The Chambal region of the Indian state of Madhya Pradesh was notorious for its dacoits, or armed robbers. Now, the cause for terror is the low sex ratio in this area of the state. This threat can be traced to the falling sex ratio of the region. While the national average of women per 1,000 men is 933, and the state's figure is 920, the Chambal region shockingly has only 400 women per 1,000 men in some villages. This, despite a two-and-a-half fold increase in the district's population over the last five decades, and the PNDT Act (Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques [Regulation and Prevention of Misuse] Act) having come into force in 1994.
The main reason for the grim sex ratio is the practice of female infanticide and female feticide. Sachin Kumar Jain of Right to Food Campaign, an NGO working in the area, says that this practice stems from the desire for a male child and the belief that a girl child is an economic burden. The flourishing of sex determination facilities under the veil of ultrasound or sonography clinics has only made the gender-specific killings more extensive.
Ironically, the purpose of the PNDT Act is to prevent the misuse of such pre-natal diagnostic techniques for the purpose of pre-natal sex determination leading to female feticide. Every offense under this Act is 'cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable'.
Yet, despite the legal deterrent, Chambal seems to tremble at nothing less than a dacoit.
The Morena district has recently witnessed an unusual surge in the number of clinics with significant funding being spent on modern ultrasound machines and other medical testing facilities that mushroom all over this arid town. Signboards prominently announcing 'sex determination is not done here and female feticide is a crime punishable under the law' can be seen outside every clinic. Uncannily, most of these dubious clinics are doing precisely that.
"It is ironic that sex determination and abortion are being done in most of these clinics displaying these boards," points out a local journalist, KN Manish.
Take the case of the Morena district. In addition to the around 14 private nursing homes in the district, there are an estimated 23 sonography centers as well. The district administration had issued show cause notices to many clinics for violating the PNDT Act. In some cases, licenses were cancelled, but a few managed to get their licenses renewed.
A study conducted by the state's Department of Woman and Child Development throws light on just how grim the situation is in Madhya Pradesh. According to the study, the sex ratio in 50 villages of the Morena district is between 509 and 800 per 1,000 men. In 18 villages of Porsa, it is between 716 and 800. In 24 villages of Sabalgarh, it is between 631 and 800. In 70 villages of Jaura, the ratio is between 458 and 800. In 41 villages of Kolaras, it is between 382 and 800. In 39 villages of Pahargarh, it is between 384 and 800, while in 55 villages of Ambah, the sex ratio is between 448 and 800 per 1,000 men.
Manohar Agnani, of the Shivpuri district, says: "The falling number of girls is alarming. In some places the number of girls is startlingly low. If the same trend persists, the day is not far when there will be no girls left at all." According to reports, in the village of Sihori (Morena district), of the 26 children born in the last year, surprisingly only six were girls.
Female infanticide is also a contributing factor. There have been cases where families have stuffed the tiny mouth of a newborn girl with tobacco or salt. Others have not let the new mother nurse the hungry child.
The primary reason for people using such ghastly methods is that girls are considered a financial liability and an inferior species. Plus, the desire for a male child is obsessive, in what is clearly a feudal, patriarchal and male-dominated society.
The administration plans to tackle the mindset and disturbing sex ratio is by encouraging religious leaders to speak to communities. At a meeting of the State Supervisory Board formed under the PNDT Act, Madhya Pradesh Health Minister Ajay Bishnoi directed that cases against sonography centers engaged in sex determination should be directly filed in court so that erring centers could be punished quickly. He also said that it was mandatory for institutions registered under the PNDT Act to submit records with the Chief Medical and Health Officer every month, and that strict action should be taken against those not complying with the rules.
All senior officials and activists point out that if these trends continue then the day is not far off when there will be no girls in this district. This will eventually result in trafficking of girls from other states, or buying them off by doling out paltry sums, especially for poor girls and women, and turning them into domestic slaves plus wives, as is currently widespread across the rural interiors of Punjab and Haryana.
Several NGOs are working in the area of advocacy by organizing street plays in villages to inform people about the importance of girls and women. It remains to be seen whether all these initiatives bear fruit. To put in check the alarming rise in female feticide, the Central government has planned a "cradle scheme" for abandoned girl children. Under the Palna or cradle scheme, the government is opening centers in each district where parents can leave their daughters if they do not want to bring them up themselves.
"We are putting a cradle, or Palna, in every district headquarters. What we are saying to the people is have your children, don't kill them. And if you don't want a girl child, leave her to us," Minister of State for Women and Child Development, Renuka Chowdhury announced a few months back. "We will bring up the children. But don't kill them because there really is a crisis situation," she said.
Chowdhury said the parents, even if they were abandoning their daughters, were likely to have a change of heart later. "Parents who abandon children do come back and take them back." She explained that the government was treating the drop in sex ratio as an issue of national emergency and quoted the shocking figure of ten million as the number of girls who have been killed as fetuses in the country in the last two decades.
"It is a matter of international and national shame for us that India, with a growth of nine percent, still kills its daughters," Chowdhury said in an interview.