Remember ME - You Me and Dementia

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Case of the missing daughter

There are just 927 girls for 1000 boys in the country. And in some states like Punjab (798) and Haryana (820), the sex ratio has sunk to frighteningly low levels. The cash scheme being launched today to correct this unhealthy situation may meet with a measure of success in rural areas, but something more drastic would be required to check this trend in urban India, says Aditi Tandon

THE girl child of India never ceases to be in the news. Earlier this week, a two-year-old was killed by her father Lakhwinder Singh Kahlon, a construction worker, in suburban Vancouver. The father detested having a third daughter so decided to slit her throat when his wife was away to drop the other two girls to school.

Unwanted — that’s the plight of the girl child in many parts of India. It doesn’t quite matter where she lives — in a shanty or mansion, a village or city, India or Canada — she’s often a minority, perched precariously between life and death. In other terms, the crisis is called "sex ratio imbalance".

The trend might just have worsened, considering that the Government of India has come up with fresh initiatives to save India’s dying daughters. Last year alone, the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) framed several schemes like the Integrated Child Protection Scheme (ICPS) to protect girls, among all children. It also set up the National Commission for Protection of Child Rights (NCPCR) to implement child-related legislations, and now it has announced a radical new "cash transfer scheme" for families to allow their daughters to live and flourish.

To be launched today, the scheme seeks to arrest a plummeting sex ratio (now 933), particularly the child sex ratio (CSR), which stands at a meagre 927 for the country. Add to that the alarm caused by a recent UNICEF report, which says about 50 million girls are missing from India’s population. The study blames systemic gender discrimination for the vacuum in society — a trend reflected by the country’s census data as well.

Decline in child sex ratio

More worrisome however is the drastic fall in the CSR for the age group zero to six years. A recent study by the United Nations Fund for Population Activities (UNFPA), India recorded more than 50-point decline in the CSR in 70 districts in 16 states and UTs between 1991 and 2001. The overall sex ratio is, naturally, no better. As per the 2005 data, India had 107.5 males per 100 females; the highest girl deficit being reported from northern states, many of which have high female literacy levels and are in the frontline of economic progress.

Punjab continues to sit at the top of India’s female foeticide map, with a sex ratio of 798, then come Haryana 820, Chandigarh 845, Delhi 868, Gujarat 883, Himachal 896, and Uttarakhand 908. Although some of these states improved their sex ratios marginally, they’ve a long way to set the imbalance right. The worst are Punjab and Haryana, which account for the 10 districts with the lowest sex ratio in India. That’s not all. Nine of the 10 districts identified for their abysmally low CSR also fall in Punjab and Haryana. Just one — Salem — is in Tamil Nadu; three — Sonepat, Ambala and Kurukshetra — are in Haryana; the rest — Amritsar, Mansa, Gurdaspur, Fatehgarh Sahib, Bathinda, Kapurthala and Patiala — are in Punjab. It is a matter of concern for policy-makers that all these districts are located close to urban centres.

In fact, the lowest CSR has been reported in Kurukshetra. Here, Shahabad and Thanesar blocks continue to be vulnerable, with rural and urban Shahabad reporting shockingly low CSR of 743 and 718, respectively. Rural Thanesar’s CSR is 771 as against the urban 768. The health authorities are troubled over another reason — Haryana’s total fertility rate is falling drastically. It declined from four during NFHS I (National Family Health Survey) to 2.69 in NFHS-III.

This is a dangerous situation, says Sunil Gulati, Director, Census Operations, Haryana and Chandigarh. He quotes a 1997 study which shows that women’s future decisions to accept contraception are linked to the number of living sons among her surviving children.

Drive against foeticide

It was to target these negative attitudes towards the girl child in Haryana that the National Institute of Public Cooperation and Child Development (NIPCCD), New Delhi, recently launched its campaign against female foeticide from Kurukshetra. Sulochana Vasudevan, joint director with the NIPCCD, says, "The fertility rate decline appears to be affecting the girls more. Also, the assumption that the sex ratio will improve with improved literacy appears fallacious. In Haryana, for instance, Panchkula has a very poor sex ratio but is on the top in terms of literacy."

But the Centre realises this is easier said than done. Waking up to the stark links between poverty and female foeticide, the WCD Ministry has decided to offer cash and insurance incentives to poor families, which view girls as ‘perpetual debts’. The scheme is likely to benefit, if the findings of a 1983 study by Dyson and Moore are anything to go by. This study links strong preferences for sons in India to relatively low social status and limited autonomy of women.

Few convictions

With these findings as the base, Sunil Gulati recently examined the economic aspects of sex ratio and found that there was a positive correlation between amenities affecting the status of women and sex ratio. "Amenities data for 46 districts in North India and 593 districts of India was subjected to co-relational and regression analysis. We found that villages with lack of amenities like rooms, drainage, bathrooms, telephone, proper cooking fuel, clean drinking water source, bank account, etc, had very poor sex ratio. Seventyeight per cent stoves in Haryana’s rural households haven’t been cleaned in ages," says Gulati, stressing the need for government policies that enhance the status of women. "That coupled with strict implementation of the PCPNDT (Preconception and Prenatal Diagnostic Techniques) Act, 1994, can help," he says.

