The widespread use of illegal tests to determine the sex of an unborn child is fuelling a rise in female foeticide cases in India, social activists and officials said on Tuesday.
Sex determination tests through techniques such as ultrasonography and amniocentesis are banned in India, but female foetuses are still commonly killed in some regions where a preference for sons runs deep.
As a result, the government says around 10 million girls have been killed by their parents -- either before or immediately after birth -- over the past 20 years.
"Sex selection has been the main culprit for the declining female child ratio in the country," Pravir Krishna, a senior official from the ministry of health, said at a meeting on the role of sex selection tests in the killing of female foetuses.
"Technology has given us a lot of benefits, but this is one aspect of technology which has given us a serious problem."
Last month, police discovered 30 polythene bags stuffed with the body parts of female foetuses and newly born babies in a abandoned well near a clinic in eastern India, sparking protests.
In most parts of the country, many people see boys as breadwinners who will look after their parents when they grow up but view daughters as liabilities for whom they will have to pay huge dowries to get married off.
Since technology for monitoring the health of a foetus started in India in the 1980s, many clinics and hospitals have misused it to determine the gender of unborn children, at the request of couples.
If the foetus is found to be a girl, it is often aborted.
Over the last four decades, the child sex ratio has been declining, with the sharpest fall from 1981 onwards.
A 2001 census found there were 927 girls for every 1,000 boys in the age group of six-years-old or below, compared to 945 to 1,000 in 1991.
Social activists say authorities have been slow to implement legislation that has been in force since 1996.
There have been only two convictions -- a fine of 300 rupees ($7) and another fine of 4,000 rupees ($98) -- from over 400 cases lodged under the Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques Act.
GIRLS SEEN EXPENDABLE
"Is 300 rupees the cost of a girl in India?" asked Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre of Social Research, a New Delhi-based think-tank promoting women's empowerment.
"We are obviously not doing enough as we would see many, many more convictions being made."
Officials said it was not easy to catch offenders -- the agents, parents and doctors -- as the tests and subsequent abortions take place in private clinics in a clandestine manner.
Accused people can only be charged when there is concrete evidence, they added.
Officials said they planned to amend the law and add stiffer penalties -- raising sentences from three years to five years in jail and the maximum fine of 10,000 rupees ($240) to 50,000 rupees ($1,215) -- and step up enforcement.