China is the fastest growing economic superpower in the world. India comes a close second. It is estimated that, by 2030, these two countries will overtake the United States and Japan as the world’s leading economies.
Very impressive, to be sure. What is not widely known, however, is that these two powerhouses harbor a dark and sinister secret. When it comes to having children, boys are overwhelmingly the preferred sex. In many rural households, the birth of a girl baby is greeted with hand wringing and lamenting of the parents’ fate. The underlying cause of this bias is the insidious dowry system – legally outlawed, but widely prevalent. One needs to have money, jewelry and stuff to get one’s daughter married off. Sons, on the other hand – particularly if they are qualified and have well paying jobs – can be auctioned at a premium.
In the not so distant past, some parents – particularly those who already had a daughter or two – took the desperate step of smothering to death a female infant at birth; and dumping or secretly burying the tiny corpse. This, of course, risked detention and a lengthy prison sentence. Nowadays, technology has come to the rescue of these silent killers. Thanks to ultra-sound testing in pre-natal clinics, the sex of the foetus can be established fairly early in the pregnancy. If it lacks the all important Y chromosome, an abortion is speedily arranged “on medical grounds.” In my opinion, this is nothing but pre-natal homicide.
In India alone, five million girls were eliminated between 1986 and 2001 because of foetal sex determination, carried out by unethical medical professionals. Sex determination and sex selective abortion originated in a Punjab clinic in 1979; and has now grown into a $200 billion nationwide industry. In recent years, the misuse of ultrasound has reached even remote tribal areas virtually inaccessible villages
Despite the efforts of a number of non-governmental social organizations, who are battling this scourge, it is estimated that a million girls will be eliminated every year in India, during the coming four. China, according to a 2000 census, was also eliminating one million girls annually.
The tragedy is that this form of violence against women has become virtually legitimized and socially acceptable, particularly in the northern parts of India. In the early 1980s, families in Punjab, who had two or more girls, went in for sex determination; by 1995 families resorted to the practice in the first pregnancy itself – they wanted a son first.
In 1994, the Indian Parliament responded to the misuse of prenatal diagnostic techniques by enacting the PNDT Act, whose intent is “to provide for the regulation of the use pre-natal diagnostic techniques for the purpose of detecting genetic abnormalities or certain congenital malformations or sex-linked disorders and for the prevention of the misuse of such techniques for the purpose of pre-natal sex-determination leading to female foeticide, and for matters connected therewith or incidental thereto”. However, the government – for reasons best known to itself – did not implement the law. Multinational ultrasound equipment manufacturers – always on the look out for quick profits – took advantage of the economic liberalization of the early 1990s; and started production of ultrasound machines in India by the mid nineties. The aggressive marketing of these machines, coupled with easy availability of cheap credit for purchase, made scanning accessible in many parts of the country. Machines were sold to anybody who could pay for them – no questions asked.
Subsequently, in May 2001, the Supreme Court of India directed the government to implement the PNDT Act. Later, Parliament amended the law to make it more stringent. Manufacturers could sell ultrasound machines only to registered clinics. This was not a great deterrent to medical practitioners who knew their way around the system. They simply got their facilities – some of them hole-in-the-wall affairs – registered as clinics. The registration of clinics has increased from 600 to 30,000 since May 2001.
The health ministry has to be more proactive to stop female foeticide. It is evident that this issue has not been given adequate priority. Over the last six months there has not been a single visit by the National Inspection and Monitoring Commission, despite millions of violations of the Act. This is a serious breach of commitment made by the government to the Supreme Court. Oh sure, there are cosmetic demonstrations of compliance. For example, the health ministry routinely releases full-page advertisements calling female foeticide a sin. But everyone knows these are woefully ineffective.
To its credit, the Indian media have certainly contributed to the increased public discourse on this issue over the past seven years. Today, reports of female foetuses found in drains, or dug from dry wells, or floating in lakes, or eaten by dogs make headline news. One private television channel exposed 100 doctors involved in these crimes in Rajasthan and adjacent states. This spurred a major public campaign and, so far, seven doctors have been suspended by the Rajasthan Medical Council.
The government of India needs to set a target date by which the country will have balanced sex ratios at birth. China has declared its intention – at the highest political level – to achieve this by 2010. There has to be official recognition that small families are de-facto achieved by eliminating girls. It would be a national shame if India achieved the dubious distinction of becoming the country with the largest number of girls being eliminated, even before they are born.