The means and manner in which female foeticide and infanticide have been addressed in our country are worthy of intense scrutiny. The latest suggestion has been offered by Minister of Health Anbumani Ramadoss in the Rajya Sabha, and will soon be discussed by the Central Supervisory Board, the body tasked with enforcing the Pre-natal Diagnostics Techniques Act (PNDT) and headed by the minister.
The minister intends to make the penalties for violation of the PNDT Act more stringent, including life-term. Considering that battling female foeticide and infanticide has been an ongoing war with limited results, stricter monitoring is certainly welcome. But one wonders whether it is the existing penalties that fail as deterrents or the inability to push through charges and close the loop of justice. For in the same breath, the minister himself has gone on to say that the conviction rate is extremely poor. So, more severe penalties are unlikely to improve the conviction rate.
The steadily declining sex ratio in the country, especially in Punjab, Haryana, Delhi and Himachal Pradesh — home to some of the most affluent sections in India — cannot be corrected through the confiscation of ultrasound machines or giving incentives to families where girls are born either. Which brings us to the crux of the problem. Delicensing of practitioners should be an immediate step, pending acquittal. In the current status, the onus should be on the doctor to prove his innocence.
It has been established that sex selection and foeticide, the worst form of discrimination against girls, is chiefly practised among wealthy, educated (if they can be called that) urban families. What purpose do incentives serve here? On the other hand, the medical fraternity and support staff are known to misguide the poorer, illiterate patients on ultrasound results, playing on anti-girl prejudices and encouraging abortions, all under the guise of ‘guidance’. The minister may want to review the modalities of the successful experiment by district level officers in a cluster of 79 villages near Ludhiana a couple of years ago. Deterrence (enforcing the law), counselling (community education) peer pressure (holding last rites after abortions to unnerve the family and doctors) and incentives for informers were the tools used to bring about an appreciable change in attitude.
Incentivising informants is a good idea, as is random supervision of the 32,000 ultrasound clinics in the country. Roping in the judiciary towards improving conviction rates is also a positive step. But at the end of the day, are there enough foot soldiers to carry out the battle of supervision? State governments must have a greater level of accountability for their state’s enforcement of the PNDT Act. Public campaigns are a must but a slower route towards impacting mindsets. Let’s just start with curbing doctors’ malpractices and find the means to push through convictions.