Over the years, there have been many initiatives across India to promote the girl child and improve its poor child sex ratio. The schemes have differed in name, but converged in their general inefficiency. Now, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has launched another such scheme, grandly called the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Yojana, in the hope of breaking that trend. But will it?

India’s child sex ratio has fallen abysmally since 1991. Back then there were 945 girls for every 1,000 boys. In 2011, there were a mere 918. To address this problem, the new Bharatiya Janata Party-led government announced the BBBP scheme in its first budget presentation in July last year, with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley allocating Rs 100 crore towards the initiative.

In the seven months since then, the central government has announced that the BBBP scheme will be run by the ministries of health, women and child welfare and human resource development. Further, it will focus on 100 districts with the lowest child sex ratio, and will predominantly involve social mobilisation and sensitisation campaigns aimed at changing societal norms on gender.

Previous schemes by the central government and various state governments to tackle discrimination against the girl child – most of which were launched in the past 10 years – involved the conditional cash transfer system: families that fulfilled certain conditions for allowing daughters to live and thrive would be given cash incentives by state agencies. On Thursday, while launching the BBBP scheme, Modi announced yet another cash transfer for girls called the Sukanya Samridhi Account. Will it fare better than previous girl child schemes?

How other schemes fared

In 2008, the United Progressive Alliance government launched the Dhan Lakshmi scheme, one of many similar conditional cash transfer initatives that state governments across the country still run to improve the child sex ratio. The Dhan Lakshmi scheme, with an annual budget of Rs 10 crore, offered Rs 1 lakh to a girl child if she had been immunised as a child, completed schooling at least till Class VIII, and reached the age of 18 without being married off.

Like most other schemes launched before and after, it suffered from a lack of ground-level monitoring during implementation, and has not been particularly effective. For years, no one knew if financial incentives were really helping Indian families respect and value daughters as much as sons.

In 2010, the Planning Commission and the United Nations Population Fund-India commissioned an evaluative study of the progress of 15 selected girl child schemes across India. Conducted by the Mumbai-based International Institute for Population Sciences, the study involved interviews with government officials, non-governmental organisations and beneficiaries of the schemes.

In many cases, the study found, governments spent large amounts of money on cash transfer schemes and also attracted thousands of applicants. But certain fundamental flaws came in the way of genuinely safeguarding the girl child.

Focus on below-poverty-line households: Conditional cash transfer schemes work on the assumption that low-income families are the chief perpetrators of gender discrimination against daughters, and that monetary incentives will lure them to change. (The Ladli scheme in Haryana was the only one among the 15 that offered cash incentives to all families, irrespective of their income.) The 2001 census revealed, however, that child sex ratios are often lower among educated and affluent sections of society – implying that the preference for sons and the elimination of daughters is widespread across different economic groups. Given this, the study points out, it is important to rethink the target groups of girl child schemes.

Conflating sex ratio with family planning: A common eligibility condition in many of the schemes, such as Karnataka’s Bhagyalakshmi scheme, Andhra Pradesh’s Girl Child Protection Scheme, Punjab’s Balri Rakshak Yojana and the Centre’s Indira Gandhi Balika Suraksha Yojana, is that parents must accept sterilisation after having two children. Such schemes are often launched by government health departments, who want to achieve the double goal of family planning and improved child sex ratio. “By insisting on a sterilisation certificate as a condition to enrol into the scheme and avail monetary benefits, are we forcing poor families to accept sterilisation?” said TV Shekhar, the author of the IIPS study report, in a paper on cash transfer schemes in the Economic and Political Weekly.

Bureaucracy and corruption: Many beneficiaries interviewed for the study complained about bureaucratic hurdles in availing the cash incentive. Poor families found it difficult to obtain the many registrations and certificates of proof required to be submitted. Migrant families were often left out because they did not have domicile certificates. Many schemes give smaller incentives for the second daughter, sending out the message that girls are valued differently based on their birth order.

The study also found several instances of incentives being handed out to ineligible candidates. Just last month, a Comptroller and Auditor General audit found that the Madhya Pradesh government’s Ladli Lakshmi Yojana was riddled with financial irregularities. The audit found that incentives worth Rs 67 lakh had been issued to ineligible beneficiaries.