gender bias

Wanted: Pregnant decoys for sting operations to save the girl child

Ignoring societal pressures, a few brave women are helping activists nab doctors who assist in sex selection. Will their numbers increase?

Dr Sarawati Munde took less than five minutes to conduct a sonography and determine the sex of the foetus, recalls Prerana Bhilare of their meeting five years ago. When the doctor wrote “16” on the case papers, Bhilare asked her about her child’s sex. “Can’t you read the paper? It is good news. It is a boy,” came the reply.

Bhilare, pregnant then, was working as a decoy to catch doctors who assist in sex selection. Her testimony helped nail the doctor couple – Dr Saraswati Munde and Dr Sudam Munde – from Parali in Maharashtra’s Beed district. On June 17 this year, a Parali court convicted them to four years imprisonment for running a sex-determination racket. Had it not been for Bhilare, there possibly would have been no case. The couple had strong political connections, including with the family of a deceased senior Bharatiya Janata Party leader. There are now two more cases pending against them related to illegal sex-selective abortions.

Bhilare, 30, still remembers the disturbing sights at the Munde Hospital, especially the sight of the dogs which were allegedly meant to eat the aborted female foetuses. “One woman after me had a female foetus,” said Bhilare. “Dr Sudam Munde told her to get admitted. She said that she has come from a far-off village and could not take a foetus back. He told them not to worry and they would make arrangements.”

Besides the Munde case, Bhilare posed as a decoy in two other cases during her pregnancy in 2010. Due to her testimony and other supporting eyewitnesses, Dr Mohan Farne from Islampur in Sangli was sentenced to two years in jail and Dr Kavita Londhe-Kamble from Karmala in Solapur district to three years in jail.

After facing nerve-wracking cross-examinations, Bhilare is relieved. She is happy that she could use her pregnancy for a cause. The credit for her audacious work also goes to her dear friend Varsha Deshpande, an advocate and founder of the non-governmental organisation Lek Ladki Abhiyan, which works against sex selection and orchestrates the sting operations.

Assisted by law

As per the 2011 Census, Maharashtra has among the country’s lowest child sex ratios, which is defined as the number of females per thousand males in the 0-6 age group. As the start of the century, in 2001, the sex ratio was 913 girls for every 1,000 boys. By  2011, this was down to 883 girls. A series of crackdowns on sonologists and sting operations helped increase the sex ratio at birth steadily in the state.

“There were so many political pressures in this [Mundes] case,” said Deshpande. “We had to ensure that Prerana moved houses, just so that she could be protected... People would come to my house and offer inducements. It was a nightmare. No government agency offered any kind of support in this case.”

Section 24 of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994 ensures that the court presumes a pregnant woman is compelled by her husband and relatives to undergo sex determination, unless proven otherwise. Section 23(3) of the same law states that a woman who is compelled to undergo sex selection is not liable for punishment under the Act.

“This section helps us actively use decoy women for the purpose of catching doctors red-handed,” said Deshpande, who has conducted 42 sting operations in about two decades. “It protects the decoy women from prosecution.”

For anyone working in the field, finding a decoy to participate in a sting operation is an uphill task. Most expectant mothers refuse to become a decoy due to concerns for their safety or for fear of family’s disapproval.

“The women we mobilise worry where we are taking them,” said Rajan Choudhary, secretary of the Rajasthan-based NGO Shikshit Rozgar Kendra Prabandhak Samiti. “It is difficult to convince the family too. Of 10 women who initially say yes to participate in the sting, finally one may just become ready to actually go through with it.”

Dr Neelam Singh, who runs the NGO Vatsalya in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, echoes Choudhary. She says she has asked many of her patients and friends to become “decoy pregnant women” but “most of them back out. It is very difficult for a NGO to pursue this battle. We can try building the capacities of the government to sustain the campaign”.

