It is a story that should remain on the front pages of newspapers. Come to think of it, perhaps our papers should create a corner on the front page and call it something like Reality Check. So that even as we celebrate India's growth rate, its shining successes in other fields, we are reminded of other realities.
One such reality that ought not to slip off the news pages is the real significance of a recent discovery in Punjab, one of India's most prosperous States. In the vicinity of a private hospital in Patran, Patiala district, a 30-ft-deep well yielded 50 dead foetuses, all female. The location of the well near the clinic was not accidental. For, clearly, despite the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act, 1994, (usually referred to as the PNDT Act), the aborting of female foetuses continues virtually unchecked. A few days after this discovery, in another well near the same clinic bones that appeared to be those of foetuses were found, although their sex was not evident. The owner of the hospital has been arrested and the Punjab Government has initiated checks into private clinics and hospitals across the State.
Nothing has changed
What the story also illustrates is that there seems little change in the use of sex selection technologies to ensure the birth of a boy in Punjab despite campaigns to end what the Prime Minister has termed as an "unacceptable crime". Punjab stands out today not for its prosperity but for the fact that it has the lowest sex ratio in the 0-6 years age group, a mere 793 girls to a 1,000 boys (2001 census). If the foetuses found in the Patran well are any indication, this trend is not likely to be reversed in the immediate future.
What is one to do about it? Those who have followed the issue suggest that merely implementing the law vigorously by monitoring all private clinics is not enough. As often happens in this country, the problem is pushed underground. People who are determined to confirm the sex of their unborn child will find some way of doing it. And given the prosperity in these regions, these people will not think twice about spending even more than they already do because they are so convinced that there is nothing wrong with what they do.
In fact, that perhaps is the most disturbing aspect of this entire problem. According to a study done by Ajinder Walia ("Female Foeticide in Punjab: Exploring the Socio-economic and Cultural Dimension, published in Idea, a journal of social issues, Vol 10, No 1), the approval rating for sex selection is extremely high in Punjab. She interviewed 240 people in three districts, split equally between non-farming and farming communities. The districts included Ludhiana, which has a low sex ratio, Bhatinda that could be considered medium and Ferozepur that has a relatively better sex ratio than these other districts.
She found that in Ludhiana, 67.50 per cent of the farming respondents and 50 per cent of the non-farming approved of sex selective abortions. And of these 82.97 per cent said that they did not see anything wrong in the act because of the problem of dowry. They said marriages were expensive and the cost of living was high. In Bhatinda district, a slightly lower percentage approved of sex selection. But even here an overwhelming majority said the reason they resorted to it was because of dowry. "Bringing up a daughter is like watering a neighbour's plant", people told her.
Even in Ferozepur, where the sex ratio is not so badly skewed as in the other two districts, and where a much smaller percentage of people approved of sex selective abortions, the majority pinned dowry as the reason for the problem.
Perhaps the time has come to focus once again on dowry. Far from disappearing, the custom is becoming more entrenched with the growing consumerism. Every hoarding and advertisement that you see seeks to draw you into a world where you are led to believe that what you have is just not enough and you must long for something more. And what better time than your son's marriage to ensure that at least he gets all these goodies even if you can never afford them. And so, even if there is nothing official about dowry, it remains an integral part of marriages, not just in a few communities but virtually across India.
So even if some parts of India are shining, they shine mostly for boys. How ironical that even as female foetuses are being aborted in Punjab, women and girls are doing well in so many fields. When newspapers applauded the ascendance of Indian-born Indira Nooyi to one of the highest posts in the corporate world, as head of PepsiCo, perhaps the Reality Check item on that day should have mentioned what's happening in Punjab. Who knows how many potential Indiras have been refused the right, even to be born.