India Census 2011 data bring into the open Maharashtra State's terrible record in sex-selective abortions.


Girls carrying home water in Mumbai. Maharashtra, a seemingly progressive State, has one of the worst child sex ratios in the country (BIKAS DAS/AP)

In early June, Vijaymala Patekar, a mother of four girls, haemorrhaged to death at a hospital in Parli, Beed district, Maharashtra. She was reportedly in her second trimester of pregnancy. Her family had allegedly forced her to abort the foetus when they learnt it was a girl child.

Sudam Munde, the doctor who performed the procedure, fled Parli but was arrested later. He reportedly confessed to the police that he along with his doctor-wife Saraswati Munde had conducted hundreds of sex-selective abortions in the past few years. He also said that women from neighbouring districts, too, approached his clinic for the purpose, and the demand had enabled him to set up a huge practice. Investigations revealed that the doctor had crores of rupees in bank accounts.

Vijaymala Patekar’s death has exposed tragic facts and explosive data. It categorically points to the fact that Maharashtra, a seemingly progressive State, has one of the worst child sex ratios in the country. The State has been perpetuating a terrible crime by ignoring it, say activists who have been working for decades for the “Save the Girl Child” movement. Vijaymala Patekar’s case, reports of girl babies being abandoned regularly, and the 2011 Census data on the declining child sex ratio clearly show that female foeticide exists in a demonic form and is increasing across the State.

There was a spate of cases of abandoned infant girls and aborted female foetuses in different parts of Mumbai in June alone. A three-day-old girl was found by municipal cleaners in a garbage bin on a highway near Mankhurd, while a two-month-old girl was found abandoned outside Dadar railway station in the city. The body of a one-day-old girl was found dumped near a nullah (stream) in Rabodi, Thane.

This is not unusual. A few months ago, a group of boys playing football in a playground in south Mumbai accidently unearthed the body of a newborn girl buried there. Another infant girl was found near a rubbish bin, half-eaten by rats, but alive. An orphanage in suburban Mumbai, which practises cradle adoption, says it receives three or four girl babies every month. “It is a poor reflection on our society,” says Usha Salve, a social activist who works in one of Mumbai’s slums.

In early July, in Solapur, the police arrested another doctor couple, who were on the run, for conducting sex-selective abortions. Drs Ajit and Priyadarsini Upase had been absconding ever since the police discovered one of their hospital staff burying a female foetus at a burial ground in the town. Two of their staff, who were arrested, told the police that the doctor couple had done several sex-selective abortions.

Frontline spoke to women from all strata of society as well as activists, lawyers, doctors and administrators in the State to find out whether saving the girl child was no longer a priority. The quest revealed that many people – both rich and poor – viewed girls as financial and emotional burdens.

The police and the local administration say they have graver issues to worry about than abandoned babies. Activists and lawyers say lax laws and the lack of a powerful monitoring system allow sex selection to thrive. Of course, it is also difficult to change the preference of many Indians for a male child.

Census 2011 data
According to Census 2011, there is a shocking decline in the child sex ratio in Maharashtra. For every 1,000 boys in the State, there are only 883 girls. This is a lot worse than in 2001, when the figure was 913 girls per 1,000 boys. However, this phenomenon is not exclusive to Maharashtra.

The latest Census results show an alarming decline in the number of girls born in India. While in 2001 the national ratio was 976 girls for every 1,000 boys, it dropped to 914 in 2011. The ratio is calculated as the number of girls per 1,000 boys in the 0-6 age group. As per global trends, the normal child sex ratio should be above 950.

“There are so many reasons for the discrimination against the girl child. The foremost, though, is the deep-rooted gender bias in this country,” says A.L. Sharada, director of Population First, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) working on women’s issues. “We need to do something as a nation to make people want a daughter. She must not be seen as a burden or an emotional drain.”

