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Female foeticide in Punjab

Published : Jun 08, 2002 00:00 IST



A case of female foeticide from Fatehgarh Sahib district in Punjab and a two-day consultation on foeticide in the State underline the need to tackle the menace in full swing.

T.K. RAJALAKSHMI in Chandigarh and Fatehgarh Sahib

THERE is a mood of disquiet in Kale Majra village in Punjab's Fatehgarh Sahib district. A little over 50 km from Chandigarh which represents a modern city of the 21st century, Fatehgarh Sahib has the dubious distinction of being the district with the lowest juvenile sex ratio in the country. The mood is even more gloomy today in the house of Gurmeet Singh and his brothers. In March, Gurmeet Singh's wife Surinder Kaur and his sister-in-law Devender Kaur were arrested by the police on charges of aborting a female foetus. They were both charged under Section 312 and 120 of the Indian Penal Code, 1860. The provisions of the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994 have not been invoked. A staff nurse who allegedly performed the abortion was booked under the Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) Act, 1971.

No action has been taken against a diagnostic centre that is allegedly involved. The sections that can be invoked here include Section 5(2) which prohibits any person conducting pre-natal diagnostic procedures from communicating to the pregnant woman or her relative, the sex of the foetus by means of words, signs or in any other manner; Section 6(b) which prohibits the determination of the sex of the foetus and Section 20(3) which empowers the Appropriate Authority (in this case, the Chief Medical Officer of Fatehgarh Sahib district) to suspend in public interest the registration of the clinic or laboratory without issuing any show-cause notice. This power has not been invoked as yet by the Appropriate Authority and according to Veena Kumari, coordinator of Human Rights Law Network, the woman doctor who was running the diagnostic centre had shifted her operations elsewhere. The ultrasonologist involved was not to be found either. Two women in Bhatinda district have also been similarly booked under Section 312 IPC.

Under Section 312, whoever voluntarily causes a woman with a child to miscarry, shall, if such miscarriage be not caused in good faith for the purpose of saving the life of the woman, be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both, and if the woman be quick with child, shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to seven years, and shall also be liable to pay a fine. A woman who causes herself to miscarry also falls within the ambit of this section. The MTP Act, 1971 legalises abortion though it lays down several conditions under which such a procedure may be performed. Section 120 pertains to concealing a design to commit an offence and this is punishable with imprisonment.

Veena Kumari, who is an advocate with the Punjab and Haryana High Court, explained that Section 312 hardly had any relevance after the passage of the MTP Act and was rarely invoked. She therefore found it strange that this provision was invoked. According to her, a senior health department official had told her that the department was "catching all those persons who were directly involved in the crime". Veena Kumari said that the import and intent of the PNDT Act was to prevent the misuse of foetal sex determination, and instead of focussing on the agency that conducted the test, the health department was focussing on foeticide itself. "When women get targeted, the focus gets blunted," she said.

Violations of the PNDT Act involve severe punishment. Section 23(3) lays down that any person who seeks the aid of a genetic counselling centre, a genetic laboratory or a genetic clinic or of a medical geneticist, gynaecologist or registered medical practitioner, for applying pre-natal diagnostic techniques on any pregnant woman (unless there is evidence she was compelled to undergo such diagnostic techniques) for purposes other than those specified, shall be punishable with imprisonment for a term that may extend to three years and with a fine which may extend to Rs.10,000 and any subsequent conviction may involve imprisonment which may extend to five years and a fine of up to Rs.50,000. Unless it can be proved that the pregnant woman was compelled by someone to undergo a pre-natal diagnostic test, Section 23(3) will apply to her too. Certain amendments have been proposed to the PNDT Act by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare including the exclusion of pregnant woman from the punitive provisions of Section 23(3).

An unlettered Surinder Kaur, it is entirely possible, was persuaded by family members to undergo an ultrasound scan, but she has not conveyed this fact in her statement to the police. Her sister-in-law Devender Kaur allegedly accompanied her to the diagnostic centre.

Surinder's first child was a girl. Between Gurmeet Singh, his two brothers and their wives, there are seven daughters in the joint family.

According to available facts, Surinder Kaur got an ultrasound scan done when she was a little more than four months pregnant. Devender Kaur stated that she was unaware what the ultrasonologist had conveyed to Surinder Kaur. But in fact, the sex of the foetus had been conveyed verbally to Surinder and her sister-in law at a cost of Rs.1,200, almost four times the prevailing rate. Evidently, despite certain Supreme Court directives to State governments and the Central government regarding the strict implementation of the PNDT Act, several such centres were operating illegally, and literally preying upon the "son preference" syndrome in Indian society.

The nurse allegedly carried out the abortion on February 28 in Surinder Kaur's marital home. The foetus was buried in the courtyard. According to a senior official in the State health department, the police were tipped off about the foeticide by another nurse. On March 8, the remains of the foetus were dug out and sent for examination. The police took Surinder Kaur and her sister-in-law into custody. While Surinder had to be hospitalised as she had hardly recovered from the abortion, her sister-in-law was put in the lock-up. A bail application was moved on March 10 and two days later the two were given bail. Charges were yet to be framed. The nurse involved was suspended by the Health Department.

