India's silent genocide
How economic growth is increasing the number of baby girls being aborted, strangled or tossed in the trash — and why we don't care. Samar Halarnkar writes.columns Updated: Jul 23, 2011 19:51 IST
I remember being disturbed enough to stop watching the 2003 Hindi movie Matrubhumi(motherland).
Set in the future, it depicted an Indian village populated only by men. It gets that way after a man, yearning for a boy, publicly drowns his newborn girl in a vat of milk, sparking a custom that wipes out women. So the men watch porn, fornicate with farm animals. A father marries his five sons to a woman from the outside and the six men take turns raping her. Eventually more men in the village get involved. She is tied to the cow shed and gangraped every night.
Matrubhumi was excessively brutal, I thought, but it addressed a silent, growing genocide that emerging India prefers to ignore.
At least 1,370 girls are aborted every day in India. For perspective, some 250 Indians die every day in road accidents. Terrorists killed about six people, on an average, every day in 2009. In the last two decades of economic progress, 10 million girls have died before being born. More are strangled, slowly starved or simply tossed in the trash.
This is mass murder on a scale unseen in any other country this century. Only China runs us close. The overall Indian sex ratio should be at least 950 women to 1,000 men (Nature produces more males than females as boys are more vulnerable to infant diseases than girls). But the child sex ratio, the number of girls to every 1,000 boys in the age group zero to six, has dropped from 1,010 girls in 1941 to 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001, according to census figures. The 2011 census will reveal a further decline based on mostly disturbing trends.
First, explosive economic growth has driven survival rates of girls under six in northern India to an all-time low. Families are shrinking, but in doing so they are aborting more girls than ever, says a study, funded by the charity ActionAid, across five northern states.
"It was a girl, we paid Rs1,200 and got it over with," was one response researchers got from a middle-class family in Himachal Pradesh, the only northern state with an acceptable sex ratio (968).
Second, the spread of ultrasound machines that can determine the sex of a foetus has hastened the killing of girls since the 1980s. A nationwide ban on sex-selective abortion has failed. Ravinder Kaur, a sociology professor at the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi, told me how in the formerly dacoit-infested district of Morena in Madhya Pradesh she found portable ultrasound machines in villages bereft of basic healthcare.
Third, relatively prosperous urban areas are killing more girls than rural areas. The sex ratio in rural India is 946; in urban India it is 900. Predominantly rural and poor Chhattisgarh (989) and Orissa (972) are doing fine. In the richest state, Punjab, the sex ratio at birth, as revealed by the 2006 National Family Health Survey, had declined to 776 from 793 in 2001 (urban Punjab: 761). Neighbouring, and equally prosperous, Haryana boasts India’s worst sex ratio: 861 women for every 1,000 men.
The north is producing millions of excess young men. Crime rates are high and rising. So is violence against women. "Our community is known for female foeticide," observed Commonwealth discus-throw champion Krishna Poonia, referring to her upper-class, prosperous Jat community.
Fourth, there is hope in the southern states and isolated pockets elsewhere. Tamil Nadu has India's best sex ratio with 1,058 women for every 1,000 men. Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Kerala are doing well. For those who believe killing girls is an exclusively northern problem, Maharashtra (922) and Gujarat (920) are cause for great worry. South Mumbai, one of India's richest areas, has one of its worst sex ratios. In the east, West Bengal is rapidly improving. Highly educated Mizoram (935) is not doing well, while poorer Manipur (978) is well above the norm.
Killings in the south have receded, but regressive attitudes remain. A leading Bangalore lawyer, who wanted to send her daughter to an expensive, top-grade school, told me this reaction from her upper-class friend: "We sent our son there, not our daughter. Why do you want to spend so much money on a girl?" Dowries in the south are among the highest in India.
The cycle of discrimination is reinforced by the subtle degradation of women in the popular media, from the discriminatory (women performing subservient, domestic roles in advertisements) to the shameful. I refer you to Rishton Se Badhi Pratha (customs are greater than relationships), one of many regressive but popular television serials. "The explicit scenes of torture being inflicted on a female character is (sic) barbaric," said the ministry of information and broadcasting in a notice to the channel Colors last month.
Often, it' women who abuse and kill their own. Educated or not, many inherit odious traditions from their mothers. Nearly 80% of girls in Patiala's higher secondary schools did not want a girl, noted a 2010 study by paediatric doctor Harshinder Kaur.
The horrors of India's silent genocide were reflected last year by Justices Pradeep Nandrajog and Suresh Kait of the Delhi High Court. "The moral regression of the people of India, ie Bharat, has not been crippled by the penal laws," the judges said after the trial of a labourer's wife (a child bride) who strangled her daughter in a Delhi hospital. "She was a baby girl and her arrival was a calamity, she was a poor little thing and the blocking of a puff of wind was enough to put her out. Society had scripted her obituary much before she was born. Her mother only published it."