The menace of female foeticide: Gujarat’s initiatives
This is a society-created problem, and a complete eradication of it will only come about with a change in the prevailing mindsets. Narinder Nanu/AFP
Yesterday’s television show Satyamev Jayate touched upon one of the most critical issues plaguing India. Female foeticide is a menace which has eroded not just sex ratio statistics, but the entire social fabric of the nation. That a woman, the creator of life in this world, is given little importance with the distorted mentality prevailing across classes, castes, sects and faiths that the impending birth of a girl-child is undesirable. The “missing women of Asia” is a well-documented reality which, as our Prime Minister has remarked, is a “national shame”.
In this context, yesterday’s episode has been instrumental in stirring the societal conscience using the sheer star-power of Aamir Khan. While this is a society-created problem, and a complete eradication of it will only come about with a change in the prevailing mindsets, what role can governments play in curbing this menace?
In my opinion, the State has a two-fold role. Firstly, each MLA and MP, including chief ministers and Prime Minister can create awareness of the far-reaching disastrous consequences of this problem to his or her constituency and inspire them against its practice.
In Gujarat, therefore, since 2005-06, Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi has started the ‘Beti Bachao’ campaign. Year after year, Modi has tried to appeal to diverse sections of Gujarat to understand and value the importance of a girl-child in ways unique to such sections.
Recently, for example, expressing regret that the Unjha Taluka (where he presided over the silver jubilee celebration of Goddess Umiya Temple) had the lowest sex ratio in Gujarat despite being the abode of Goddess Umiya, Modi appealed to the Kadva Patidar community in Gujarat to stop the practice. This appeal led to the community taking a vow in the holy temple of abolishing it.
Female foeticide is a menace which has eroded not just sex ratio statistics, but the entire social fabric of the nation. Narinder Nanu/AFP
The other role that a State can play is to strictly enforce laws and rules aimed at preventing this menace. The Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994 has been in place primarily to prohibit the practices of sex selection and sex-determination with an aim to check female foeticide. Back in 2006, the Gujarat Government, through a senior advocate and his instructing law firm, conducted seminars for various district health officers (DHOs) to prepare the paperwork and collate evidence under the complex PNDT Act in order to assist public prosecutors in securing convictions for violations. Shoddy work was found to be the primary reason for a glaring inability to secure convictions of rather obvious cases of malpractice.
Additionally, in order to plug several loopholes in the existing PNDT Act, the Gujarat High Court formulated directions based upon suggestions from the senior counsel for the government and other parties. The purpose was to keep the concerned DHO in the information loop on pregnancy related diagnostic issues. A gist of the directions being implemented today listed below:
a) Every pregnant woman must be registered with the concerned DHO within two months of pregnancy with a unique code;
b) The Department of Health must issue pregnant women a ‘Mamta’ card without which diagnostic sonography would not be conducted;
c) If a pregnant woman is advised to terminate pregnancy after having conducted an authorised diagnostic sonography, prior permission of the concerned DHO has to be obtained;
d) Within ten days after a diagnostic sonography is conducted, medical practitioners must fill prescribed forms with detailed information on diagnostic sonography and any treatment/operations without disclosing details protected by patient privacy; and
e) The necessary paperwork as prescribed under the PNDT Rules must be submitted by medical practitioners online, in addition to paper filing.
The Department of Health of the Government of Gujarat was asked to widely publicise these measures so that citizens of each district could be well-informed. However, there still exist a few ways by which errant medical practitioners have been able to circumvent the system, particularly with technological developments not known at the time this case was initiated in the Gujarat High Court in 2006.
For example, it has been found that, in many cases, illegal practices were conducted over the weekend and related data was erased from the machines. Since this data can be instantaneously wiped off without a tangible trace, such information is never included in the filings required under the PNDT Act.
To effectively counter such practices, the government counsel has suggested to me that Rule 3A in the PNDT Rules can be amended in a manner that any sonography machine imported into India or manufactured in India has an unerasable hard drive which stores data for the minimum period of two years as prescribed in the PNDT Rules. For existing machines, Gujarat has taken the help of the ‘Silent Observer’ tool developed by IIT graduates that can be attached to sonography machines to monitor activities.
Both the aforementioned roles played by the state and an overall increase in social awareness have resulted in decent improvements in the female-male ratio over the past five to six years in Gujarat. Undoubtedly, the problem, which has permeated itself with collusion at several levels since decades, requires participation from all sections of society such as community and religious leaders, NGOs, alert citizenry and medical professionals, in addition to the state.
But, the beginning has been encouraging and, while, indeed, there is a long way to go, Gujarat continues to strengthen the framework required to effectively monitor the menace of female foeticide.