Sunday, January 15

Oh Girl

Every year, Punjab kills almost 1 lakh girls before they are born. A report in The Indian Express on how the state is fighting its dwindling sex ratio with just one conviction in 4 years, and a Rs 1000 fine

(Birth of A Girl Child, an oil on canvas by Kay Singleton-Keller)

Four years, 75 FIRs, one conviction - this is where the campaign for the girl child has reached in Punjab, the state with a sex ratio among the lowest in the country. And though all diagnostic centres are registered and claim to have put an end to sex determination, one in every four girls is still killed before she can breathe her first. The numbers of girl child dropping every year are an indication of rampant foeticide in the state.
The lone conviction is no encouragement either. The Pre-Natal Diagnostic Test (Regulation and Prevention of Misuse) Act was enforced some four years ago and the prize conviction was for "maintaining improper records".
A fine of only Rs 1,000 was imposed by the court, according to a state health official.
But authorities showcase another set of statistics. The health department has registered no less than 75 FIRs under the Act and suspended licences of 143 diagnostic centres across Punjab. The provisions of the Act have been exercised for various cases of sex determination, improper record keeping and pre-conception advertisements. And, all 1,265 diagnostic centres in Punjab are now registered under the PNDT Act.
Conviction, officials admit, is a thorny issue so the health department went head-on last month. "We cancelled the registration of an Amritsar-based doctor for five years or till the pendency of the case against him, whichever is early," said a senior official.
The conviction of Satyam Diagnostic Center's owner was the first ever conviction under the PNDT Act in the country. Punjab Medical Council cancelled the doctor's licence for five years for allegedly facilitating sex determination. Now the department of health and family welfare has filed a review petition in Punjab and Haryana High Court demanding enhancement of the punishment.
Anurag Agrawal, a bureaucrat and former deputy commissioner of Bathinda, who had the medical fraternity rallying against him after his action against some diagnostic centres allegedly carrying out sex determination, says that follow-up of the pregnant women could provide proper lead about sex determination.
"A woman will go for the medical termination of an unwanted pregnancy, after she misses the mensural cycle. If the pregnancy is terminated between 12 to 18 weeks of conception, it should be investigated," says the author of Female Foeticide: Myth and Reality.
While writing the book, Agrawal took help of 500 volunteers of Istri Sehat Sabhas and followed up 374 women who had one or more girl children. "Many were found to have terminated pregnancies after finding out that the child was a girl," he says
Dr. Rajesh Kumar, head, the department of community medicine, PGI, Chandigarh, who conducted a demographic study on the sex ratio of India, says that Punjab figures among five worse states with dwindling sex ratio. "Though the government has made some efforts to check illegal terminations of pregnancy, those have not been very successful," he adds.
"There is a conspiracy of silence on the part of Punjab government," alleges Dr Ram Bhardwaj, alternate member, central working committee, Indian Medical Association (IMA). Agreeing that the sex determination 'industry' has flourished to carry out a business of approximately Rs 200 crore each year in the state, Dr Bhardwaj says that the government's attitude would ruin Punjab.
"The cases registered against the diagnostic centres in Punjab do not pertain to the fact that certain medical practitioners are caught terminating a girl child. The cases are always for some procedural lapses for maintaining the record of the patients and so forth. The authorities do it to ensure that their record shows they do take some action," he alleges.
"The story of son-preferring Punjab's missing girls is hardly new," says Veena Sharma, director, Human Rights Law Network, Punjab, Haryana and Chandigarh. "The law requires evidence which is hardly present. The diagnostic centres do not give any reports," she says. "Besides, the public prosecutors do not have time to go deep into the issue."
There is little choice, say officials, because there is no evidence in most cases. Which is why a campaign targeted only at clinics will not work. "There are no complainants. The patient, doctors and attendants are all in league," says Dr Rana Harinder, Director of Health Services (Punjab). "It's the parents who insist on sex determination. And the doctors have come up with their own clandestine ways of letting the parents know of the sex of the child in the womb," she adds.
The other end of the campaign, she says, will "sooner or later" deliver results. Among these are cash incentives to panchayats for improving the village sex ratio. "The state government has also announced handsome incentives for decoys and informers to check the problem." The schemes, she insists, have been instrumental in generating awareness at the grassroots level. It is, however, a claim that figures do not bear out as yet. Harinder echoes that doubt: "I am hopeful. The situation will improve."

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