Patalda, Madhya Pradesh: Visitors trudging down the dusty village road are greeted by a giant billboard featuring a smiling Shivraj Singh Chouhan, the chief minister of Madhya Pradesh, hugging two young girls. The tagline in Hindi reads: Gaon ki beti, kisse chhoti hai— conveying the message that daughters are no less than sons.
The Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government in the state launched the Ladli Laxmi women’s empowerment plan in 2007, to try and cope with a gender imbalance that’s becoming endemic: As the population expands, the number of newborn girls is plunging every decade.
One of those who have signed up for the Ladli scheme is Rajanti Korku, a young mother in this village in the south-west corner of the state. Under the programme, the government will give Rs 1 lakh to her daughter Sunita, now two, after she completes 12 years of school education. But, to be eligible, Korku, who also has a one-year-old son, had to get herself sterilized six months ago.
More than 200,000 women have opted to make themselves infertile to access the scheme, which calls for one of the parents to undergo sterilization in case they have more than two children.
Clik here listen to Sabu George, anti-foeticide campaigner, speak about falling ratio of girl child
Madhya Pradesh is betting that cash incentives will curb population growth and improve what it calls the “life cycle” of the girl child—keeping her in school will mean delaying marriage and avoiding teenage pregnancy. It would also, according to a government document, rein in the practice that’s responsible for India’s growing population imbalance—female foeticide.
The state needs the scheme to work. Its already skewed infant sex ratio is getting worse as the population swells.
The latest provisional census data released in March estimates that the ratio of girls under six in Madhya Pradesh fell to 912 for every 1,000 boys from 949 in 2001. At the same time, the total fertility rate, or the average number of children a woman bears in her reproductive years, is at 3.3, much higher than the national average of 2.1.
The story of the “missing women”, which Nobel Prize-winning economist Amartya Sen brought to global attention in 1990, is an unpleasant truth in large parts of India. Girls are not wanted and families go to extreme lengths not to have them. The practice of identifying the sex of a child through cheaply available ultrasound tests and then aborting a female foetus has made it easier for families to decide the gender of the child.
A 2005 survey, published by ActionAid, which seeks to protect the rights of the marginalized, called Planning Families, Planning Gender, uncovers hidden crimes in the villages of north India through anecdotal evidence: of newborns whose lives were snuffed out by stuffing tobacco in their mouth or by pressing the leg of a stool on their neck; even throwing them down public drains.
Balancing attempt: A public awareness message on a wall in Roshni village, Madhya Pradesh, exhorts men to become ideal husbands and undergo sterilization. The state government is trying to control population through the Ladli Laxmi scheme which calls for one of the parents to undergo sterilization in case they have more than two children.
Eight million girls went “missing”, or were eliminated by abortion between 2006 and 2009, according to Sabu George, a Delhi-based social activist who filed a public interest litigation to stop sex selection tests in medical clinics a decade ago. He said his calculation was based on census data. While sex selection was declared illegal in 1994, mobile ultrasound vans have reached rural villages faster than health clinics, he asserts.
The child sex ratio has been progressively declining across the country, falling to 914 girls born for every 1,000 boys in 2011, from 976 in 1961. Several states have launched similar girl protection schemes with differing stipulations and cash limits. At the Centre, the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government launched the Dhanalakshmi plan in 2008. Congress-ruled states such as Haryana and Delhi too have their own versions.
But social activists and women’s groups are sceptical about the efficacy of such policies in addressing deep-rooted social prejudices. Bijayalaxmi Nanda, who teaches at Delhi’s Miranda House and is part of a voluntary group called “Campaign Against Pre-birth Elimination of Females”, says measures such as Ladli Laxmi amount to “bribing” poor families. “These policies are concerned about population, but not about people—how contradictory is that?” asks Nanda, who has studied the girl child schemes in Haryana and Delhi.
