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Economic Development & Social Backwardness: Gender Selection

By Rajeshwar Singal | PUBLISHED: 20, Sep 2010, 13:12 pm IST | UPDATED: 15, Apr 2011, 13:12 pm IST

Economic Development & Social Backwardness: Gender Selection

Women have scaled unprecedented heights in all fields, be it politics, science, arts and crafts, education, corporate world or  public service. But it is well known that girls are still considered a burden in our society, which never tires of proclaiming itself as goddess worshipper.

Equally well known are the rampant killing of female foetuses and infant girls. Even though the legislation against pre natal gender testing was passed in 1994, testing appears to have become an underground activity. One does not have to go far to look for the reason. According to frequent reports carried by the media, the male female gender ratio has become so horribly skewed in parts of north India that there is a virtual shortage of girls of marriageable age. Many young men in rural Punjab are marrying girls from eastern and south India and even Nepal.

A personal perspective helped me understand the girl child’s treatment in our society better. Shilpa, our first born, arrived in this world in most interesting circumstances. The lady doctor, a retired kind person, more of a family friend, informed us about a week before the due date that the baby was upside down, in mother’s womb, and that she would have to deliver the baby by a caesarean section.

She asked us jovially if we wanted to consult an astrologer for an auspicious date for the baby’s delivery. Though I knew that these things were commonplace in Hyderabad where I was posted at that time, I chose to be more practical and asked her to perform the surgery on the second Saturday of the month, as it was at that time, in May 1985, the only Saturday off in the government offices.

I could have conveniently attended to my wife Meenakshi and the newborn on Saturday and Sunday and gone to my office on Monday, leaving Meenakshi and the newborn in care of Meenakshi’s parents.   

On Saturday morning I and Meenakshi’s father drove to the hospital, where Meenakshi had been admitted the previous evening. At about eight in the morning Meenakshi was taken inside the operation theatre. While waiting there we learnt that there was a power outage. We turned on the switch of the overhead light in the corridor so that as we could know when the power was restored so that the operation could begin.

A little after eight thirty, we heard the cry of a baby somewhere in the adjoining rooms. Soon thereafter we saw a nurse carrying a tray with a crying baby The nurse disappeared in a room nearby.  Dismissing this as ‘some other baby’, we continued with our anxious wait for the restoration of power supply. Suddenly another nurse emerged from a room nearby and spoke with Meenakshi’s father in Telugu.

After few minutes that nurse left and father turned to me and said quietly in Punjabi, “a baby girl has been born. Nurses are cleaning up the baby.” I said with pleasure, “great. But have they performed the surgery without power supply? Was the baby being carried by the nurse in the tray ours?” Meenakshi’s father again said quietly, “yes”.

While I was overjoyed at the arrival of a baby girl, I could feel slight discomfort in Meenakshi’s father’s words. Nothing unusual, for a new grandparent in India, whose daughter has given birth to a daughter. And in our case the daughter was born to Meenakshi who was the only child of her parents.

His reaction was no different from my own father’s reaction when he had learnt over phone, way back in Nov. 1977, that a baby girl had been born to my sister, her first child, in Chandigarh. He had also mentioned it to my mother in a similar, somewhat dejected manner, that a ‘daughter had been born’.

Though, both my father and Meenakshi’s father and our mothers would later on, naturally rejoice, as sons were born in both families.

Till the gender testing procedure was banned in India in 1994, newspapers all over India, especially the vernacular editions published in smaller towns, used to advertise in bold print on first page about facility of gender testing available in different hospitals and maternity clinics. These advertisements were disguised in form of getting the test done for a ‘healthy boy or girl child’.

And the ‘unwritten’ print was that all female foetuses in womb could be suitably ‘taken care of’. This rampant advertising was started by a small clinic in Amritsar, a large town in prosperous north Indian state of Punjab. Incidentally, Amritsar is also considered a holy city, as the centre of Sikh religion. But the most heinous and unholy work of gender selection began there, which benefited the rural and urban, rich and poor alike, without any differentiation on basis of religion.

The lust for a male progeny is so deeply ingrained into the psyche of a male dominated rural peasantry, howsoever progressive in its outlook, that the hospitals, despite statutory ban on ads by any hospital, made millions by conducting ultra sound tests on pregnant mothers, and aborting female foetuses. It spread like wild fire all over Punjab and neighbouring states, where such small clinics mushroomed almost overnight even in smaller towns.

And Punjab in north India has been notorious for such killing of girl child. Even in the days of the Raj, when most of today’s Pakistan and almost entire northwest India constituted Punjab province, British ICS officers, posted at district headquarters used to make the village heads pledge that no member of their village or community would kill a girl child.