According to Sharada, one of the primary reasons for the decline is the drop in fertility rate. Moreover, people want smaller families, mainly for economic reasons. And if they have to have just one child, they want it to be a son. Another problem that needs to be addressed on a war footing is the aggressive marketing, with little monitoring, of ultrasound machines. Although NGOs have been working extensively on this, the lack of sincerity or proactive steps by governments in combating the issue has unfortunately allowed foeticide to flourish. Maharashtra was the first State in India to enact a law to protect the female foetus – the Maharashtra Regulation of Use of Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act in 1987, which paved the way for the enactment of the Prevention of Misuse of Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PNDT) in 1994 and the amended Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act in 2002. Additionally, NGOs and women’s rights activists in the State have been relentlessly campaigning to save the girl child. It was also the first State to introduce 50 per cent reservation for women in local bodies. So why do people of this State not want girls?

The answer is the same across the country. There is a strong preference for a son if the parents want only one child – to uphold the family lineage, to support parents in their old age, to inherit the family business, and to light the funeral pyre so that the parents attain salvation. Girl children are seen as nothing but burdens, with dowry being the biggest problem.

What has made sex-selective abortions easier is the proliferation and affordability of ultrasound machines. There is no diligent monitoring of how these machines are used, and doctors who perform the abortions are not penalised, says Sharada. “People in Maharashtra’s sugar belt are the biggest culprits. Their deep pockets and political influence help perpetuate this crime,” she says.

Beed district has the lowest sex ratio in the State (802 as per Census 2011), but that does not necessarily mean that rural regions alone are to be blamed. For instance, Mumbai, a rich district with higher literacy levels, has 874 girls per 1,000, while in 2001 the ratio was 922 per 1,000 (see chart).

“Being rich or poor has nothing to do with sex-selective abortions; it happens across socio-economic strata. What is bad though in this State is that the districts that did not show a decline in 2001 have shown a downward trend in the recent Census figures. For instance, the largely tribal districts of Gadchiroli and Chandrapur are also seeing a sharp decline in sex ratios,” says Sharada (see map and chart).

As per Census 2011, 32 of the 35 districts in Maharashtra recorded a sharp drop in the child sex ratio. In fact, the number of districts with a ratio lower than 900 – nine in 2001 – more than doubled in 2011. Foeticide, which was restricted to urban pockets and western Maharashtra, has now spread to most parts of the State.

Do the recent Census figures indicate that the three-decade-old movement to save the girl child has failed?

“It is unfair to say it has failed. There are several related social ills and larger issues concerning women that need to be addressed if the movement is to be effective,” says Sharada. For instance, discriminatory and humiliating practices such as dowry still exist. Equal inheritance or distribution of property is still not accepted. Though there is a law against domestic violence, it has not really checked the violence against women. The environment in the country is not safe for women. These are issues that make a girl child seem a burden to most families. If these are addressed, there will be a change in attitude, feels Sharada.

Manisha Gupte from MASUM, an NGO that has worked to ensure the successful implementation of the PCPNDT Act, says things have come a long way from the 1980s when public transport used to be dotted with advertisements such as: “Better 500 now than 50,000 later”, meaning if one is ready to spend Rs.500 on an abortion now, one could save Rs.50,000 in dowry later.

Priyadarsini Upase and (right) Ajit Upase, a doctor couple, taken to court after their arrest in a case of sex-selective abortions, in Solapur on July 4 (PTI)

“Society doesn’t always go forward. Behavioural changes take a very long time. Sadly, very few families actively want daughters even today. Girls are born as unintended errors in the pursuit of the highly desired sons,” she says.

Manisha Gupte was amongst those who pioneered the campaign in Maharashtra. “When we began the movement in the early 1980s, we were labelled anti-technology, anti-development, anti-doctor, anti-choice and finally anti-woman. We were told that we were influenced by Western notions of feminism and that we had no clue about Indian culture and values,” she says.

Yet, the Forum Against Sex Determination and Sex Pre-Selection (FASDSP) and later the Doctors against Sex Determination and Sex Pre-Selection (DASDSP) carried out a relentless campaign in the mid-1980s. Manisha Gupte says public awareness drives, exposure of doctors who conducted sex determination tests, public speeches, poster campaigns, protests outside hospitals that conducted tests, and rallies, media campaigns and constant meetings with the Health Ministries at both State and Central levels resulted in Maharashtra banning the tests and eventually enacting the PNDT. “But we still have a long way to go,” she says.

