Murder Without Bloody Hands

August 15 is celebrated annually as the anniversary of our political independence. But this year, another date - August 5 - marks a landmark in our progress towards independence of another kind, in terms of gender equity. In all probability however, this date will go largely unnoticed, even though it concerns 495 million female citizens.

August 5 was the deadline fixed by the Supreme Court for all state governments to submit reports on action taken -- for impounding unregistered ultrasound machines being used in diagnostic centers to find out the sex of the unborn child. These centers have been facilitating the practice of terminating pregnancies when a female fetus is detected.

Socio-cultural attitudes that glorify sons and treat the birth of a daughter as a calamity have in recent years led to the hijacking of sophisticated modern technology for detecting the sex of the fetus so that female embryos can be aborted. Last year's Census figures spotlighted this fact. Even in economically prosperous states like Haryana and Punjab, the sex ratio has dramatically declined. It is 850 in Haryana, down from 865 in 1991, and 874 in Punjab, down from 882 a decade earlier. Of the 10 districts in the country where the sex ratio has fallen below 800, seven belong to Punjab and three to Haryana.

A declining sex ratio is an alarming social signal. In the natural order of things, the number of females born should slightly exceed that of males. Female infanticide - whether by underfeeding, poisoning or suffocating - contributes to a skewed sex ratio. The availability of sex determination
tests makes the situation worse. Couples normally hesitant to carry out infanticide (after a child is born), find it easier to opt for medical termination of pregnancy (MTP) which is legal.

Following a furore by activists against the practice of pre-natal diagnosis, the state of Maharashtra introduced a ban on sex determination tests in 1986. But this restriction did not have the desired result. Women started going - or being taken - to adjacent states like Gujarat for the same test. A Central legislation enacted in 1994 prohibiting pre-natal sex determination, was the result of sustained lobbying by women's organizations all over the country.

In the monsoon session of Parliament this year, a Bill to amend the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PNDT) Act of 1994 is to be introduced. The Bill seeks to give more teeth to implementing agencies in checking the illegal practice of sex determination, and also to bring pre-conception sex-selection into the ambit of the Act.

Doctors have been up in arms over the proposed amendments: they claim their legitimate medical practice will be adversely affected. But women's groups who have submitted a petition to several Rajya Sabha (Upper House) Members of Parliament, urge a quick passage of the Bill. These groups hold the doctors' objections as attempts to mislead the public. The proposed amendments seek to streamline the registration of ultrasound machines - a process that will doubtless reduce unbridled moneymaking from sex-determination tests.

The task for the women's groups does not end even if the Bill does come through - because implementation is another story altogether. The state governments were galvanized into action by the Supreme Court only after a petition was filed by several non-governmental organizations (NGOs). Even so, the political will to accede to the spirit of the law is lacking. This is exemplified by the Supreme Court order of April 30, 2002, which fined the Uttar Pradesh government a paltry Rs 5,000 (1US$=Rs49) for not complying with its orders to seize unregistered ultrasound machines being
used for sex determination.

On April 9, the state had given an undertaking that the court's orders would be complied with "within 15 days". But this did not happen. The state authorities blatantly disregarded the Supreme Court order, and their own solemn promise. The judges slapped a nominal fine of Rs 10,000 -- which
would go to the Legal Aid Services fund. The counsel for the state government pleaded that the state "did not have the money" and that the fine should be reduced to Rs 5,000. What deserves notice here is not the fine itself or the amount of fine imposed - it is the state government's reaction to the penalty.

Ponder over this: the state government's budget runs into several hundred millions and a paltry penalty of Rs 10,000 is contested on the grounds that there is "no money". This, while hundreds of official cars used by ministers and bureaucrats guzzle fuel worth hundreds of thousands - paid for by the public exchequer - for errands like receiving and seeing off VIPs at airports, or sundry functions. A similar argument is not applied, ever, to clear VIPs' bills for non-productive expenditure.

What comes through is the utter disregard for, and open defiance of Supreme Court directives meant for promoting Constitutional promises like the basic right to life - being denied to born and unborn female babies - and the right to equality irrespective of sex.

The August 5 deadline was a means of promoting these basic rights, by discouraging practices like sex determination. It was a means of fostering "independence" for individuals, irrespective of sex. Activists already know that without pervasive attitudinal changes among the citizenry (including those in charge of enforcement of the law), true independence in terms of a right to life and dignity will continue to evade the female half of the population. And pregnancies known to carry unborn girls will continue to be terminated.


More by :  Sakuntala Narsimhan

Top | Women

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