When Sunil Jaglan had a daughter in January 2012, he offered Rs 2,000 to the hospital nurses. They refused and said Rs 100 would be fine. “If it was a boy, we would have taken it,” they said.
Jaglan – the sarpanch of Jind’s Bibipur village – was disturbed. When he got back home, he kept an eye on birth records; he saw that 59 boys were born in the village that year while only 37 girls were born. There were also 69 men above the age of 30 who were unmarried.
He met with women elders to understand the anomaly; the answer was obvious. “They were first uncomfortable and then said clearly that a boy carries on the family name, the ‘vansh’, the girls don’t.” What was left unsaid was that girls were thus not allowed to be born.
Haryana has confronted the issue of female foeticide for years now, but Jaglan made it the centre-piece of his work. He organised a Maha-Panchayat in July 2012, where he claims the slogan of Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao, was first given. Khaps, increasingly synonymous with acts of grave injustice against women, came together to call for the protection of the girl child. And then, in the middle of 2015, Jaglan went to watch Bajrangi Bhaijan. Inspired, he started a campaign, Selfie with Daughter.
Little did he know that Prime Minister Narendra Modi would address the issue in his Mann ki Baat monthly broadcast. The PM encouraged his listeners to post selfies with daughter, and social media was flooded. Jaglan was ecstatic.
Over the years, each government has paid attention to the declining sex ratio in India. But Modi has given it both high-levels of attention, and directly placed the responsibility on citizens and tried to reach out to them with easy to understand, powerful messages. During his election campaign, Modi spoke of the need to tackle the problem.
In January 2015, he addressed a conference in Panipat where he said as the PM of India, he was begging citizens to save their daughters. The Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign was launched here.
Jaglan credits Modi for making the issue of foeticide and sex ratio central in Indian public discourse. “The PM personally feels strongly about it.” But he thinks that Modi’s concern has not quite percolated down the system.
Thus is the classic Indian quandary – strong on policy commitment, weak in seeing it through implementation.
“Bureaucrats still think it is something you need to speak on Women’s Day on March 8 rather than sustain as a permanent campaign,” says Jaglan.
Instead, he suggests catching people young, making it a part of school textbooks and working with young married couples to make a change in the next decade.
There is some evidence of this in Bibipur’s government school for girls.
A group of Class 9 students were sitting outside after finishing class. When asked whether they were familiar with foeticide, a student said, “Yes, when a child is killed in the womb.” They recited poems and spoke out against the practice.
Santosh, a social studies teacher, said that there is both change and continuity of the practice.
“There is a change among many parents. It isn’t the old time when girls are given less food at home or deprived of education once they are born. But this old mindset of seeing girls as a liability among some persists.”
Things have improved, albeit marginally, but women contend with being objectified in more ways than one.
The most palpable sense that women are seen as instruments is in village politics. Jaglan had his wife stand in the recent panchayat elections, who lost.
Himmat Singh, another local leader, is recognised as the Sarpanch among locals. The fact though is that his daughter-in-law is the actual sarpanch. But all matters are dealt with by Singh. The new sarpanch has also just had a child, and for a month will be in purdah and cannot meet outsiders.
This paradox – of a village at the forefront of improving its sex ratio still treating women as mere instruments – lies at the heart of Modi’s challenge. How he will use his three years at the helm to reform the gender equation is to be seen.