Situated in north-east Rajasthan, Alwar has become a metaphor for all that is reprehensible in our society. Preference for a son is a socio-economic 'requirement' and advances in technology have lead to a spurt in sex determination followed by abortion of female fetuses.
Annually, pre-monsoon showers are accompanied by a massive de-silting operation of the open drains in Alwar. This time - as in the past five years - the black slime threw up several freshly aborted fetuses and mauled bodies of abandoned infants. The vigilant local press was quick to report these findings but despite the evidence of macabre photographs, it was condemned by the police Station House Officer Sardar Singh for 'sensationalizing' and 'exaggerating' the issue.
There has been no response from the public - no statements of condemnation or outrage, nor delegations to local authorities to demand an investigation into the matter. The local administration however, swung into action. The recovered bodies were sent for post mortem and subsequent burial; and notices were sent to Alwar's 19 nursing homes and laboratories with facilities for ultrasonography, asking them to submit records of tests conducted over the last two years. Only four of these are reported to have responded. Virendra Vidrohi, a local activist commented, "After these knee-jerk reactions, it will be business as usual."
The process of silencing has already begun, with civil contractor Itwari Lall being coerced into keeping quiet, and replacing the local laborers who unearthed the scandal.
Despite its proximity to the national capital, Delhi, as well as the state capital, Jaipur, the town of Alwar appears to have stood still in time. It is a pocket of deep neglect, illiteracy and obscurantism where women's status is abysmally low and their participation in decision-making is marginal. The total population of the district is 2.6 million of which about 43 per cent is literate, with female literacy at 20 per cent.
Another stark indicator of the status of women in Alwar is the sex ratio -- 832:1000, well below the state average of 917:1000. About 88 per cent of the girls marry by age 19, and about 51 per cent of them have their first pregnancies between 15 and 19 years.
Among officials, there is a culture of silence around the issue of sex-selective abortion and infanticide. They insist that these are not cases of sex selection but of unwanted babies abandoned mercilessly. "Out of the three infants and one fetus discovered, one was of a male and the sex of the others was not evident due to the state of the bodies," insists Sardar Singh.
There is an obstinate refusal to acknowledge earlier findings, although Rajpal Singh, a journalist with the Hindi daily Dainik Bhaskar, has been filing reports of fetuses and abandoned bodies of infants showing up every few months, not just in Alwar city but all over the district. However, a local health official conceded that the practice of sex determination is rampant, and says that this trend is encouraged by the State Population Policy announced in January 2000, which rewards small families and thus leaves no space for daughters to be born.
Rajasthan proposes to lower its Total Fertility Rate from 4.1 in 1997 to 3.1 in 2007 and 2.1 in 2016. Towards this goal, laws prospectively debar persons who do not adopt the two-child norm from contesting elections for panchayats (village councils), district councils and local self-governing bodies. In the face of protests about the constitutional validity of these laws, the High Court has upheld the rationale of the laws.
Rajendra Choudhary, Minister for Health and Family Welfare in Rajasthan, describes the policy as "practical as well as ethically sound and culturally appropriate holistic approach", with "an emphasis on ending gender discrimination" and "ensuring popular support" for its objectives. The document also stresses the fact that the state has "less than one per cent of available water resources in the country" and that the pressure of population on natural resources leads to environmental degradation. These statements, however, are not substantiated by data on resource use by different segments.
The State Population Policy also proposes legal registration of marriage, compulsory observance of minimum age of marriage for availing government facilities and services and stiffer penal provisions for violation of the legal age of marriage. Here the onus of regulating the family size and decisions about marriage falls squarely on women despite the fact that most women have little say in the matter.
While the state has its convoluted reasons, private practitioners have their own justifications. Dr Udayvan Yadav, who runs the Kamla Nursing Home with his wife, says: "Abortions have been legal in India since 1971 and there is no reason for any doctor to refuse a Medical Termination of
Pregnancy, provided it is in the safe first trimester. Ultrasound is a diagnostic technique and since the machines are registered, there is no scope for unethical use. Abortion is really no issue here since everyone knows about the availability of drugs and injectables like Prostodin, which induce abortion."
In the face of these denials, a state health official, who refused to be identified, confirmed that 96 per cent of the fetuses aborted here are female. "In addition, there are unsafe abortions performed by untrained people which contribute to high maternal mortality and morbidity. As many as 10 to 15 per cent of maternal deaths are due to abortions, two-thirds of which were induced in order to terminate unwanted pregnancies. The incidence of second trimester abortions is very high due to sex selection and the late recognition of pregnancy."
Ultrasound and diagnostic clinics have been proliferating despite an Advisory Board having been set up here as required under the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Technique (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act that attempts to register and monitor all ultrasonography facilities. The Collector, Tanmay Kumar, plans to address the issue and is already taking measures for increasing public awareness (through posters), and more vigilant monitoring.
While it might take much more than this to take Alwar off the map of preferred destinations for sex selection and gender violence, at least a beginning has been made. Yet, Alwar should be recognized for what it is -- just another symptom of a far greater malaise, of a socio-economically driven society that devalues not only women but also human life and dignity.