Twenty years after the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act came into force to end sex-selective foeticide, we are confronted with horror stories of hundreds of aborted foetuses being found in Patiala district in Punjab. Efforts to tackle this social evil, in spite of amendments to the Act, do not seem to be going anywhere. According to Census 2001, India has an average sex ratio of 933 women to 1,000 men, whereas women outnumber men by 5-6 per cent in most parts of the world. These skewed statistics are most clearly visible in Punjab, which has the country’s lowest sex ratio — 874:1,000. Conventional wisdom suggests that increasing prosperity, education, industrialisation and urbanisation would improve the status of women and thus the sex ratio. This is where Punjab leaves policymakers flummoxed — the state ranks second in the country’s Human Development Index and has among the highest per capita income figures in the country. There is no significant difference in the sex ratios of urban and rural areas, or industrialised and non-industrialised districts. The ratio is declining despite improved overall life expectancy, greater availability of health services and falling female mortality. Neither prosperity, nor educational levels, seem to make a difference.
So is the low status of women in Punjabi society a cultural phenomenon born out of the region’s history? Its martial and agricultural traditions have led to a valorisation of the male heir, a situation exacerbated during the Eighties’ militancy. Today, the increasing acceptance of the small-family norm has sharpened the preference for the male child. Counter-intuitively, scarcity of females has not meant an increase in women’s status; it has only worsened the situation.
Development practitioners have been seized of the need to integrate gender justice within the larger development paradigm. Gender and power relations mediate the process of development, and gender inequalities have an adverse impact on larger social objectives. Clearly, the steps taken to stop female foeticide/infanticide are not only inadequate but actually misguided. There is need to address the underlying cultural roots of the problem. There is scope here, perhaps, to develop gender scholarship within the evolving Indian context, and using better intellectual tools to advance the cause of gender equality.