India: Decade after decade, toothless laws see females continue to disappear from demographics
Mumbai ~ Volume 28 - Issue 10 :: May. 07-20, 2011
Worrisome trend By T.K. RAJALAKSHMI
The CSR has declined in 27 States and Union Territories, recording an all-time low, while the adult sex ratio has improved, though slowly.
WHEN the provisional data from Census 2011 were released on March 31, the worst fears of those working in the area of women and child development were confirmed. The horror of a declining child sex ratio (CSR), which first came to light in Census 2001, returned once again, notwithstanding the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act (PCPNDT), 1994, and various other measures both on paper and on the ground to build a more gender-sensitive and girl-child sensitive society. In fact, the jubilation experienced in some quarters about the improvement in the adult sex ratio was premature as it was evident that with the dangerous imbalance in the 0-6 category – termed the feeder category – any improvement in the adult sex ratio could only be temporary. Improvement in adult sex ratios is normally seen as having to do with greater life expectancy and reduced morbidity.
As district-wise data emerge, it will become clear that even the minuscule improvement in the CSRs in some States is not uniformly distributed. This might require a different set of tools for interpretation and a review of those districts that have reported improvements. The national average of 914 girls in the 0-6 age group for every 1,000 males in the same age category shows a decline compared with the previous decade. This has been described as an all-time low by the provisional Census report. What is surprising is that many States that had CSRs above the national average have reported a decline; in some cases, the decline is marginal, in others significant. Interestingly, the States that have reported improvement but still remain far below the national average of 914 include Haryana (from 820 in 2001 to 830 in 2011); Punjab, which has seen an increase of 53 points, the highest rate of increase among all States (798 in 2001 to 846); Himachal Pradesh; Chandigarh; Gujarat; and Tamil Nadu. The top three States with the highest CSRs are Mizoram (971), Meghalaya (970) and Chhattisgarh (964).
What is of concern is that while the CSRs of most of the southern States are higher than the national average, with Kerala (959) leading the group, the projection for the northern States is dismal: a 26-point decrease in Rajasthan; a 16-point decline in Uttar Pradesh, a 34-point decline in Maharashtra, a 20-point slump in Uttarakhand, a 42-point decline in Sikkim (even though Sikkim's CSR is much higher than the national average) and a 21-point decline in Madhya Pradesh. The decline has been sharper in some of the north-eastern States as well. The gap in Manipur went up by 27 points, Nagaland by 31 points and Tripura by 22 points. Among the Union Territories, Dadra & Nagar Haveli showed a very sharp fall – a 49-point drop from 979 in 2001; in Daman & Diu, the gap was not as dramatic but wide nevertheless at 16 points. The national capital remained below the national average, showing a marginal improvement of one point from 865 in 2001 to 866 in 2011. Overall, the CSR has declined in 27 States and Union Territories. It is also apparent that there is some correlation between high population levels and the CSR.
Apart from the usual homilies regarding the decline in the CSR and the Union Health Ministry's less than imaginative intervention to reconstitute the Central Supervisory Board (CSB) under the PCPNDT Act, the reasons for the decline, which go far beyond implementing the PCPNDT Act, have not been taken seriously. The CSB, which is supposed to meet once in six months on issues such as the sex ratio, had not met even once in the past three years, the All India Democratic Women's Association pointed out in a statement. AIDWA said that most of the monitoring committees were dominated by those who were being monitored, while activists and experts were kept out.
UNITED NATIONS DATA
According to data quoted in the United Nations “World Population Prospects 2008” on the 10 most populous countries and on the basis of the provisional censuses of Indonesia and Brazil, females outnumber males in the United States, the Russian Federation, Brazil and Japan. The sex ratios in Indonesia and Nigeria, which were above 1,000, saw a sharp decline over the last decade. The sex ratio was the highest in the Russian Federation. Among the most populous nations, which include China, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh, India ranked the lowest, followed by Pakistan and Bangladesh. In South Asia, the sex ratios of Myanmar, Nepal and Sri Lanka were over 1,000.
ADULT SEX RATIO
The Indian Census report takes for granted what it calls the “historically negative” sex ratio in the country. From 970 females in 1901, the figure has declined in every successive decade, with a minor increase between 1970 and 1980, only to fall again by three points in 1991. The adult sex ratio has been improving but at a very slow pace – clearly, the discrimination at the feeder group stage which prevents many young girls from reaching adolescence or adulthood is still a strong factor.
The emphasis on the small family, the recourse to the two-child norm by some States over the last decade (some of them abandoned such schemes owing to pressure from women's organisations), did not affect the son preference among Indian families. The report draws solace from the fact that States/Union Territories such as Haryana, Punjab, Chandigarh and Delhi, which had a historically low sex ratio, have shown improvements. It is, however, not clear whether this increase is because of migration for work or large-scale importation of girls for marriage from neighbouring States. The lowest sex ratios still persist in Haryana (877), Jammu and Kashmir (883) and Sikkim (889). All in all, the number of States with a sex ratio less than 916 has come down to 10 from 12. The States and Union Territories that showed a high sex ratio recorded increases in their population levels as well. Census 2011 concludes on a rather prematurely jubilant note that the overall increasing trend in the sex ratio has given a boost to the sex ratio of India.
