On September 20, Uttar Pradesh police arrested 43-year-old Pannalal in Budaun district after he slit opened his pregnant wife’s stomach with a sickle to know the baby’s gender. While his wife, who was in her seventh month of pregnancy, survived the horror with critical injuries, the baby died. The couple already had five daughters, and Pannalal was keen on having a boy.
A week after, a 19-year-old Dalit woman was brutally raped by four upper caste men in Hathras district in UP. She died in a Delhi hospital on September 29.
According to the victim’s family, the police put pressure on them to cremate her body immediately. When the family refused to do so, the police forcibly took the body in an ambulance to her village and cremated her past midnight. The police even kept the family and media away from the funeral pyre.
All this is happening amid the fanfare and hullabaloo by the government over one of its flagship schemes ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ (save girl child, educate girl child) scheme which Prime Minister Narendra Modi had launched in Panipat, Haryana, in 2015.
The scheme aimed at preventing sex-selective abortion, and promoting the growth of the girl child is one of the several programmes introduced by the national government since India officially banned sex-selective abortion, along with the identification of the gender of the foetus in 1994 to curb the falling sex ratio (ratio of females to 1,000 males in a population).
Selective data discrimination
At first look, the data shows that the schemes may have been successful, at least since the Modi government came to power.
One set of data presented by the Ministry of Women and Child Development (WCD) in Parliament on September 23, quoting the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), indicates that two-third of the states and Union territories in the country (27 of 36) improved their sex ratio between 2014 and 2019.
At the all India level, the sex ratio at birth improved from 918 in 2014-15 to 934 in 2019-20. States like Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh and Punjab which had a skewed sex ratio earlier, improved considerably in the last five years. But there’s a catch in this data, which we will explain as we proceed. States such as Karnataka, Nagaland, Bihar, Kerala, Manipur, Odisha and Tripura however, reported a decline in sex ratio.
Nagaland witnessed a steep fall from 948 — above the national average of 918 — to 913 in the same period. Officials there were perplexed at the drop and even conducted a survey to find out the reason.
“As a society, we are not known to discriminate against girl children. We conducted a study to find the drop, but we could not find any conclusive proof for the drop,” Dr Joel Koz, deputy director at the Directorate of Health & Family Welfare, Nagaland government, tells The Federal.
But since several grassroots workers working with the government in implementing various women welfare schemes cast aspersions about the MoHFW’s sex-ratio data, which takes into account only the institutional deliveries (which is 78.9% of the overall deliveries in India), The Federal also looked into the Sample Registration System (SRS) statistical report 2018, prepared by office of registrar general and census commissioner for the period 2012-2018.
According to the SRS data, the sex ratio across the country dropped to 899 in 2016-18 period from 906 in 2012-13. Two-thirds of the states for which the data was available went back on the sex ratio after showing a rise. At the all India level, States such as Haryana, Delhi, Gujarat, Karnataka, Maharashtra, Rajasthan and Uttarakhand dropped even further.
And many states showed discrepancies against the MoHFW data.
As per the MoHFW data, Haryana’s sex ratio improved from 876 to 924 between 2014 and 2019. But the SRS data for the same state indicates it dropped from 866 in 2012 to 843 in 2018.
Similar is the case with UP. While the MoHFW data showed a big improvement from 885 to 928, the SRS data showed only a marginal improvement of 869 to 880. Delhi dropped from 866 to 844 as per the SRS data while the MoHFW data showed a rise from 901 in 2014-15 to 915 in 2019-20.
A closer look at ground realities reveal a plethora of problems, resulting in gruesome crimes like the ones committed in Pannalal and Hathras.
For instance, the fund spent on the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (BBBP) scheme, except for 2019, was not more than 50% of the allocated amount over the years. Of that, only a half (that is, a quarter of the total allocated) was spent towards creating awareness through campaigns, advocacy programmes through arts and cultural activities, etc.
In Karnataka, Geeta (second name withheld as she fears speaking against the government), a superintendent at the women and child department that oversees the implementation of the BBBP activities, says the scheme is not implemented properly due to lack of funds.
“One reason is the political instability that led to delay in fund release. Also, with the state facing floods and drought, other schemes took importance, and the respective DCs (Deputy Commissioners) delayed releasing the funds for BBBP,” she says. However, she confirmed that no funds were diverted to other projects.