When this correspondent met Surinder Kaur, her husband and relatives at their home, she seemed too scared even to voice an opinion. Most of the talking in the family was done by the men. "Pind di log sohde hin ki ladka theek hai (The village community feels that it is better to have boys),"said Gurmeet's elder brother. A former sarpanch of the village and his wife Jaswant Kaur explained that a small family was the norm and even if girls were not born, it was not considered a big loss.

All of them admitted that the practice of exchanging dowry had grown over the years and that even middle-income families were now not averse to claiming dowry. "If earlier the demand was a bicycle, now it is for a motorcycle or even a car, and gold for the bride as well as for the mother-in-law," said Jaswant Kaur. She added that as "big people" gave dowry, it had become necessary for others to emulate the practice.

It was not coincidental that a consultation on the menace of female foeticide in the context of growing gender violence was organised in Chandigarh and Fatehgarh Sahib on May 20 and 21 by the Voluntary Health Association of India and the Voluntary Health Association, Punjab. It was argued there that female foeticide would not stop as long as other manifestations of gender violence continued in society. Such violence, it was pointed out, could be in the form of domestic violence stemming from dowry demands, son preference and so on. The meeting in Chandigarh blamed also the consumerist culture stimulated by the forces of globalisation and liberalisation for impinging on the well-being of women. The easy availability of certain technology including for foetal sex determination and pre-conception sex selection had proved inimical to the interests of women, it was stressed.

The consultation took note of the extreme forms of communal and sexual violence recently perpetrated in Gujarat. The decline in the sex ratio as well as the juvenile sex ratio in Punjab, Haryana and some other parts of northern and northwestern India figured in the discussions. Demands for equal rights to women on family property and strict enforcement of the Dowry Prohibition Act were reiterated. Any imposition of the two-child norm employing incentives and disincentives would wreak havoc on the already skewed sex ratio, participants at the consultation felt.

At the consultation at Fatehgarh Sahib, Surjeet Kaur, the mahila mandal pradhan of Biladi Kalan village, wanted the government to crack down on private medical practitioners who she said were over-charging people for services including sex determination tests. She pointed out that government dispensaries did not have adequate stocks of medicine and hence people were forced to go to private practitioners. Surjeet Kaur also said that the part of anganwadi workers in propagating the anti-foeticide message was hardly visible. She told Frontline that generally it was the rich families that resorted to pre-natal sex determination techniques in order to keep family size small and property holdings intact.

Another woman sarpanch explained that it was necessary to find out why foeticide was taking place on such a large scale and that it was important to recognise the various reproductive pressures women faced. Another speaker at the meeting, Babu Singh Chauhan, said well-meaning statements, plays and other messages alone cannot stop the foeticide menace. Punishing the main offenders - the ultrasound scan centres conducting such tests - alone can act as a deterrent, he said.

Over one hundred people actively participated in the Fatehgarh Sahib consultation and most of them felt that governmental measures in this field were not adequate. Representatives of the district administration and the Health Department expressed their inability to pursue the cases owing to problems of jurisdiction but that excuse failed to convince the gathering.

The situation has been particularly alarming in Punjab and Haryana despite the prosperity and high per capita income levels that prevail there. The juvenile sex ratio in these States has been declining with each successive Census. In fact, Census 2001 showed a marked decline in the juvenile sex ratio in both these States as well as in some others including Himachal Pradesh. The decline had become evident in Census 1991, but apparently the fall in the number of female children had become much sharper in the last one decade as was reflected in Census 2001.

Social scientists, members of women's organisations and demographers (including the late Asok Mitra) have over a period of time expressed concern over India's declining sex ratio. Census 2001 revealed that it was not the BIMARU States (Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh) that were showing sharp declines in sex ratio but some of the more prosperous ones. The inter-State variations were also pronounced. The magnitude of the decline - 82 points in Punjab, 59 in Haryana, 54 in Himachal Pradesh, 50 in Gujarat, 42 in Uttaranchal and 29 in Maharashtra - was much higher than in the previous decade. The links among foetal sex determination technology, the level of access to it and the sex ratio have now become clearer.

THE PNDT Act, 1994 which came into force on January 1, 1996, was enacted primarily to check sex-selective foeticide. Initially, the Central government and most State governments hardly took any steps to implement the provisions of the Act. Following a petition filed in the Supreme Court, the State governments and Union Territories were directed by the court to supply quarterly reports to a central supervisory board regarding action taken towards the implementation of the Act. Once again, several States either dragged their feet in furnishing the reports or failed to initiate prompt action as per the guidelines.

Punjab too has been no exception. Until as late as December 2001, there was not a single case of prosecution of a diagnostic centre conducting sex-determination tests. A few prosecutions had been launched in West Bengal, Bihar, Chandigarh, Tamil Nadu and Haryana. In Punjab, some action has been initiated in the last few months. In most of the identified instances, cases against erring ultrasound centres in the State are yet to be registered. Four out of the 14 female foeticide cases reported so far have been registered while in eight cases action under the PNDT Act has been initiated by the Appropriate Authority. Three cases were booked under the MTP Act - in two of the cases, instruments that were employed to conduct abortions were recovered while in a third case, the woman who underwent the procedure gave a statement. None of the doctors or ultrasonologists involved seemed to have been caught, while it appears that most of the action had been initiated against the women, thus exposing into focus the phenomenon of "victimising the victim".

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Jun 08, 2002.)



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