Indian society has traditionally shown marked preference for male offspring. Over a period of time, this preference transformed itself into a social evil. Women were reviled for being unable to bear a male child. There were cases of women being thrown out of their marital homes for bearing successive girl child. However, the most monstrous manifestation of this preference for male child was in the form of killing of the girl child, a problem better known as female infanticide. With the advent of technology and the emergence of better medical systems in India, it became possible to know the gender of the child at the time of pregnancy. With these medical advancements, it became possible to do away with the girl child at the time of pregnancy itself. Couples would choose the abortion route once they found out that the mother was bearing a girl child. This had disastrous ramifications for the society. In 1901, the sex ratio (number of girls per 1000 boys) in India stood at 972. By 1951, this number had declined to 946. In 1991, census showed that there were only 927 girls per 1000 boys in the country. In the northern and central states, the situation was even more grim. Punjab counted 874 females per thousand males in 2001. Neighbouring Haryana had an unhealthy sex ratio of 865 in the same year. In some parts of Punjab and Haryana, the situation had become so serious that men were unable to get brides and had been forced to ‘import’ brides from faraway Assam, Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar and other states. Given the drastically different cultural millieu, these women are easy targets for exploitation and harrasment. Even in the 2011 census, Northern states continue to be at the bottom of the list, with a Child sex ratio (boys per 100 girls), hovering between 115-120.
The government of India belatedly woke up to the problem of tumbling sex ratio. It realized that medical advancements were making it easier than ever to dispose of the unwanted girl child. In addition to a massive campaign to educate the masses, the government introduced the PCPNDT (Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques) act in 1994. The act essentially forbade the use of technology for selective sex abortion. A 2003 amendment to the law introduced more stringent punishment for violaters and also regulated the sale of ultrasound machines. That having been said, reports indicate that the act is widely believed to be toothless. Delhi, for instance has seen no conviction for any case of violation of PCPNDT. On the other hand, the medical fraternity is up in arms over what it says is a draconian law aimed solely at causing inconvenience to Doctors.Radiologists, Obstetricians, Cardiologists and other medical professionals using USG machines even went on a nationwide strike on April 15th 2015, demanding changes to the PCPNDT law. Doctors claim that minor clerical errors result in sonography machines being sealed and doctors being arrested and harassed. For example, in Mumbai, in the last 10 years, 412 out of 523 cases filed under the PCPNDT Act in courts have been solely for non-maintenance of records. The opposition to the law therefore stems from 2 quarters, one group feels that the PCPNDT law is toothless and has failed to curb sex determination, which as per estimates is a Rs. 1000 crore industry today and the other group which feels that the law is too stringent and brutally punishes Doctors for minor clerical errors.
Maneka Gandhi, the Union Minister of Women & Child Development a few days ago, chose to bring this up for discussion. In a meeting with All India regional editors, She proposed that the gender of the foetus be made available to the parents and this information should be registered and tracked to ensure that the child is born. Her proposal essentially turned the existing system on its head. As per the current system, the onus of ensuring no sex determination occurs lies with the Doctors, whereas in the new system, the onus of ensuring the birth of girl child lies with the parents. While the proposal is currently only being discussed and is far from finalization, it offers a different technique in achieving the same objective- preventing female foeticide and achieving a healthy sex ratio. There are obvious advantages to this proposal. One is that harassment of Doctors can be controlled. Second is it holds parents accountable for birth of girl child and rightly so. However, the biggest advantage of the proposal is that it will free Ultrasound machines from the clutches of regulatory policies. This will enable smaller hospitals to acquire these machines without compliance burden and facilitate penetration of diagnostic services in small towns and villages which will contribute in the overall amelioration of healthcare services in the country. That having been said, the proposal is fraught with several concerns. The biggest is how would the pregnancy be tracked. In a country where many deliveries are frequently conducted at homes, tracking pregnancies poses a serious challenge. Women activists are also up in arms over what they feel is the infringement on women’s reproductive rights by tracking and registration. There are also concerns that this will negatively impact a woman’s right to safe abortion. However, the biggest concern is that the proposal will legalize the currently illegal, but thriving business of sex determination. There is an added fear that societal pressure on a woman carrying a girl child would be immense and might adversely impact the woman’s health.
There is no doubt that there are sound arguments on both sides of the debate. It is also true that Maneka Gandhi’s idea is only at a discussion level and might need more thought and rigorous debate before it can fructify into something more substantial. However, it is equally true that decades of government sponsored measures have only been partially successful, in fact, many might call these measures as abject failures. Our activists might need to be a little more flexible in trying out a new approach. Nonetheless, the PCPNDT act comes under the purview of the Health Ministry, which is expected to take a final discussion after listening to views from all parties. Whether one agrees or disagrees with Maneka Gandhi’s proposal, there is no doubt that it deserves discussion and debate. For a government that prides itself on its stellar Beti Bachao, Beti padhao initiative, one would expect that it would take the right measures to rid the nation of the scourge of female foeticide.