Shalini Florence, 32, a grassroots worker engaged in the implementation of the BBBP scheme in Karnataka’s Bidar, says her team of three members received a one-time grant of ₹25,000 for the scheme this year. They are tasked to go around different village panchayats in the district, one of the most backward in the country, and educate villagers about various government schemes for women and girl children through cultural activities, campaigns and road shows.
She says amid the social stigma against having a girl child and people in rural areas making girls work (in farms) at an early age, the lack of government support at the school level further discourages girls from going to schools.
“In many schools, toilets are locked and there’s no water facility. A teenage girl would certainly need the basic amenities and they cannot risk going to the toilet in the open. This is one of the reasons many drop out of schools,” Florence says.
The school dropout ratio at secondary level education across India was 17%, as per the 2015-16 School Education in India report.
Also, between 2014 and 2019, there has not been much improvement in the gross enrolment ratio in higher education. The growth was slower compared to 2011-2014. For female students, it increased from 19.4% in 2011 to 23.2% in 2014 to 26.4% in 2019, as per the MHRD data.
For Florence, who is part of the Mahila Shakti Kendra — a community initiative under the ministry of women and child development, a one-stop convergent support service for empowering rural women with opportunities for skill development, employment, digital literacy, health and nutrition — BBBP is one of the tasks.
With COVID deepening the economic crisis, Florence says many parents want to get their daughters married at an early age and BBBP scheme fails to act as there’s no support system for them to stick to schools. She said her team has stopped two such child-marriages since the lockdown started in March.
While she and her team comprising Yellama and Anjali visited as many villages as possible, she complains that the limited resources makes it difficult to do the advocacy programme in all villages, for which she says more funds and more grassroots organisations need to be engaged.
On the other hand, even as she and her team were engaging villages in programmes educating about the importance of a girl child, a fake BBBP scheme or scam was being run by scamster on parallel, wherein people were promised cash benefits of ₹2 lakhs to girl children once they attain the age of 18. People paid ₹50 and ₹100 and bought the forms.
The BBBP scheme focuses on challenging mindsets and the deep-rooted patriarchy in the society, besides the strict enforcement of Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act (for preventing sex-selective abortion), and advancing girls’ education. But the scheme has no provision for individual cash incentive/cash transfer components.
Such fraudulent activities were going on since 2016 and the government was aware of it. In some cases, FIRs were registered, while in others, the conmen ran away with the money.
In 2017, the Centre acknowledged the problem and swung into action, but only directed the states to control it. The Women and Child Development (WCD) ministry reported that such fraudulent activities were reported across Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Punjab, Uttarakhand, Delhi, Himachal Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal and other states.
Lack of data
Dr Neelam Singh, a gynaecologist and founder of Vatsalya, an NGO that works to bring down sex-selective abortions and declining sex ratio since 1995 in Uttar Pradesh, says the lack of data is one of the major drawbacks of the system.
In UP, she says the institutional births are about 60%, and in some rural areas, it goes down to around 30% — in which case, as per her understanding, “the killing of girl children in the private sector and non-institutionalised deliveries go unchecked and underreported”.
Singh was part of the national task force for implementing the BBBP scheme in the initial years.
“In many districts, the in-charge officers were not even submitting detailed programme reports as mandated. All they were doing was sending the utilisation report. So it was difficult to track the success of the project,” she says.
With the Centre saying it has not set any deadline for achieving 100% institutional births in the country, the effective implementation of the PCPNDT Act is also at stake.
Dr Rajesh Kumar, in-charge of PCPNDT Act in Bihar, says they haven’t conducted raids this year due to lack of resources even as others states like Maharashtra and Rajasthan are conducting random raids at ultrasound centres that help in determining the the sex of the child, which often are misused.
“In Rajasthan, the government conducts decoy operations to catch medical practitioners involved in sex determination racket. We need resources (human and financial) to conduct such raids, which we lack now,” Kumar says. “Beyond BBBP scheme, effective implementation of PCPNDT (Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act) will help in controlling the killing of girl children.”
Disruption in service
With the COVID crisis, Neelam Singh also fears that the health workers involved in the implementation of the project would be assigned COVID tasks and BBBP would certainly take a backseat at a time when it’s actually required to be strengthened.
Besides, with the disruption of supply of contraceptives during the lockdown period, she says it would lead to unintended pregnancies. And this inturn would increase the thought of ‘unwantedness of the girl child’ in people’s mind.
“I am quite worried about UP. There’s a huge leadership crisis and no coordination between the various nodal agencies in the education, health and family welfare departments. So the implementation would not be effective considering the states get only a fraction of the budgeted allocation for the scheme,” she says.