Tapping into friends

Usually, in the stings conducted by Deshpande, her large circle of friends (“our large family,” she calls them) come to the rescue and agree to work as decoys. “We have to find someone who is 14 to 22 weeks pregnant. Many times, like in the case of Prerana, if a woman agrees to become a decoy, we start looking for information and conducting sting operations. There are also times when we have information about doctors but have no decoy pregnant women.”

One such friend, a feisty journalist from Satara, contacted Deshpande almost immediately after she realised she was pregnant in 2013. “I did not know I could help catch such doctors when I was pregnant with my first child,” she said on condition of anonymity. “When I realised that I was pregnant for the second time, I immediately contacted Varsha tai and told her that I want to help her conduct these stings.”

The team failed at three stings before they attempted to trap Dr Abhijeet and Sumit Devre from Malegaon. “We asked the rickshaw driver if he knows any doctor who can help us determine the sex of the foetus,” said the 33-year old journalist. “One man took us to this doctor and told us that we should give him money if it was successful.”

The journalist was six months pregnant and had to concoct an elaborate story to convince the doctor (as per Indian law, a woman is not allowed to abort her foetus after the gestation period of 20 weeks). “I was taken to a dark room. The doctor took a few minutes to realise I had a girl. I asked him if he was sure. He said he was 101% sure. After recording this, I had to while away some time in the clinic to wait for the health officials and the police to come. I lay on the sofa pretending to be dizzy.”

The journalist hasn’t mentioned her part in the sting to anyone in her office, nor to her parents and in-laws. “Only my husband knows about this. I vaguely got a hint that someone was trying to get in touch with me for inducement. I am not interested.” Her date to depose before the court is coming up later this month, two years after the sting.

Persistent gender bias

The delay in the trial causes many cases to fail. “We have done 21 sting operations since 2009, but not a single conviction,” lamented Choudhary. “Two of my decoy pregnant women turned hostile in court. The doctors keep giving inducements, whenever they meet them. The women slowly start sympathising with them and call them ‘bechare’, and that they made a mistake one time.”

In 2013, in a public interest litigation filed by Voluntary Health Association of Punjab, the Supreme Court ordered that the cases under the PCPNDT Act should be disposed off within six months. To expedite the process, Choudhary feels the police should record statements before a magistrate under section 164 of the Criminal Procedure Code soon after the sting. This statement will hold value in court, unless proven involuntary.

Choudhary welcomes the Rajasthan government’s recent decision to give a portion of the Rs 2 lakh handed out under the Mukhbir Yojana (the Informer Scheme) to decoy pregnant women. In Maharashtra too, since 2013, the government is supposed to give Rs 5,000 to the decoy woman in each case and Rs 20,000 to the informer. “The money is a small motivation,” Dr Padmaja Keskar, executive health officer of the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation. “But we have seen that the family refuses to let the pregnant woman participate in these operations.”

In some stings conducted by state health officers, the informants did receive the reward. However, for her stings, Deshpande says she hasn’t “got a single penny. I do not want it either. The defence can easily say that the case is a lie and it was concocted for the money”. More than the rewards, Deshpande feels the state should give protection to the witnesses and provide money for their travel and for the delivery of the decoys.

“I have spent so much money on travelling from Satara to Beed for the Mundes’ case,” said Deshpande. “Many cases fail because the government officials do not turn up or turn hostile. So many times, they turn up in the vehicles of defence lawyers. The system is hostile towards people like us who are trying to save the girl child. It has totally collapsed.” Of her 42 sting operations, she has been successful in getting convictions in 11 cases, while eight have resulted in acquittal.

This deep-seated indifference is what troubled most the journalist who worked as a decoy. She said she faced discrimination in her own family. “In front of the world, people pretend that they love girls and how girls and boys are equal. But, in my own family, I find so many examples of discrimination. My own father did not turn up to see my second daughter when she was born.”

Since the birth of her second girl, lots of people don’t invite her for functions, she said. “I can see the difference. Earlier I would be invited for someone’s baby shower or naming ceremony.”