The money the girls receive is a pittance, she continues, which again is not used for their future education. Out of the 1,700 beneficiaries she interviewed, a majority said the money will be used for the girl’s marriage.
Nirmala Buch, former chief secretary of Madhya Pradesh and current chairperson of the Centre for Women’s Development Studies in Delhi, believes the concept of “designer families”—one boy and one girl or two boys but never two girls— is now spreading from the rich to those in the lower socio-economic sections. “I don’t think Ladli will help to improve her chances of survival.”
Women’s groups are also concerned about efforts to link girl child policies with population-control measures, all of which make women the primary target. One of the earliest such plans launched in Tamil Nadu in 1992 was aimed at improving the child sex ratio. A 2009 commentary, in the Economic & Political Weekly, by researchers Sharada Srinivasan of York University in Canada and Arjun S. Bedi of Erasmus University, Rotterdam, said little was known about the effectiveness of these programmes in preventing gender discrimination.
These fears seem borne out by facts. In 2010, Madhya Pradesh achieved a record sterilization target of 645,000, luring villagers with freebies such as mobile phones, two-wheelers and gold coins to undergo sterilization. But an overwhelming majority who responded were again women; only 36,000 males underwent vasectomy.
Sudhi Ranjan Mohanty, the state health and family welfare secretary, said historical inequalities and societal issues, such as the male reluctance to get operated on, cannot change overnight.
At the Khandwa district hospital, Gulabi Passi, a mother of five, said she decided to get herself sterilized as her family was too large to support. Her toy-maker husband, Raju, didn’t want to do it, she says, as she waited for her turn outside the operation ward.
According to Lalit Mohan Pant, better known as the country’s “fastest surgeon”, men are afraid that vasectomy will make them lose their virility and that they won’t be able to perform physical labour.
Indore-based Pant, who held a Limca Book record in 2002 for having performed the highest number of sterilizations—more than 256,000 of them to date—says the poor increasingly want to have smaller families, but have little access to contraceptives.
The government offers money to those who sterilize themselves, but even here there is the shabbiest form of discrimination. Women get Rs 600, men get Rs 1,100, although that still doesn’t convince the men to volunteer, says Sheela Sharma, an accredited social worker in Ramsihasa village near Indore, who helps to implement the government’s sterilization project.
India tacitly supports a two-child policy and the bulk of its birth control targets revolves around setting sterilization goals, even though few have forgotten the backlash of the unpopular drive launched by the Congress party in 1976. At the time, evicted slum dwellers were offered new homes in return for sterilization, and the campaign led to accusations of coercion and forced vasectomies. Social activists assert that the approach to population control is inherently flawed as it’s excessively focused on sterilization. Numbers should be stabilized by offering a basket of contraceptive choices to people, they say.
According to the Planning Commission’s 2007-12 mid-term report, the supply of oral contraceptives and condoms is patchy and the demand remains unmet.
Some of the criticism has forced Madhya Pradesh to review the Ladli Laxmi policy and look beyond permanent contraception. The programme promoted through government-run anganwadi playschools now extends benefits to first-born daughters that doesn’t require a single-child parent to undergo surgery to avail of the scheme. For those with two children, however, sterilization of one parent is mandatory.
Some 745,000 women, including those who didn’t have to undergo sterilization as they have only one child, have signed up under the Ladli scheme in the last four years, prompting BJP leader L.K. Advani to declare in his blog that the scheme will turn every girl into a lakhpati.
Rajanti of Patalda village thinks it’s a good deal under the circumstances. Both she and her husband wanted a small family, but he was unwilling to get sterilized, which meant she was the one who needed to undergo the surgery. As she watches her two children, Sunita and Sankar, playing at the local anganwadi after a meal of puri and kheer, the shy woman says: “I did it for my daughter.”
This is the fifth of a six-part series that examines key challenges faced by women throughout India and attempts to overcome them, drawing on experiences in Madhya Pradesh, which has among the worst indicators in the country as far as women are concerned.