Last week, reports of a father burying alive his 17-day-old baby girl in Villupuram district of Tamil Nadu rocked the state. The case of infanticide has turned the spotlight on the state’s fight, as it struggles to stabilise sex ratio at birth.
At a time when states like Haryana, that have grappled for long with illegal sex determination followed by female foeticide, have begun to show improvement most recently from 871 in 2015 to 914 in 2018, Tamil Nadu, considered among the frontrunners, continues to wage a long battle.
The state with a sex ratio of 940 girls per 1,000 boys (from April till September 2019), has an inconsistent sex ratio across districts. While districts like Thiruvannamalai which have abysmal ratios have been looking up, Villupuram, where the infanticide took place, is unable to stabilise with a fall in 13 points when compared to last year, at 915. Nilgiris leads the list with a whopping 1,013, while Dharmapuri, Kancheepuram, and Nagapattinam are yet to cross 900. As many as 14 districts fare below the state average.
Among the top, but no let up
Gaps in the monitoring system and the lack of focused policies apart from failure to bring about a societal change over the preference for boys are key factors that have prolonged the fight, say experts.
Dr K Kolandaisamy, director, Public Health, says that the legal action taken against offences like sex determination is the way ahead. “The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PCPNDT Act), 1994 strictly prohibits disclosure of sex of the foetus. Those flouting the rule should be dealt without mercy. We have taken strict measures against doctors and scan centres in places like Kallakurichi in the past.”
Yet, the spread of illegal scanning centres and quacks involved in abortion clinics have been a cause of concern, says M Kamalakannan, superintendent, Directorate of Medical Services. He says, “A woman named Anandhi was arrested for running an illegal scanning centre in Thiruvannamalai, carrying out sex determination tests and sex-selective abortions, in 2016. Now, after release, we have learned that she has set up a facility elsewhere.”
Kamalakannan also maintains that regular awareness meets are being conducted in several parts of the state against such practices. “We are not leaving out any centre — legal or illegal — that could be violating laws,” he says.
Why not register sex to track?
In 2016, Union Minister Maneka Gandhi had created a storm when she suggested that gender should be ascertained and registered for tracking by officials concerned. Soon, a Maharashtra Assembly Committee too mooted a similar move. The Indian Society of Clinical Sonologists had welcomed the move, saying that the existing PCPNDT Act views sonologists as potential criminals. However, activists’ countered the suggestion saying that in the absence of a strong system, a big move like this would be counterproductive.
Dr Kolandasamy says that the existing system can be effective when it optimally utilised. “There are anganwadi workers and village health nurses who can track the pregnancies. We also need a multidimensional approach that looks at empowering girls and women — from their education to income generation for them, addressing gaps in male and female literacy rates to counter the issue.”
We are far from ending the preference for the boy child, says Christuraj S, lawyer and district coordinator, Salem, Unicef. “The message has to be time and again reiterated to ensure that there is no discrimination. Any amount of law and system won’t work till the shift in attitudes takes place,” he says.
Good practices can show results
Every 15 days, KS Kandasamy, collector of Thiruvannamalai, sits with scan centres data to ensure that there is no discrepancy to zero in on illegal scans and sex-selective abortions. He says, “Every time we hear of illegal abortions, we send a decoy to catch them red-handed. We keep a tab on quacks to ensure that they do not endanger the lives of expectant mothers, trying to abort the foetus.”
Thiruvannamalai which had a skewed ratio till about four years ago at 871, is at 917 this year. The progress was recognised and awarded this year under the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Programme by the Ministry of Women and Child Development.
The primary health centre workers too are instructed to visit the homes of mothers when they stop coming for their monthly check-ups especially in the third or fourth month when sex determination can be done. “One also has to look into late registration of pregnancies under the central scheme, beyond 12 weeks. In such cases, a majority of them are boys,” he says. He, however, says that the biggest challenge is to change the mindset of a mother in the rural belt.