Deshpande’s firebrand activism has made an impact among these women. “I tell the girls who come to my sewing class not to discriminate between boys and girls,” said Bhilare. “I will bring up my son, Kabir to respect and value women.”

So sickened is the journalist by the discrimination against women that she said she will happily do this again. “If I get pregnant the third time, I will start by nailing the quacks who claim to help produce a male child. Then I will get to the doctors. This will be my contribution to society.”

We welcome your comments at letters@scroll.in.
Sponsored Content BY 

India’s urban water crisis calls for an integrated approach

We need solutions that address different aspects of the water eco-system and involve the collective participation of citizens and other stake-holders.

According to a UN report, around 1.2 billion people, or almost one fifth of the world’s population, live in areas where water is physically scarce and another 1.6 billion people, or nearly one quarter of the world’s population, face economic water shortage. They lack basic access to water. The criticality of the water situation across the world has in fact given rise to speculations over water wars becoming a distinct possibility in the future. In India the problem is compounded, given the rising population and urbanization. The Asian Development Bank has forecast that by 2030, India will have a water deficit of 50%.

Water challenges in urban India

For urban India, the situation is critical. In 2015, about 377 million Indians lived in urban areas and by 2030, the urban population is expected to rise to 590 million. Already, according to the National Sample Survey, only 47% of urban households have individual water connections and about 40% to 50% of water is reportedly lost in distribution systems due to various reasons. Further, as per the 2011 census, only 32.7% of urban Indian households are connected to a piped sewerage system.

Any comprehensive solution to address the water problem in urban India needs to take into account the specific challenges around water management and distribution:

Pressure on water sources: Rising demand on water means rising pressure on water sources, especially in cities. In a city like Mumbai for example, 3,750 Million Litres per Day (MLD) of water, including water for commercial and industrial use, is available, whereas 4,500 MLD is needed. The primary sources of water for cities like Mumbai are lakes created by dams across rivers near the city. Distributing the available water means providing 386,971 connections to the city’s roughly 13 million residents. When distribution becomes challenging, the workaround is to tap ground water. According to a study by the Centre for Science and Environment, 48% of urban water supply in India comes from ground water. Ground water exploitation for commercial and domestic use in most cities is leading to reduction in ground water level.

Distribution and water loss issues: Distribution challenges, such as water loss due to theft, pilferage, leaky pipes and faulty meter readings, result in unequal and unregulated distribution of water. In New Delhi, for example, water distribution loss was reported to be about 40% as per a study. In Mumbai, where most residents get only 2-5 hours of water supply per day, the non-revenue water loss is about 27% of the overall water supply. This strains the municipal body’s budget and impacts the improvement of distribution infrastructure. Factors such as difficult terrain and legal issues over buildings also affect water supply to many parts. According to a study, only 5% of piped water reaches slum areas in 42 Indian cities, including New Delhi. A 2011 study also found that 95% of households in slum areas in Mumbai’s Kaula Bunder district, in some seasons, use less than the WHO-recommended minimum of 50 litres per capita per day.

Water pollution and contamination: In India, almost 400,000 children die every year of diarrhea, primarily due to contaminated water. According to a 2017 report, 630 million people in the South East Asian countries, including India, use faeces-contaminated drinking water source, becoming susceptible to a range of diseases. Industrial waste is also a major cause for water contamination, particularly antibiotic ingredients released into rivers and soils by pharma companies. A Guardian report talks about pollution from drug companies, particularly those in India and China, resulting in the creation of drug-resistant superbugs. The report cites a study which indicates that by 2050, the total death toll worldwide due to infection by drug resistant bacteria could reach 10 million people.

A holistic approach to tackling water challenges

Addressing these challenges and improving access to clean water for all needs a combination of short-term and medium-term solutions. It also means involving the community and various stakeholders in implementing the solutions. This is the crux of the recommendations put forth by BASF.

