It is quite extraordinary that the chief minister of a state with the lowest sex ratio should claim that there has been a dramatic turnaround in less than a year. Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar was reported on January 16 as saying that the child sex ratio in his state had improved from 834 girls to every 1,000 boys in the 2011 census to 903 in December. He attributed this jump to the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign launch by Prime Minister Narendra Modi last January.

The sex ratio, male-female and child sex ratio (0-6 years) cannot be measured every day – unlike, say, pollution levels. It is tracked over a period of time. Changes in the sex ratio become apparent in the census, conducted once every ten years. Thus, it was with the 2001 census data that alarm bells first rang out about the extent to which the sex ratio in India was skewed in favour of males, especially in the more prosperous districts. Specifically, it is the fall in the child sex ratio that caused concern as it fell from 927 in 2001 to 919 in 2011, clearly indicating that sex selection was widely prevalent.

However, civil society groups had warned of the dangers of the declining sex ratio three decades before the 2011 census when they noticed the growing misuse of medical technology to detect and abort female foetuses. In the 1980s, the first technologies to indicate the sex of the foetus came to India. Amniocentesis, an invasive process that removes amniotic fluid from the uterus of a pregnant woman to test the sex of the foetus, was costly and not widely available. Even so, it was evident that those who could afford the test went ahead and paid for it, followed by an abortion if the foetus was found to be female.

Misusing technology

The first group to begin campaigning and drawing attention to this came up in Mumbai. The Forum Against Sex Selection exposed the misuse of amniocentesis, meant to detect abnormalities in the foetus, and demanded that this and other such technologies be banned. In fact, in the early 1980s, Mumbai’s local trains carried advertisements selling the idea of sex selective abortions at centres that provided both services, amniocentesis and abortion, under one roof.

The FASS campaign eventually led to the Maharashtra government passing a law banning sex selection technologies in 1988. But by then, the technology had changed: it become non-invasive, cheaper and easier. Sonography machines could detect the sex of the foetus much earlier than amniocentesis, making abortion safer. There were no curbs on these machines. They were small and easily portable. Sex selection spread from cities to smaller towns and even villages.

The Maharashtra law led to the central government being persuaded to take note of the dangers of the spread of this technology and in 1994, the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act 1994 was passed.

But all such laws have their limitations. It is not just a matter of checking the misuse of such technologies but stemming the demand for them. Sex selection is essentially the desire by thousands of Indian families to avoid giving birth to girls. If in the past, some communities resorted to infanticide, today technology provides a neater, easier way of getting rid of the problem – avoid giving birth to girls.

Many justify the use of sex selection by arguing that it will spare girls the tortures they will encounter later in life. It is a strange argument, for it accepts that woman in Indian society can never hope for fair treatment. Also, the fact that the better-off use sex selection clearly establishes that at root the issue is one of property and not any concern for the safety of girls or women.

Misguided measures

Not surprisingly, a law passed to give women equal rights to inherit ancestral property, the Hindu Succession (Amendment) Act 2005 went against them in places like Haryana where the status of women is low in all respects. As this article by Chander Suta Dogra points out, since the law came into effect, the desire to avoid giving birth to girls has accelerated in Haryana rather than decreased.

Ironically, many government schemes aimed at checking the decline in the sex ratio are aimed at poor people through cash transfer schemes, such as Dhan Lakshmi and Ladli, Kanyadan, even though the groups that are most likely to practice female foeticide is well above the poverty line.

Even as we accept that sex selection is a symptom of the larger problem, the implementation of the PCPNDT Act has been patchy at best and mostly indifferent. Even in Haryana, where the declining sex ratio has been the focus of many campaigns for well over a decade, only 58 FIRs had been registered under this law in the last six months. These are registered cases, not convictions. In many instances, those operating sonography machines without registering them are caught but there is no way to prove that they have been used for sex selection. Even if this law was enforced more strictly, it only deals with the technology of sex-selection when the problem is embedded in societal attitudes.

Regressive environment

In Haryana, these attitudes have a long way to go before they change. Political parties, including the BJP that has launched the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign with such fanfare, refuse to take a stand against regressive institutions like the khap panchayats that have a direct impact on the status and rights of women in that state.

Whatever the credibility of the figures recently released by the Haryana government about the improvement in the child sex ratio, the larger problem of women’s rights remains unaddressed. By claiming that something as serious as the declining sex ratio can be turned around by a campaign high on optics is to trivialise an important issue. Such boasts are not just false, they are dangerous. What they do is deny the process required to change mindsets. Even if a state has a reasonably good sex ratio, if its women are harassed, denied choice in marriage, restricted in their movement, dictated what they should wear and what they can do, can we conclude that women’s status has improved and that all girls in the future will be safe? This is the question Khattar and his colleagues need to answer.