Young girls are conspicuous by their absence in Fatehgarh Sahib, a small town in the prosperous state of Punjab. On the streets, in homes, in schools and even in meetings to discuss the abhorrent practice of pre-natal sex determination, mothers are accompanied only by little boys. Not surprising, since Fatehgarh district has the dubious distinction of having the lowest child sex ratio in the country. With the child sex ratio (0-6 years) plummeting from 874 girls for every 1,000 boys in 1991 to an abysmal 754 in 2001, it is apparent that something is seriously amiss.
The results of the 2001 census set alarm bells ringing amongst policy planners and leaders alike. Punjab, with a child sex ratio of 793, was forced to acknowledge the situation and take corrective steps. Responding to the declining sex ratio as a social problem, the Akal Takht - the highest seat of spiritual and temporal authority amongst Sikhs - issued a hukumnama (diktat) on April 6, 2001, prohibiting pre-natal sex determination and threatening violators with social boycott and excommunication. On its part, the Punjab health department set in motion various awareness campaigns to counter the menace. Unimpressed, the Supreme Court in May last year directed all states, particularly Punjab, to show their commitment to the issue by implementing the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) (PNDT) Act, 1994.
In their writ petition, activist Sabu George, CEHAT (Centre for Enquiry into Health and Allied Themes and MASUM (Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsh Mandal) had asked for the implementation of existing legislation banning prenatal sex-selection and also an amendment of the law to include newer sex selection techniques. With states still dragging their feet, the Supreme Court issued another order in December last year demanding proof that state governments were serious about implementation of the PNDT Act. In a flurry of activity, the Punjab government registered 14 cases over the next few months. Ironically, it is women themselves who are being further victimized in the zeal to implement the Act. Says Veena Sharma, Chandigarh-based lawyer with the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), "A woman who aborted a five-month fetus following a sex-determination test was picked up by the police, even as she was bleeding profusely, and imprisoned along with her sister-in- law."
In this case, the doctor who performed the ultrasound is absconding. In fact, he has been granted anticipatory bail while the hapless woman has no recourse to justice since the Public Prosecutor takes no interest in her case. It is the HRLN that is now supporting the woman while the case drags on.
The involvement of the police only contributes to corruption, since the persons running the ultrasound centers get prior information and either wind up operations or run away from the scene. In fact, the police need not enter the picture at all, since the PNDT Act provides for an 'Appropriate Authority' to implement the law. Faulty interpretation of the law adds to biased implementation. For instance, registering a case under the archaic Section 213 of the Indian Penal Code of 1860 (though it has been superseded by the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act, 1971, which legalizes abortion) shifts the focus from sex-determination - which is the crime - to abortion, which is
not a crime.
Other misguided measures taken by the government include putting the onus on pregnant women rather than focusing on medical practitioners, the major culprits. For instance, an April news report titled "Pregnant women beware, Big Brother's watching", quotes Director (Health) Dr DPS Sandhu saying that all pregnant women in Punjab who already have two daughters will be placed under observation. If such a woman undergoes an abortion, she will have to satisfy the health authorities about the reasons for this. Women's health activists are up in arms about this, terming it a violation of fundamental reproductive rights and access to abortion.
That it is possible to stem the problem at the level of the medical practitioners who provide the tests, has been amply demonstrated in Haryana, which also has a low child sex ratio of 820. The focus here has rightly been on unscrupulous and commercial-minded doctors and not on the women who are themselves victims of family pressures, says Manmohan Sharma of the Voluntary Health Association of Punjab, pointing out that Punjab could learn from the Haryana experience.
Dr BS Dahiya who, in his capacity as Civil Surgeon in Faridabad, functioned as the Appropriate Authority under the PNDT Act, notes: "Doctors have forgotten their ethics, and are organized in a gangster-like mafia, making about Rs 20,000 (1 US$=Rs49) per day in commissions from ultrasonographers." Dahiya, with his rapid-action teams of decoy women patients and audio-visual documenting of evidence, has been at the forefront of nabbing doctors caught violating the PNDT Act. He managed to confiscate equipment, de-license several prominent doctors in Faridabad, Ballabgarh and Palwal and shut down their lucrative businesses. For his pains, Dahiya has been shunted out as the Director of Health Services, Haryana - ostensibly on a promotion, but in effect getting him out of the direct implementation of the Act.
Private doctors seem to be the main culprits in Punjab as well. Says Satwant Kaur, President of the Mahila Mandal (women's group) in Baladi Kalan village in Fatehgarh district, "Government dispensaries are virtually dysfunctional and people are forced to go to private doctors, who are unscrupulous and profit-mongering. Unless they are stopped, sex determination will continue."
Experts also blame the population control policy with its undue emphasis on the two-child norm. Says Dr Mira Shiva, Head of Public Policy Division of the Voluntary Health Association of India: "The proposed disincentives - such as denying the third child a ration card or enrolment in a government school, and denying the parents government jobs - would further encourage the practice of sex determination."
Researcher Dr Sabu George, one of the petitioners in the Supreme Court case quotes the China example to bolster the point. "Demographers have found that small families work against girls. In China, where sex-selection was encouraged for 20 years as a measure of population control, the scarcity of girls is so acute now that in 2000, China had to pass a law to tackle the growing problem of abduction of young women!"
With demographic projections estimating that there will be 40 per cent 'missing girls' in Punjab in the forthcoming generation, officials are getting panicky. Harjeet Taneja, the District Program Officer claims that the government is doing its best to raise awareness about the evil of sex-determination and female feticide. "We have organized functions when a girl is born to give the message that girls are as important as boys, coined slogans like "A Girl is Born! Make Merry!", done wall-writing and put up posters about the girl child."
As for the Akal Takht's hukumnama, one year down the line, the diktat seems to have had little impact. Religious diktats cannot make a difference when girls have a secondary status in society, say the village leaders. And as with the other steps to tackle the problem, the hukumnama is aimed more at the Sikh public than at the Sikh doctors who carry out sex-determination tests.
The villagers are skeptical about politically correct stances unsubstantiated by real changes. Says Paramjit Singh, sarpanch (village chief) of Khaniyan in Fatehgarh Block, "Unless girls are given equal
rights, no amount of sloganeering is going to help. Only concrete action like education, jobs, a proper status in society and legal rights will make a genuine difference to girls' status." Tanwant Kaur, Sarpanch of Salani village, concurs: "The dowry system has to stop, and daughters must be welcomed, not treated as a burden. We have to have a social movement to encourage boys to marry without dowry."
Punjab is the most obvious example that economic development does not necessarily lead to betterment in women's status. The state with one of the highest per capita incomes in the country at Rs 18,862, has a much lower sex ratio as compared with less 'developed' Bihar which has a per capita income of only Rs 5531, but a sex ratio of 921.
Unless there are material changes in women's status, it is unlikely that slogans and diktats will change the situation for girls, the fast-disappearing species in Punjab.