The proposed solutions, based on a study of water issues in cities such as Mumbai, take into account different aspects of water management and distribution. Backed by a close understanding of the cost implications, they can make a difference in tackling urban water challenges. These solutions include:

Recycling and harvesting: Raw sewage water which is dumped into oceans damages the coastal eco-system. Instead, this could be used as a cheaper alternative to fresh water for industrial purposes. According to a 2011 World Bank report, 13% of total freshwater withdrawal in India is for industrial use. What’s more, the industrial demand for water is expected to grow at a rate of 4.2% per year till 2025. Much of this demand can be met by recycling and treating sewage water. In Mumbai for example, 3000 MLD of sewage water is released, almost 80% of fresh water availability. This can be purified and utilised for industrial needs. An example of recycled sewage water being used for industrial purpose is the 30 MLD waste water treatment facility at Gandhinagar and Anjar in Gujarat set up by Welspun India Ltd.

Another example is the proposal by Navi Mumbai Municipal Corporation (NMMC) to recycle and reclaim sewage water treated at its existing facilities to meet the secondary purposes of both industries and residential complexes. In fact, residential complexes can similarly recycle and re-use their waste water for secondary purposes such as gardening.

Also, alternative rain water harvesting methods such as harvesting rain water from concrete surfaces using porous concrete can be used to supplement roof-top rain water harvesting, to help replenish ground water.

Community initiatives to supplement regular water supply: Initiatives such as community water storage and decentralised treatment facilities, including elevated water towers or reservoirs and water ATMs, based on a realistic understanding of the costs involved, can help support the city’s water distribution. Water towers or elevated reservoirs with onsite filters can also help optimise the space available for water distribution in congested cities. Water ATMs, which are automated water dispensing units that can be accessed with a smart card or an app, can ensure metered supply of safe water.

Testing and purification: With water contamination being a big challenge, the adoption of affordable and reliable multi-household water filter systems which are electricity free and easy to use can help, to some extent, access to safe drinking water at a domestic level. Also, the use of household water testing kits and the installation of water quality sensors on pipes, that send out alerts on water contamination, can create awareness of water contamination and drive suitable preventive steps.

Public awareness and use of technology: Public awareness campaigns, tax incentives for water conservation and the use of technology interfaces can also go a long way in addressing the water problem. For example, measures such as water credits can be introduced with tax benefits as incentives for efficient use and recycling of water. Similarly, government water apps, like that of the Municipal Corporation of Greater Mumbai, can be used to spread tips on water saving, report leakage or send updates on water quality.

Collaborative approach: Finally, a collaborative approach like the adoption of a public-private partnership model for water projects can help. There are already examples of best practices here. For example, in Netherlands, water companies are incorporated as private companies, with the local and national governments being majority shareholders. Involving citizens through social business models for decentralised water supply, treatment or storage installations like water ATMs, as also the appointment of water guardians who can report on various aspects of water supply and usage can help in efficient water management. Grass-root level organizations could be partnered with for programmes to spread awareness on water safety and conservation.

For BASF, the proposed solutions are an extension of their close engagement with developing water management and water treatment solutions. The products developed specially for waste and drinking water treatment, such as Zetag® ULTRA and Magnafloc® LT, focus on ensuring sustainability, efficiency and cost effectiveness in the water and sludge treatment process.

BASF is also associated with operations of Reliance Industries’ desalination plant at Jamnagar in Gujarat.The thermal plant is designed to deliver up to 170,000 cubic meters of processed water per day. The use of inge® ultrafiltration technologies allows a continuous delivery of pre-filtered water at a consistent high-quality level, while the dosage of the Sokalan® PM 15 I protects the desalination plant from scaling. This combination of BASF’s expertise minimises the energy footprint of the plant and secures water supply independent of the seasonal fluctuations. To know more about BASF’s range of sustainable solutions and innovative chemical products for the water industry, see here.

This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of BASF and not by the Scroll editorial team.