The six million Jews gassed by Hitler are held as the most horrific human project of “negative eugenics” – altering natural evolution by preventing reproduction.

But celebrated cancer researcher and writer Siddhartha Mukherjee disagrees.

“That ghastly distinction falls on India and China, where more than 10 million female children are missing from adulthood because of infanticide, abortion, and neglect of female children,” Mukherjee, writes in his sprawling new biography of the gene. “Depraved dictators and predatory states are not an absolute requirement for eugenics. In the case of India, perfectly “free” citizens, left to their own devices, are capable of enacting grotesque eugenic programs – against females, in this case – without any state mandate.”

This damning indictment of India has largely been absent from a series of recent Indian interviews with Mukherjee, and reviews of his book, The Gene: An Intimate Biography. I suspect most time-starved reporters never reached page 457 of Mukherjee’s 592-page effort.

Surviving against odds

India’s eugenics project continues to decimate its women. If India’s child sex ratio – now the worst in the 70 years for which data is available – does not improve, there will be 23 million fewer women (aged 29-40) than there should be by 2030, according to this United Nations Population Fund projection.

I often wonder about the women India – a country with “the most blatantly sexist subcultures in the world”, according to Mukherjee – lost because we selected their genes to go out of existence when foetuses were aborted. I wonder about the women who will never be born.

But whether through eugenics or not, evolution says the fittest survive. That is the sparse, somewhat macabre, consolation India’s emerging generation of women can give itself.

When they are given the chance – yes, it still must be given by supportive fathers, husbands or brothers – they outshine men.

For instance, for seven consecutive years, the pass percentage for women in Class 10 has been 88.5%; for men, 79%, my colleague Prachi Salve found after reviewing Central Board of Secondary Education data.

Yet, when women threaten to break free, men step in quickly, forcing them into old gender roles or perpetrating violence when they cannot deal with independence and achievement. This, as I have written before, is evident even in the sunrise sector of information technology, where half of all new entrants are women, achieving what is considered to be a pinnacle of Indian middle-class achievement. In any case, by the time their turn at top management comes, less than 10% of women are around to cash in.

Leaving the labour force

While the enrolment of women in higher education increased from 39% to 46% over seven years ending 2014, 25 million women left the labour force over the past 10 years, as female participation plunged to 27% in 2014 (the global average is about 50%, the East Asian average 63%). The situation was far better in 1999, when 34% of Indian women had jobs, according to this 2015 International Monetary Fund study.

As women get more educated, they tend to marry later, but things have not changed that much – about half of all Indian women are married by 18. So, they are either not looking for jobs – either because they choose domestic duties or are expected to, or forced to, perform them – or cannot find jobs. Some families have become more prosperous, so they see no need for women to work, other women continue to lack education and skills.

At the end of the day, whatever else a woman does, it is her duty to put hot chapatis on the table.

Far too many women who survive the circumstances of their birth may not know that they are meant for more than this. Far too many just don’t make it through, and things are only getting worse.

Plunging child sex ratio

The child sex ratio, males and females up to age six, was 919 girls for every 1,000 boys, according to the 2011 census. This has steadily fallen from 927 in 2001, 945 in 1991 and 962 in 1981. “The decreasing sex ratio in this age group has a cascading effect on population over a period of time leading to diminishing sex ratio in the country,” said this Census of India statement, adding: “One thing is clear – the imbalance that has set in at this early age group is difficult to be (sic) removed and would remain to haunt the population for a long time to come.”

More male children are born in nature than female, which is offset somewhat because girls are hardier and tend to survive better than boys. So, the sex ratio at birth tends to mirror the child sex ratio – ideally, between 943 and 954 females for every 1,000 males.

After 2001, India’s demographers have watched the child sex ratio plunge below the ratio at birth – this means girls are dropping off census data after they are born because they are dying within six years, or being terminated as foetuses.

There are, of course, a small but growing number who survive India’s eugenics project and the discrimination that follows. These are survivors who have learned their strengths, who strive to realise their potential. These are not just the women who have become popular icons: the Mary Koms, the Saina Nehwals, the Saina Mirzas, the Priyanka Chopras, but the few million women who now defend border posts, drill metro rail tunnels, fly aircraft and otherwise live fulfilling professional lives. Many are from privileged backgrounds, but a rising number is not.

Breaking free

As evidence I offer the story of Karthika Annamalai, a quarry worker’s daughter, whose fortunes I have followed for five years.

When I first spoke to and wrote about Karthika, she was 18 and had just cleared the Common Law Admission Test, the entry point for 17 national law universities. Today, she is a fifth year student at the National University of Juridical Sciences in Kolkata. Last month, she accepted a well-paying job at a prestigious law firm.

Karthika Annamalai has just accepted a job at a leading law firm. Her mother works in a stone quarry, her father was murdered nine years ago. Karthika's mother enrolled her at a boarding school run by a charitable trust when she was four.

Where Karthika came from offers proof of the toughness and resilience of women like her.

A dirt track still leads to her mother’s shack in Marenahalli Bunde, an east Bengaluru village perched on the edge of a seven-storey-deep quarry gouged out to feed the city’s building boom.

Her mother, Palaniamma, is the same every time I’ve met her: Silent, weather-beaten and weary. She still breaks stones.

In 2011, I asked Karthika – whom Palaniamma enrolled, at age four, in a boarding school run by a former Army captain – if she could imagine her destiny if she had not achieved what she did.

“I would be married like my (elder) sister,” she said, “or breaking stones like my mother.”

Whenever she visited home from school, she missed her bed, her toilet and English. Everyone slept on the mud floor of the shack, no one spoke English and the toilet was nearby scrubland. At school, Karthika met her mother twice a year. She was overwhelmed by what her mother had done, but she no longer knew her very well.

There is pain, there is sacrifice, there is a life to leave behind and a new one to embrace and explore. There are frontiers to explore, limits to push. If Karthika could do all this, there is, for any woman who survives India’s eugenics project – clearly more to do in life than rolling out chapatis. Perhaps not everyone can do what Karthika did, but every Indian woman must know she has the right to try.

Corrections and clarifications: This article has been edited to correct some personal details about Karthika Annamalai at her request.