For some of us, this Sunday was special. It marked the 20th anniversary of an epoch Union budget that accelerated economic reforms in an unprecedented fashion, which eventually nudged the Indian economy into a new rarified club of trillion dollar economies. While this indeed does give the country bragging rights, we should take a moment and think of a darker side to the country’s persona, something that is unfortunately very rarely discussed: the heinous practice of sex selective abortion (SSA).
It may sound like a dampener to bring up this topic on such an occasion. But it is precisely why it should be discussed. Sustainable economic growth is only possible through sustainable social change that empowers across class and gender. Alternatively, the growth will be skewed and non-inclusive—something that will run aground sooner, if not later.
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It is counter-intuitive. This phenomenon is happening despite impressive economic growth and a sharp spike in literacy levels; clearly the country’s mindset is yet to change. If nothing, as fresh research undertaken by P.M. Kulkarni, one of the country’s foremost demographers and a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, using data from Census 2011, reveals that this trend is actually worsening, leave alone being arrested. Cheaper and portable technology has, if trends are right, shown that this is no longer an urban phenomenon or something practised by the well-off. It seems to be cutting across class and the urban-rural divide.
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Nationally, the proportion of SSA to total female births works out to 3.6%. A disaggregate picture shows that this number masks more than it reveals. For states such as Haryana and Punjab, more than one in 10 females suffer the SSA fate; the proportion for Gujarat, Rajasthan and Maharashtra vary between 6.8% and 7.6%.
Barring Rajasthan, all the other states qualify to be classified as economically progressive, especially Gujarat—now considered the fastest growing region in the country. In the case of Haryana, it is ironical that it is rapidly emerging as the new centre for education after the generous handout of land by the state government to education entrepreneurs.
Further, literacy levels in the rural areas across these states have jumped dramatically in the last decade. From around below average to average levels, the literacy level, according to Census 2011, in rural areas of these states has improved to top the national average—in the case of Haryana and Punjab, the two with the most dubious record, the literacy levels are above 70% in the states. Obviously, neither literacy nor economic upliftment seems to resolve the problem; it has actually worsened it.
In Haryana’s Jhajjar district—less than an hour’s drive from Gurgaon, the new glitzy urban sprawl—reported a child sex ratio of 774 as against the average of 914 at the national level and 830 at the state level. A colleague, who had travelled to Jhajjar immediately after the census data was put out, wrote in a compelling piece published in Mint on 4 April that villagers were candidly admitting to the prevalence of the practice of SSA.
Santara Devi, chief of the village council of Dariyapur village in Jhajjar district, said, “Though it is illegal, most people get ultrasound tests done to determine the sex of the baby, and if it is a girl, they go for abortion,” before adding, “Nobody says it openly these days, unlike in earlier times.”
Devi’s last line is probably what gives us some hope. There is some fear and hence it is all happening below the radar. The existing law—Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act—was created 17 years ago. It is clearly not sufficient, though it was very necessary.
Obviously, something more has to be done to give that extra nudge. In this, politicians have to take the lead. They can respond either in terms of more policy (which will only increase the premium of illegal sex selection clinics and hence not advisable) or through sustained political activism at the grassroots through schools and demonstrative action.
Another hope may be in the growing literacy among women —not only does it carry the potential of changing the mindset of the entire household, it could lead to economic empowerment through the acquisition of a skill and consequently a job.
Census 2011 reveals that while 82.14% of males are literate, literacy rate for females stand at 65.46%. Though there is still a gap, it is at its lowest in the last four decades—clearly women are catching up on men in literacy levels. The gap was 16.68 percentage points in Census 2011, some 10 percentage points lower than 26.62 percentage points in the 1981 census.
Therefore, looking back, the country can indeed feel proud at the economic transformation that has been managed so far. At the same time, the good feeling diminishes rapidly when you hold up the prevalence of the dubious practice of SSA. The big question that comes to mind is how would we look at this point of time a decade from now.
Anil Padmanabhan is a deputy managing editor of Mint and writes every week on the intersection of politics and economics. Comments are welcome at capitalcalculus@ livemint.com
Graphic by Sandeep Bhatnagar/Mint