toddy. I am happy at least we did not kill the baby.

HER confidence level as reflected in this account, however, does not stop Selvi (28) of Andipalayam village from breaking down at the end of the narrative. She is caught in a cycle of poverty, and backwardness, and her despair is palpable. And, as she says, she is not an exception but the rule in Tamil Nadu's Salem district, where a girl child born in a poor family is seen as a burden. The only improvement to the lot of the girl child is that she is no longer killed or abandoned, but surrendered. But quite simply, she is not wanted.

For Salem District Collector J. Radhakrish-nan, December 10, 2001 may well remain an unforgettable day in his career. From 7 a.m. people had started trickling into his camp office that day, designated Grievance Day. The young Indian Administrative Service officer began hearing grievances at 8.30 a.m. and hardly had he met two people than a baby girl was thrust into his hands by its mother. This was quickly followed by another such special delivery. Shocked, but reacting on impulse, Radhakrishnan took the babies in his hands, possibly realising only a little later what had happened. (The unusual incident was caught by P. Goutham, The Hindu's contributing photographer, who happened to be there.)

The Collector had unwittingly opened a door for the desperate women of the area. They now no longer need to kill their girl babies or abandon - as they have famously done for a long time now. They could now hand over their babies to the government.

As word spread, six more babies were handed over to the Collector in the following two weeks. Now the Collector receives at least one girl baby every Grievance Day (which is held every week). And at least two babies are left in the cradles provided for the purpose at the reception centres (in the primary health centres) in the district.

The killing of girl babies was a practice started by the members of a certain community in the region who form the rich landed gentry. However the practice, stemming from a strong son-preference ethos, spread to other communities, of marginal farmers, farm workers, handloom weavers and toddy tappers.

Agriculture in the backward district of Salem is mostly rainfed. Farm work is seasonal. There are a few cotton mills and handlooms concentrated in certain pockets, but alternative employment opportunities are limited.

Says Selvi: "Nothing has changed for us in decades. We continue in poverty. We get farm work for hardly 200 days a year, toddy tapping for about 80 days."

Bringing up a girl child is very difficult in such a situation, she says. "I can leave my 13-year-old boy out with a loin cloth. But my girl of the same age has to be dressed properly. I just cannot even afford a change of clothes for the two girls, leave alone their marriage expenses."

Dowry worries them all. Says Karupayye of Bodinayakanpatti, who has three girls and a boy: "Even a man who collects cowdung has to be given 10 sovereigns (about 80 grams, worth about Rs.37,000 at current rates) of gold; it is enough if one is a male."

Son preference is palpable in the area. A woman of Valavalavu village, who has four girls and a boy (she confessed to having killed two girl babies) says: "A sonless woman is considered unlucky and would be 'kept aside', and the husband would remarry."

In Salem district, the social indicators are poor. It has one of the lowest juvenile sex ratios in the country. At 826 girls for every 1,000 boys in 2001, it is the only South Indian district among the worst 50 districts in this respect in the country. The figure has steadily worsened, from 849 in 1991. Its infant mortality rate (83 for every 1,000 under-five children) and literacy levels (55 per cent for women; some 25 per cent can barely write their names) make it one of the most backward districts in Tamil Nadu.

According to a random survey involving the 385 panchayat villages in Salem district (done by the Family Welfare Department in 2000), over a fifth of the population has higher-order births of over seven children; over 12 per cent of the deliveries are domiciliary, or outside an institution; and the infant mortality rate (IMR) is over 90 in three blocks and over 75 in eight. According to a survey done by Village Reconstruction and Development Programme, the dowry system is prevalent; no marriage takes place without the payment of dowry to the bridegroom.

While tubectomy is a fairly popular means of family planning in the State as a whole, surprisingly higher-order births are widespread in the area. This appears to be related to the fear of poor follow-up and post-operative care after tubectomy procedures, and a poor health-care system in general. Many women in Andipalayam and Avaniperur villages said that it was time-consuming and expensive to get a tubectomy procedure done in government hospitals.

