Three months ago, Mahesh Lohar and his pregnant wife Savita (names changed) went to a sonography clinic in this town. The parents of two daughters wanted to find out if this time, it would be a boy. The doctor took a fee of Rs 4,500, carried out the procedure and informed the couple the fetus was male.
“I felt a surge of happiness,” says Lohar, 28, a grain farmer and metal-parts dealer. “Who will inherit my farm and business? A son, not my two daughters.”
In India, determining the sex of an unborn child is an offence that can land parents and doctors in jail for three years. Lohar knows he has broken the law. So he spoke to HT on the condition that his real name and that of his village be kept secret. He also refused to name the clinic. “How can I tell you its name? I benefited from going there. Shouldn’t others also?”
Welcome to Maharashtra’s murky world of illegal sex determination and female feticide. Here, scores of expectant parents and unscrupulous doctors determine the sex of fetuses with the idea of killing them, if they are girls.
According to the Union Health Ministry, 950 girls ought to be born for every 1,000 boys, in the absence of social discrimination and given that male fetuses are medically more robust. But in Maharashtra, only 807 girls were born for 1,000 boys in 2003, down from 818 in 2001. Crunch government data on total birth registrations for 2001, 2002 and 2003 (the most recent data available) and the full horror unfolds: more than four lakh female fetuses were aborted in three years; that’s over a lakh a year.
The state’s health department officials acknowledge they have no grip on the scale of the problem. “We cannot accurately say what the ratios are now since we are still collating figures for 2004,” says Dr Prakash Doke, head of the state health directorate, adding: “But we are applying the law.” Yet, live monthly data from some districts indicates the problem has worsened. In Solapur, the birth registration ratio has plummeted to 720:1,000 for the first three months of 2007 from 821 in 2003.
Summing it up as “culpable homicide”, Solapur collector Govind Raj says: “The situation is so bad that authorities must monitor birth figures on a monthly basis. We cannot wait till the next census comes.”
An astonishing fact is that in Maharashtra — as in Punjab, Haryana and Delhi — the most prosperous districts are the worst offenders. From Jalgaon in the north to Kolhapur in the south, there are three factors for this discrimination, says experts. One, families are getting smaller, so those who want a boy have fewer chances to make sure they do. Two, technology has made screening easier. And three, many families can afford tests and abortions.
Maharashtra now has 5,797 sonography machines registered with authorities, as the law demands. Second-ranked Tamil Nadu has just 3,000.
The Maharashtra population policy’s enforcement of the small family norm might be feeding this “hi-tech sexism”, as Amartya Sen calls it. According to lawyer Varsha Deshpande, “western Maharashtra’s agriculture is largely mechanised so women are no longer valued as a labour force”. What’s the plan?
In April, health officials from the Centre and state discussed the problem. They proposed that prosperous districts like Pune, Kolhapur, Sangli, Satara, Ahmednagar, Jalgaon and Mumbai “be declared sensitive in face of [sic] skewed sex ratios and a plan be drawn up to increase the number of girls”. When HT asked how the state planned to do this, Health Minister Vimal Mundada said: “We are doing more than any other state.”
In May, the family planning bureau acknowledged that district-level health officials had failed to enforce the law banning sex selection. It transferred the power to implement the law from civil surgeons to district collectors. In Solapur, 36 machines at illegal sonography centres were sealed.
But social workers say these are pinpricks. “Doctors and parents are still colluding to kill daughters. The phenomenon has gone underground in the past year or two, and authorities continue to turn a blind eye,” says Deshpande.