You and I know them as sonography machines. In Satara district, 188 km north-east of Mumbai, they are known as ‘ladka-ladki dekhnewala machines (the boy-girl checking machines)’.
Maharashtra is a red-alert state for low sex ratio and the rather wealthy Satara district is one of the prime crime scenes for sex-selective abortions.
The accused: Upper-middle and middle-middle-class residents of the town who don’t want daughters. Their accomplices: Doctors who determine the child’s sex and abort a female foetus on demand. The weapon: The sonography machine, which diagnoses the sex of the foetus in the womb.
Here’s proof of the crime: According to the 2001 Census, Mahe district in Pondicherry has the highest sex ratio in India (1,147 females per 1000 males). In comparison, Satara has only 995 women per 1,000 men.
“Western Maharashtra is losing more daughters than many other states,” says Varsha Deshpande (43), a Satara-based advocate and activist who has been conducting sting operations on radiologists and doctors practicing sex selection techniques in this region since 2003.
She has managed to shut down seven centres in the district using the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act of 2003.
“About 76 per cent of sex-selective abortions take place in the cash-rich ‘sugar and milk belt’ of Satara, Kolhapur, Sangli and Jalgaon,” she says. “Here. dowry is seen as a status symbol, not a crime. Rich families don’t want girls because daughters mean paying a lot in dowry.”
Having acquired somewhat of a local celebrity status for her stings, in which she uses pregnant women as decoys to frame doctors, Deshpande is now going political with her agenda of women-related issues.
She is contesting the Assembly election from Satara on a ticket from the Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghatana, a farmers’ party. She will face off against the NCP’s sitting MLA Shivendra Raje Bhosle of Satara’s royal family.
He’s a formidable opponent, since the area has always been a stronghold of the Maratha royals. But Deshpande is counting on women to make a change.
“Besides the caste votebank that politicians cater to, there is now a legitimate women’s votebank. We need to keep this issue alive so that women can stay alive,” she says with a humourless smile.
Drupada Kurule, a 62-year-old mother of three girls, is one such woman keeping the issue alive. Having seen first-hand two of Deshpande’s sting operations, she says: “People who do sex selection and abort the girl child are narrow-minded. They have a very ‘local’ mentality.”
Kurule is an uneducated woman from the tiny village of Kurule in Satara district.
“If she can change the way she thinks, there is much hope for the rural women and our state,” says Deshpande.
In the bustling market area of Kelghar, a small village on the outskirts of the city, Kurule and a group of garrulous women crowd around Deshpande, distributing pamphlets while ‘Varshatai’ discusses her political agenda.
In most of the villages around them, families cannot afford abortions, so women have multiple deliveries until they bear a son.
Fifty-year-old Sitabai Gole, for instance, bore six daughters till she had a son.
Would she have opted for abortions if she had had the choice?
“Why give birth to a girl when she will have to suffer so much — dowry, in-law troubles, lack of freedom?” she says.