If only the Act could be implemented in the right spirit. So far, only 430 prosecutions have happened under the Act in India, says Dr I.D. Kaur, in charge of the PNDT, Ministry of Health. Of these, 97 prosecutions have taken place in Punjab and 35 in Haryana. Up to December last year, only 33,180 bodies were registered under the Act; of these 64 per cent were ultrasound clinics and imaging centres — the trouble-makers which continue to conduct sex-determination tests on the sly.

Recently, the Nayagarh police in Orissa recovered 30 foetuses, stunning the nation into silence yet again. The NCPCR immediately sent its team to raid ultrasound clinics in the area. Sandhya Bajaj, member NCPCR, who headed the committee, says, "We found that doctors in the area had even been aborting male foetuses in their greed for money." In an unprecedented move, the WCD Ministry got the licences of 10 erring Orissa doctors cancelled. But such implementation is rare. In Punjab and Haryana, only eight and four convictions, respectively, under the Act have happened so far.

Statistics say one-third of the 12 million girls born every year in India die in their first year; 25 per cent don’t survive beyond 15 years. These figures are also mirrored in the recent brutal attacks on girl children. The spine-chilling news of members of Lambada tribal community in Ranga Reddy district (Andhra Pradesh) starving 11 newborn girls to death is still fresh in public memory. The girls were wrapped up in cloth pieces and left to die. Most of these were the third or fourth daughters of their
parents, who couldn’t afford to pay dowry.

Expectedly, the NCPCR demanded an inquiry into the incident. But chairperson Shanta Sinha agrees, "Such killings indicate a collapse of institutions designed to protect children. We need better policies and sincere programmes to save girls. To begin with, we will ask the Medical Council of India to cancel licences of medical practitioners caught conducting sex-determination tests. We also plan public hearings and regional conferences across India to frame new strategies to correct sex-ratio imbalances."

Cash incentive

Last week, the NCRPR held its first conference on female foeticide in Chandigarh. The idea was to target the worst-hit areas first. But the point is whether conferences can change mindsets where the son is viewed as a "profitable proposition" and the daughter as "lifetime expense". May be the WCD Ministry’s condition cash transfer scheme has answers.

A sequel to the non-starter Balika Samriddhi Yojana of 1997 in which cash payments to poor families were taking long to be disbursed, the new scheme offers money to parents who fulfil four conditions linked to a girl’s survival and welfare. These are — ensuring her birth and registering it, completing her immunisation, educating her and delaying her marriage till 18 years.

The scheme will be launched as a pilot in 10 economically backward blocks of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Bihar and Orissa. One prosperous block (Punjab’s Sirhind in Fategarh Sahib, with the lowest female ratio in India) has been included to compare results of cash offers in poor and rich areas vis-`E0-vis impacts on sex ratio. The Eleventh Five Year Plan has already provided Rs 9.11 crore to benefit 99,000 girls in the current year under the scheme.

Besides, the Centre is developing a group-housing scheme worth Rs 1 lakh with the LIC. "We will have different premium rates depending on whether the girl’s mother is dead or disabled. One lakh will be given to a girl only after she attains 18 years. Every girl entering secondary school will also get a solar lantern from the Ministry of Non-conventional Energy," says Nandita Mishra, Joint Secretary, WCD Ministry.

Aim to change mindset

The first of its kind in the country, the conditional cash transfer scheme seeks to achieve two objectives – the tangible aim of providing staggered financial incentives to families to retain the girl child and look after her; and the intangible aim of changing mindsets by linking cash to the girl’s well-being and projecting her as an asset. The WCD Ministry will monitor the scheme with the help of the World Bank.

While this might work for poor India, urban India might well require something even more drastic given its aversion for daughters. Census data shows how the CSR in urban areas is lower (903) than rural (934); overall being 927. The ratio is better in backward communities — 938 among SCs; 973 among STs and 947 in backward districts. Among communities, Sikhs have the lowest sex ratio at 786, followed by Jains 870, Hindus 925, Muslims 950 and Christians 964.

The data clearly suggests complex linkages between sex ratio and socio-economic factors. It further reflects the need for wider strategies to balance the male-female population. There already is growing evidence of higher rate of crime against women in areas with low sex ratio. The WCD Ministry’s records are replete with case studies involving girls trafficked for sex, marriage and polyandry. And yet, allocation for children was reduced in the current Budget. HAQ, an NGO working with children, estimates that for every Rs 100 in the Budget, a paltry Rs 4.80 has been promised for children. It’s time perhaps for serious soul-searching.


Forget yourself for others, and others will never forget you.

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