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'A merely legal approach cannot root out female infanticide'

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

Interview with Salem Collector J. Radhakrishnan.

Having set a trend, even if unwittingly, Salem District Collector Dr. J. Radhakrishnan is overwhelmed by the fact that seven baby girls have been handed over to him since December 10. At his camp office in Salem, Radhakrishnan, a veterinary doctor by training, spoke to Asha Krishnakumar about the poor social indicators of the district, the implementation of the cradle baby scheme and the measures undertaken by the district administration to root out female infanticide. Excerpts from the interview:

Salem district has the dubious distinction of being one of the worst districts in the country in terms of juvenile sex ratio. It is also the only district in southern India to figure among the worst 50 districts in the country. What are the underlying reasons?

It is really a paradox that Salem, the fifth most prosperous district in Tamil Nadu, with a high infrastructure index (134 compared to the national average of 100), is poor in social indicators. The low juvenile sex ratio is a manifestation of several cultural, social and economic factors. It also reflects the poor status of women and the son preference leading to the doing away with girl babies. This is not a recent happening but a well-entrenched practice that has spread to almost all communities in the area.

How can such a deeply entrenched practice be stopped? Can the cradle baby and girl child protection schemes address the problem adequately?

The cradle baby scheme is effective. Since 1992, 200 girl babies (10 of them between 1996 and 2001) have been saved by the scheme. In the last few months, legal measures have also been used. More than a dozen arrests have been made on charges of killing girl babies and some bodies have also been exhumed. This has instilled some fear among the people. Thus, in less than five months more than 53 babies have been received in the government cradles placed in the PHCs (Public Health Centres).

Since 1992, 2,576 girls have been enrolled in the district under the girl child protection scheme. From January 1, 2002, the eligible age for enrolment in the scheme has been brought down to one year. This will help save more girl babies.

However, it is important to look at the underlying reasons for the scourge. A high infant mortality rate, poor female literacy, extensive higher order births and the dowry system are issues that have to be addressed.

How is your administration dealing with these issues?

The revival of the cradle baby scheme under the 18-point programme of the present government, has given us a major boost. We have, with the support of Danida (Danish International Development Agency), set up a toll-free helpline over which suspected infanticide cases can be reported. We have made a few arrests, and also exhumed some bodies, thanks to the helpline.

These legal measures have made people turn to the government cradles to leave unwanted girl babies; they no longer kill the babies. And, after December 10, many are handing over their babies to me. Interestingly, all parents ask for a certificate that they have surrendered their babies.

We are also trying to put in place monitoring systems. For instance, we have set up monitoring committees at the district, block and village levels. All the 385 village panchayats now have a monitoring committee comprising the panchayat president, the village administrative officer, the health nurse, a noon-meal scheme worker and a representative from a non-governmental organisation. The committee meets once a month to discuss the problems that work against ending the practice of female infanticide. The committees send the details of the meetings to the Collector.

Various departments such as Health, Family Welfare and Education are being sensitised on the issue. The Health Department, for instance, is geared to monitor all pregnant women and improve the PHCs, while the Family Welfare Department is to promote family planning; now only 11.5 per cent of sterilisations are done in government hospitals and PHCs.

Our focus is also on increasing literacy among women. While there are over 1,200 primary schools, there are only 155 middle and 67 secondary schools. Some primary schools are to be upgraded soon.

Simultaneously, a massive awareness campaign against the scourge, with focus on education, is being undertaken. More than 180 of the 385 villages have been covered. Also, it has been decided to talk about the issue at every government function. A massive door-to-door campaign has been planned next month with help from the women's wing of the National Cadet Corps. We are also getting the help of NGOs such as Poonthalir, World Vision, Community Services Trust and VRDP(Village Reconstruction and Development Programme) for the campaign. The Community Services Trust's theatre group has already started its campaign in the villages. We are also in the process of starting a massive anti-dowry campaign.

Foeticide is not rampant in this area, as it is in some other areas in Tamil Nadu. However, we have registered all the 105 scan centres in the district.

The idea is to provide a humane approach; a merely legal approach will not help us get to the root of the problem of female infanticide.

Have these programmes, started five months ago, had any impact?

It is too early to talk of results. But there have been some changes. For instance, the recorded causes of child deaths 'due to social causes' has now come down to 10 per cent from 40 per cent. Similarly, the number of infant deaths, which was 260 a month until mid-2001, has come down to 150 now. This is only an indication of the improvement. We hope to get better results soon.