Declining Sex Ratio and Sex selective Abortions, Kalindi Deshpande


Kalindi Deshpande

(Paper presented at the National Health Assembly – 2)

Discrimination against women, particularly against girl child is an old tradition in India. The forms of discrimination range from neglect of a girl child in terms of education, nutrition, health facilities, denial of right to dignified life up to barbaric physical violence to the extent of killing a new born baby girl within ten days of her birth. Realising the gravity of the situation, colonial rulers had passed a law as far back in 1870 in Punjab province to prevent this cruel act. But due to practical problems of implementation, it was ultimately withdrawn. However, it was only after the first census conducted in 1901, that the empirical knowledge of skewed proportion of women in the entire population could be substantiated with scientific data. Since then the census is conducted every ten years which has consistently shown a downward trend [barring one minor exception in 1951] as far as female population is concerned.

However the census figures during the decade of 1991 to 2001 have caught the attention of entire nation. The sharply declined sex ratio over the last decade has become a matter of deep concern and investigation not only for the demographers but for all those working on issues of human rights in general and women’s rights and health rights in particular. The shocking figures of 2001 census have proved to be an eye opener for the policy makers, planners and the administrative machinery as well. These figures specifically underline devastatingly sharp decline in the sex ratio of 0-6 age group. The spatial pattern is equally disturbing. In an almost contiguous belt extending from North West India to the western states of Gujarat and Maharashtra the picture that emerges is very distressing. These so called economically most developed states have thrown up the worst figures. For example, Punjab tops the list with 793 girls over 1000 boys in 2001 as compared to 875/1000 in the year 1991. Next to follow are Himachal Pradesh, Haryana, Delhi, and Gujarat with an average between 850 and 900. Those ranking above 900 but below the national average of 922 are Uttaranchal, Rajasthan and Maharashtra. Most of these states are considered to be affluent states with high literacy rates. According to demographers the situation is irreversible for the important fact that the sex ratio at birth itself has declined. In other words, the next decade will have less number of girls as compared to boys in the age group of 10 to 16 and this trend will have the roll over effect during the future decades.

Background of decline

In 1974 The All India Institute of Medical Sciences [AIIMS] was experimenting with amniocentesis to detect foetal abnormalities. But by 1975 Prof. Varma and Prof Bakshi, both eminent professors of AIIMS published a paper and announced a scientific breakthrough of amniocentesis which could determine the gender of the foetus. Knowing very well the social status of a girl child, and the dominant desire among parents for giving birth to a son, doctors were quick to grasp the monitory advantages of this newly acquired scientific knowledge and technology and used it for their selfish motives. This was a ‘weapon of mass destruction’ in their hands which could amass enormous wealth for them if they closed their eyes to ethical practices expected of medical profession! The knowledge of use of this test spread quickly from Delhi to Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat and other states. In 1978 Ludhiana (Punjab) was the first city to have started sex determination clinic and by 1979 Amritsar became the headquarters of such clinics.

From 1982 the Health groups and Women’s groups became active on the issue and the protest began resulting in forcing the Health Ministry to issue circular declaring the use of tests for sex determination and subsequent abortion of female foetus a penal offence. In mid eighties there was a big campaign in Mumbai under the banner of Forum against Sex Determination and Sex selective abortions. The other states like Punjab, Gujarat and Goa too were not far behind. The concerted effort resulted in formulation of Pre Natal Diagnostic Techniques [Regulation and Prevention of Misuse] Act which was passed in 1994 [PNDT]

In the mean time new techniques of not only determining the pre natal sex of the foetus but also of pre conception and during conception selection of the sex was developed. There was growing evidence of sex selection of embryos, sex selective abortions and female infanticide which prompted concerned organizations like SEHAT, MASUM and committed health activist Sabu George to file a PIL seeking amendment to the existing PNDT act which was highly inadequate to deal with the new techniques. The evidence of rapid decline in the juvenile sex ratio in the Census report of 2001 further helped the agitators to push for their demand for a comprehensive legislation. Thus after a prolonged battle the current PC&PNDT Act came into force in 2003.

