This is an industry in which you have eager consumers and equally ‘efficient’ service providers. It is not easy to break the nexus between the patient’s family, the doctors and the radiologists. Will social awareness help solve the problem?... In all fairness, shouldn’t we first reserve a place for a female foetus in the womb much before we can reserve seats for adult women in Parliament, asks Aruti Nayar
TO the 2001 census, the sex ratio in Haryana has declined from 869 to
820 females per 1000 males. The lowest ratio in the state is in
Kurukshetra, 770 females per 1000 males, and Ambala with 784 females per
1000 males is not far behind. As one travels in the dusty haze and
scorching heat towards Ambala, the effort is just to piece together few
random pointers and peep into stories behind impersonal data and cold
statistics. After all, it is human traits such as the need for social
approval, longing for the continuity of the lineage and the ever-present
lure of Mammon that lie behind such a disturbing demographic trend.
Interestingly, the fear of God is invoked by many, including those allegedly running a racket that involves radiologists, owners of ultrasound machines and scanners, gynaecologists and even RMPs. "Most of the clinics where PNDT (prenatal diagnostic technique) and subsequent abortions are done run under the garb of fertility centres," says Dr Jaspal, the president of the Haryana unit of the IMA. Almost every doctor admitted that sex-selective abortions were being performed with a recklessness that was bound to have an effect on the composition of the population. "Who is bothered about the macro-level picture and, more than that, who is bothered about the health of the women subjected to repeated abortions?" These are the words of an educated urban woman who just didn’t want to disclose her name. "Least of all, the doctors, for whom it is a ‘God-sent’ opportunity to rake in the moolah." It was as though the distance between the ‘village’ and the ‘town’ had ultimately been bridged through an easy access to the facilities that enabled people to ‘plan’ or rather ‘choose’ their families.
A doctor, who is alleged to have made all his money in this ‘business’ but preferred to think of himself only as a surgeon, did admit, "The urban areas are much worse than the rural ones. While in the rural areas people waited, the urbanites wanted to check out on the sex of the child in the first pregnancy and despite warnings against aborting the first child, 10 to 20 per cent people did so. About 80 per cent of them did so for the second child and 95 per cent in the case of the third child." Though he stubbornly refuted the allegation that abortions were being carried out at his ‘hospital,’ his receptionist admitted that the practice was on. "The desire of every woman is to be the mother of, at least, one son. A childless woman is an ‘incomplete’ woman and the one who only has daughters is also only partially complete. It is only after she had produced a son that she enjoys a status of sorts," says another doctor whose wife has made her millions by cashing on this manifest desire of women and their families.
Gurpreet felt that all her starry-eyed notions about marital bliss had been shattered when her mother-in-law coerced her into as many as four abortions, but finally, she had given birth to a son. Her eyes brimming with tears, she says, "I wish the woman doctor had refused to follow my mother-in-law’s diktat. But, I suppose they all want to make money, because if she hadn’t done it, someone else would have." It’s difficult to explain to her that if she didn’t stand up for herself, who would? Her logic is, "I can’t rebel and break up my marriage." Avaricious doctors get a stiff competition from the radiologists and RMPs. So they tie up with diagnostic centres, that is, if they don’t have the ultrasound facilities on their own premises. When everybody is thriving and happy, why should the RMPs be left behind? So they, too, jump on to this money-spinning racket which functions on the principle of mutual symbiosis. The diagnostic centres advertise about the facility to have a sada or rangin x-ray GE (America) ki 300 MA ki adhunik machine va naveentam European technology. A normal ultrasound costs about Rs 200 but when you want to disclose the sex of the child, it varies from Rs 450 to 600. But as one of them put it almost enviously, "It costs Rs 2000 in Jaipur."
Small wonder, an MD in medicine found it more profitable to invest in a mobile van, fit it with an ultrasound machine and go from village to village, offering ‘services’ at the doorstep. After all, you have invested in the machine and/or in the infrastructure, so you must recover the cost from the desperate women and their families. So what if many of them contract disease, die and are even bed-ridden due to messed up abortions in unhygienic conditions. According to an estimate, there are 81 per cent non-institutional deliveries in Haryana alone. Exploiting the opportunity to the hilt, quacks even profess to disclose the sex of the foetus at 10 weeks (something that is not possible before 16 weeks). What is more, they charge separately for the ultrasound and the abortion, thus duping the patients. Sharan was one such woman duped by a village quack. "He asked us for Rs 5,000 because he said the case was a difficult one."