“Activism doesn’t always work. You need a strong law prescribing harsh punishment to combat this evil. Sex selection of the foetus should be treated as nothing less than a crime. Only then will it stop,” says Varsha Deshpande, a lawyer who runs the Lek Ladki Abhiyaan, an organisation that has become well known for carrying out sting operations on clinics and doctors who do sex-selective tests and abortions. A member of the National Inspection and Monitoring Committee to implement the PCPNDT Act, she says her organisation has conducted 36 sting operations since 2005, which resulted in the conviction of 17 doctors.

“The easy availability of ultrasound machines has been the main reason for the sharply declining numbers. The phenomenon is more widespread in the richer districts. As it is, Maharashtra has a history of discrimination – be it against Dalits or women,” says Varsha Deshpande.

Laws and committees

As per the PCPNDT Act, there is a Central Supervisory Committee, headed by the Union Health Minister, which is the main body to oversee the framing of the guidelines and the implementation of the law. Each State will have a supervisory committee to look into State rules and guidelines. There is also the State Inspection and Monitoring Committee to scour the State and book those who violate the law. There are also four National Inspection and Monitoring Committees (NIMC), which carry out inspections including sting operations, in high-risk States such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh. Then there is the State Appropriate Authority, a statutory body operating at the district and block levels, which has a civil surgeon and a health officer as its members.

Varsha Deshpande says Maharashtra has several committees in place to combat foeticide. “Unfortunately, the authorities lack the will to take action against erring doctors,” she says. “It is up to civil society and NGOs to change the scenario. But there is a limit to what we can do,” she says.

“We should encourage a democratic family set-up. We have to teach gender equality. Why should the father of the house be revered like some god? Television shows that depict women as subservient are another hurdle in the progression of society. Modern values should be instilled in people if our attitude towards women is to change,” she points out.

Soon after the Census results last year, the State became more proactive. As a result, 77 of 111 doctors who were found to have violated the PCPNDT Act were convicted.

Varsha Deshpande’s team had busted Dr Munde’s dubious practice last year. The doctor couple were released on bail soon after, and they went back to their business quite blatantly. It was only when the media exposed Munde’s role in Vijaymala Patekar’s death that the State government decided on a crackdown on sonography centres and hospitals and clinics that did ultrasonography.

The State Health Minister, Suresh Shetty, announced that three squads – made up of the police, a local administration representative, advocates and doctors – had been formed to carry out the operation. But when they will strike is not clear, Varsha Deshpande says.

Attempts to reach the administration and the Health Minister were fruitless. A press release from the State Health Ministry said that it had submitted complaints and reports of sex-selective abortions to the Medical Council of India (MCI).

“A knee-jerk reaction that will have no result,” says Dr Paresh Desai, a paediatrician in South Mumbai. He says sonography centres have come up with ingenious ways to inform people about the sex of the foetus after a test.

For instance, an e-mail stating the number 16 would mean one boy as the number 6 resembles the letter ‘b’. The number 19 would mean one girl as 9 resembles the letter ‘g’. Then the e-mail is deleted, leaving no trace of the test.

Interestingly, many of the women Frontline spoke to did not think a son was a must. But they agreed that there were anxieties, mostly financial, when a girl child was born.

Anju Dhangar, a 35-year-old mother of three girls, has been singularly responsible for her children’s welfare after her husband drank himself to death a few years ago. She earns around Rs.3,000 a month as a domestic help. “Although I have no desire for a son, and there was never any pressure from my in-laws to have one, I am not sure how I will educate and marry them off in my present financial state,” she says.

Her late sister was less lucky. She was sent away to her village by her husband to bring up their two daughters. The husband remarried, and the second wife produced a son. Her sister was never asked to return, and she was given no money to support the girls. Eventually, ill-health claimed her life a year ago.

Smriti Deora, a student who volunteers for Karm, an NGO that works with women, says her family has given her the best of opportunities. As an only child from a business family, she faced no ill will, quite unlike many privileged Indian families where typically a male is considered the only heir. She says: “It is a myth that only the poor believe the girl child is a burden. Even the wealthy do. Investing in a girl child is considered a waste as she will be ‘given’ away in marriage to another family.”