Patriarchal value system

In the patriarchal value system, Son preference is deep rooted in religious and cultural practices almost all over India for centuries. This is evident from various rituals of different communities. In the patriarchal value system, the son is looked upon as a supporter and care taker of parents during their old age, inheritor of family property, pride and honour of the family who will carry forward the family name. According to Hindu mythology he will open the doors of paradise and bring in salvation after death. The girls, on the contrary are considered to be burdens, financial liability and temporary residents of the natal family, biding their time before matrimony. The contribution of women in family economy is always neglected. The societal compulsions of marrying her off are so great that at the cost of getting indebted for the rest of their life, parents indulge in huge expenditures over her marriage. It is with this sense of ‘getting rid of the burden’ they are increasingly seeking help of sex determining technology.

Impact of globalisation

Apart from determining the economic path of the country, the policies of globalisation also impact directly upon the life styles of individuals. The neo liberal economic policies have encouraged market driven, market controlled consumerism. The growing practice of dowry and ostentatious marriage ceremonies are proving back breaking for parents who argue that it is better not to let the daughter be born than expose her to brutality and the greed of her in laws. On the other hand, the market mentality has proved to be a boon for doctors running their business by disclosing the sex of the foetus and by aborting the female foetus. They also have a specious argument of ‘helping the hapless parents and participating in a ‘social cause’. Some people also believe in a completely unscientific argument that if the number of women goes down it will increase their ‘price’! The Haryana experience of buying wives from outside the state is a telling comment on the issue.

Ineffective implementation of law

The implementation of any law is intrinsically related to the political will of the rulers. Although there seems to be some window dressing by the Central and the State governments, the effective machinery for implementation of the law is very weak in most of the states. It is not related simply to the usual lethargic functioning of government structures in general but there seems to be a strong lobby of doctors trying to protect their fellow men. The case of Dr. Malpani or Dr. Nagne from Maharashtra or cases from Haryana have given ample evidence to prove their connections with powerful people in the government who themselves are either doctors or gullible to pressures from doctor’s lobby. The fact that so far only one conviction has taken place in the entire country for revealing the sex of the foetus is a sad commentary on the intentions of the State to punish the criminal who is committing a crime against humanity!

Conclusion and suggestions for future work

The attack on this anti social, anti woman and anti human practice has to be frontal. It is a big challenge before the organizations and groups working on this issue, nevertheless it is not an impossible task. Catching a couple of doctors and ensuring punishment for them will deter others from indulging in this heinous activity. However, while it is extremely important to find ways and means to expose as many doctors as possible with the help of law, it is equally important to conduct mass awareness campaigns highlighting the positive role of women in different fields of life, thereby impressing upon society the indispensability of women. Similarly the horrors of skewed male-female ratio should be highlighted during the campaign. The couples adopting birth control methods after two daughters should be publicly felicitated. The ostentatious marriage ceremonies should be boycotted. A network of all State level organizations and groups working on this issue should be formed for sharing each others experience, creating solidarity amongst them and formulating strategies from time to time.



1. Mass campaigns should be conducted to disseminate information regarding provisions of   PC&PNDT act and how an ordinary citizen can help in its effective implementation.

2. Sensitisation camps should be conducted to train the members of Appropriate Authority.

3. To bring this issue on the main political agenda, elected members at All Levels, of all political parties, training programmes and interactions with social activists should be conducted.

4 People’s monitoring committees should be formed to keep vigilance on sonography, and fertility centres as well as on Appropriate Authority and other committees.

5.’Value Girl Child’ campaign should be conducted involving social, legal, health, cultural and media activists by using a variety of devices. A major part of this campaign should be focused on rejecting all rituals highlighting ‘son preference’

6. Birth profiling and other related studies should be conducted from time to time by involving student and teacher community. Anganwadi workers can help in this exercise in a big way.

7. Sting operations should be conducted in a big way after taking precautions that all requirements of the law are properly fulfilled.

8. Since the conviction rate is practically nil, and the legal procedure is very tardy, a demand should be made for a fast track court.

9. The mandatory Submission of Form F to the AA must be ensured. This would make it possible to monitor abortions conducted after 12 weeks of pregnancy.

10. Addresses and names of all members of AA should be displayed at all PUBLIC places including cinema and theatre halls.