Haryana, which has a rather impressive growth rate, has recorded the lowest adult sex ratio and the lowest CSR. Interestingly, Jhajjar district, which has a high literacy rate of 80.8 per cent (71 per cent for females and 89.4 per cent for males), has the worst CSR at 774.
On the other hand, the Meo Muslim-dominated Mewat district in south-west Haryana has the lowest literacy rate, at 56.1 per cent (37.6 per cent for women), but has the highest CSR (903) and the highest sex ratio (906). This shows that if the sex ratio in the feeder cohort is balanced and healthy, it will reflect in the adult sex ratio. The adult sex ratio cannot be seen independent of the CSR. Mewat is the only district in Haryana to have a CSR above 900. While the CSR in three districts is over 850, four districts, including Rohtak, the home constituency of Chief Minister Bhupendra Singh Hooda, rank below 800. The CSR in Gurgaon, another prosperous district, has shown an improvement but remains low at 826. Sharp declines have been witnessed in Mahendargarh, Bhiwani and Rewari.
A look at the district-wise data of the adult sex ratio of Uttarakhand shows that the better known and touristy districts such as Nainital, Dehra Dun, Udham Singh Nagar and Haridwar have lower sex ratios compared with the strictly hilly districts, where at least in seven the sex ratio has shown a favourable tilt towards women, crossing 1,000.
In the more urbanised parts of the hill State, the sex ratio, higher than the national average barring Haridwar (879), seemed better than the rest of North India. The sex ratio on an average was high at 963, a one-point increase since 2001.
In Tamil Nadu, some interesting patterns were observed. The districts were ranked according to the CSR. While there was not much change in the CSRs of Salem and Dharmapuri districts, which continue to be the lowest in the State but better than the national average, some worrisome trends were noted. For instance, Ramanathapuram, which was ranked fourth in the 2001Census, slipped to the 29th position (from 1,036 in 2001 to 977 in 2011). Similarly, Cuddalore district slipped from the 19th to the 27th position. Three other districts, which had a favourable CSR of over 1,000, witnessed a decline. The CSR of Sivaganga, which was 1,038 in 2001, dropped to 1,008.
DURING THE ANNUAL children's census in Mysore in January 2010 (M.A. SRIRAM)
According to Satish Agnihotri, Director-General of the Shipping Corporation of India and former Secretary, Women and Child Development, in the Orissa government, the reasons for the dip in the juvenile sex ratio need to be studied in minute detail and differences across districts can tell a different story. He authored a book in 2000, titled Sex Ratio Patterns in the Indian Population: A Fresh Exploration.
The rate of decline, he told Frontline, was what was important, and minor improvements did not signify anything big. He agrees that the overall improvement can be due to “structural impacts”, but if the improvements are patchy and inconsistent, they can be more than just a reporting error. The data, he said, had to be correlated with the Sample Registration System data and the Registration of Births and Deaths to see whether the improvements had been consistent.
Implementation of the PCPNDT Act may have been seen as one of the most crucial interventions to check the imbalance, but there have not been too many convictions under this Act. Haryana, which was the first State to convict a doctor under the Act, has registered 54 cases since the legislation came into effect. Only 28 people have been convicted so far. Similarly, in Punjab, where the CSR is low, only 112 cases have been registered thus far and 23 persons have been convicted. The last Annual Report on the implementation of the Act was prepared in 2005. It is not clear why no reports were prepared after that period.
IMPLEMENTING THE ACT
The report identified certain difficulties in the implementation of the Act. Firstly, in prenatal sex selection, the persons seeking the illegal service and the service provider were in agreement about the need to defeat/circumvent the provisions of the law, the report said. Neither of the two parties would be complainants. The non-availability of evidence or a witness was the main hindrance in punishing errant doctors, it concluded.
Secondly, the report said, the Appropriate Authorities (Chief Medical Officers/Civil Surgeons) were unable to devote adequate attention to the work relating to the PCPNDT Act. They felt they were not fully equipped to carry out the work. Clearly, this “feeling” had to be addressed by the government and not by the persons appointed as Appropriate Authorities, it said. The third problem identified in the report is equally baffling. The Appropriate Authorities did not have the necessary expertise and experience in legal matters, it noted. Evidently, nothing prevented the government from imparting legal training to them.
Fourthly, the report observed that many (people) did not see sex selective abortions as a crime but as the best way of keeping the family size small and yet having the desired number of sons. As the law itself was ineffective, nothing deterred people from going in for sex selective abortions. Also, this argument presupposed that women were the willing agency and were complicit in the act of sex selective tests, the report said.
The fifth problem was that abortions conducted illegally by untrained or unqualified persons were rife, which further hindered the implementation of the Act. Going by the sheer helplessness expressed in the report, it seems that the government is determined to play a passive role as far as arresting the decline in the CSR is concerned.
But the issue cannot lie solely with the implementation of the Act, which, given other things being unequal, will not be deployed effectively. The other things include addressing escalating violence against women in the name of dowry, dowry deaths, low rate of conviction in dowry-related murders, the unreasonable and baseless demand to dilute laws that are meant for the protection of women, high marriage expenses for which the standards are often set by the rich and, last but not least, unequal economic rights for women.