An indicator of the poor health infrastructure is the number of hospital and dispensary beds per lakh population, which is 39 in Salem district, compared to 95 in the State as a whole and 110 in the country. The cradle baby scheme - which makes getting rid of unwanted girl babies easy - along with a strong son preference acts as a major disincentive to family planning. State Social Welfare Minister B. Valarmathi, for instance, told the people at Pudukottai recently: "Do not worry if you have baby girls. Leave them with the government and we will bring them up." The message, probably unwittingly, is to keep producing babies; you could keep the boys and turn over the girls to the government. Some girl babies will be saved thus, but the government would end up having to take care of an increasingly large number of girl children, while the overall population growth will continue.

ALL the social indicators in Salem district point to a social system crying for attention. This, along with regressive practices such as the dowry system that have become well-entrenched, and with nothing much to fall back on, the poor of the region resort to means they know best - do away with their girl babies.

The government machinery has in recent times come down heavily on infanticide by making some arrests. Poonthalir, a non-governmental organisation set up in 1998 to deal with female infanticide by creating awareness, has rescued 489 babies in the 86 hamlets its programme extends to but could not save 113 girl babies from being killed in the last two years. Poonthalir has recorded 113 cases in the hamlets between mid-2000 and 2001 (The list is available with Frontline). Says director R. Chezhian, "It is a hard nut to crack. The people are largely illiterate and the practice is deeply entrenched."

The cradle baby scheme is of course in place. There are reception centres at the 70 PHCs in the district. The babies received here are sent to one of the 15 authorised adoption centres where they are kept for 60 days (to give parents time to take back their babies) before being placed for adoption. Of the 200 babies received by the Salem district administration since 1992, the year the cradle baby scheme was launched (137 between 1992 and 1996, 10 between 1997 and 2001 and 53 from June 2001 to January 2002), only 18 have been taken back. After December 10, however, parents seem to prefer to surrender their girl babies to the Collector.

But female infanticide has gone on for so long that people seem to have internalised it. There is even community pressure to do away with girls, as Chellappa experienced. He says: "In the last 40 years, I have grown up seeing girl babies being killed all around me - by my grandmother, mother, sister, aunt and neighbours. So, it does not strike me as something wrong."

According to R. Pappa of Avaniperur East, who kept her twin girls, Kala and Kalpana, born after a boy and two girls, the pressure from neighbours and her 19-year-old son to kill the girls was enormous. But Poonthalir rescued the twins: its volunteers counselled the family and offered some monetary help too.

According to District Social Welfare Officer V. Saraswathi, the cradle baby scheme itself needs to be strengthened. There is a need for a consistent campaign and the posting of a counsellor at every reception centre to try and convince people to take back their babies and bring them up. There is also a need to create a separate wing to implement the scheme and a vehicle to provide emergency medical attention.

Says Collector Radhakrishnan: "The cradle baby scheme has been effective in checking female infanticide. Also important is strengthening the local monitoring systems." The Collector has launched some innovative measures such as setting up a toll-free helpline to inform the administration of any suspected case of infanticide, inducing a local theatre group (Community Services Trust) to tour interior villages to campaign against the practice, and setting up a monitoring machinery at the district, block and village levels. But such efforts would take time to create an impact and that too only if they are pursued in a sustained manner.

As Chezhian says, an effective anti-dowry campaign is a must. Neither piecemeal government programmes nor a purely legalistic and law and order-oriented approach can solve the problem. There is a need for a societal movement and a continuous and consistent campaign against the scourge along with a massive improvement in the basic infrastructure for universal education, and a good health-care system with an efficient family welfare programme, all on a sustained basis.

It is ironical that Salem's record in the matter should have reached its nadir in the last 10 years when the State government came out with a series of programmes for women and children, particularly to end the practice of female infanticide in two districts notorious for it - Salem and Madurai. This fact indicates that the measures are inadequate and have not worked the way they were intended to on the target group.