An RMP in Tepla, a small hamlet on the Ambala-Jagadhri road, says that he does not take any money either from the doctor or the patients. He just asks them to put petrol worth Rs 60 in his scooter for ferrying them across to town. "Of course, ‘they’ (at the centres), do give me concession whenever I either visit personally or send my friends across."
Kulwinder has three children, two daughters, one-year and six-year old, and a two-year-old son, but she got the test done and will now keep the son. Had it been a daughter, of course, she would have aborted it. Sohan Biri from Rajgarh and Baljeet Kaur from Chaurpur, who do not have any children and are waiting at the ‘fertility clinic’ for the doctor to perform the miracle, think that it’s better to have a daughter than no child, at all.
Reasons for producing ‘an heir apparent’ vary from intensely personal to social approval. Among the land-owning class, it’s almost an obsession. "It’s only a son that makes the father feel like a man and provides a stick in the old age. We have so much of land. If I don’t have a son, my brother-in-law’s sons will get the lion’s share." Love for land extends to an obsession for the son, any which way, and the woman without a son is considered to be no more than a piece of fallow land. But it’s daughters who love and whose umbilical cord is rarely ever cut. "The moment they hear that their parents are not well, they start off for their maika," says Premwati, a mother of three young daughters.
Veero (not her real name) looks anaemic and malnourished and years older than her 34 years. If one half of her life has been spent yearning for a son and having four abortions, one after the other, the rest of it is full of regret for not having body who will give her " paani te aag." "Munde de bina maa-peo rul jaande ne," she says, her eyes brimming over with tears and unknown fears lurking in them. Her three daughters are not hers, "Aulad te munda hi hoonda hai. Kudiyan te beganiyan hoondian." Her three daughters will be there and yet not there. All logic deserts when one sees tears rolling down her cheeks. One cannot help wondering how all rhetoric about empowerment of women and improving their status is just hogwash, something that often keeps feminists and the elite urban woman busy. The ground reality is a different story altogether. Mothers don’t want to bring daughters into the world and make them undergo what they themselves have. "If boys are valued, they are. Nothing that I say or do is going to change it. By having a son, a woman can actually strengthen herself," feels a woman, if you please.
"What is better, having an unwanted daughter or none at all?" shoots off Pratap Dayi, who had aborted a female foetus five times over. "As it is, I have no place in my house, and my daughter would most certainly have been worse off. There would have been ghee and milk for my brother-in-law’s sons and not even a roti for her — plus the land would have been theirs, too." Another old woman put the whole thing in the perspective when she said, "While nobody wants daughters, where will daughters-in-law come from?" Sunita Rani, barely 20, was of the view "ladke to baache nahi paida karte." She feels if there are no girls where will the future generations come from. But a woman doctor, who has a flurishing practice on the outskirts of Ambala City, was purposeful though somewhat mechanical, "Bring the patient. It will cost Rs 2,000." She feels that indiscriminate abortions of the female foetus should be allowed to continue. "Whatever is happening should be allowed to continue unchecked," she maintains. "The value of women will shoot up and they will come on horseback and take boys away," is her somewhat bizarre justification.
Another gynaecologist feels that what’s the big fuss about sex-selective abortions, everyone knows its happening and will continue to happen. "If you have stringent laws and conviction, the whole business will go underground and the rates will shoot up. Then, you may even have middlemen and more lives will be endangered because it will be surreptitious".
Shockingly enough, like most other social practices, even this underground racket had institutionalised itself rather well. Like any well-regulated social system, even this ‘trade’ had a definite sense of hierarchy. When I told one of the practising doctor who all I had met in the course of my journey, his spontaneous response was, "Well, you have really met the kings of this trade". It’s another matter that the said doctor painstakingly denied that any such ‘illegal’ operation was carried out at his clinic. It was an entirely new lingo. ‘Service providers’ engaged in a ‘trade’ in a cloak and dagger fashion, with the long arm of the law resting easily at a safe distance. Crimes against women are bound to rise if there is disproportionate sex ratio, but who really gives a damn? This is an industry in which you have eager consumers and equally ‘efficient’ service providers. It is not easy to break the nexus between the patient’s family, the doctors and the radiologists. Will social awareness help solve the problem? Here’s a wake up call for NGOs and women organisations. In all fairness, shouldn’t we first reserve a place for a female foetus in the womb much before we can reserve seats for adult women in Parliament? Unless that happens, we must continue to repeat with Amartya Sen, "Where are India’s missing women?"