But run your eyes over the children running around the lanes and by-lanes. You do see a difference; it stares you in the face. Where are the girls? Why are there so few of them out in the open? Are they working with their mothers? Or are they in school?
None of the above is true; there are far fewer girls than boys in this village. Bahrana has the distinction of the most skewed sex ratio in the country in the 0-6 age group. For every 1,000 boys there are just 378 girls. The national average in this age group is 914 girls per 1,000 boys.
So what has happened here? Is it a miracle? The villagers certainly seem to think so. “There is something in the environment that ensures more boys are born than girls. The air and the water here are more suitable for the birth of a male child,” says K C Ahlawat, a village social worker. And it’s not just Ahlawat, this seems to be the general belief. Even at the sub-primary health centre and maternity home, health workers seem to accept the reasoning, though amnioscentesis is an obvious explanation.
No, there is no science to it, but over many decades it’s been observed that more males are born in this village.
“No, there is no science to it, but over many decades it’s been observed that more males are born in this village,” says Rekha Rani, a multi-purpose health worker at the centre.
Educated youth are the most convinced that it is their diet and the environment that enables them to make more boy babies in this part of Haryana. Narendra Yadav, 32, believes that he will also have sons after marriage, as he is a well-built healthy man.
“The quality of food, our diet and the atmosphere makes us physically strong so the men are more likely to produce a male child,” asserts Kumar.
The mindset seems to have rubbed off on virtually everyone. The civil surgeon at the government hospital in Jhajjar,
, sketches his family tree to argue that when it comes to more men being born in this area scientific explanations fail to account for the fact. It has as much to do with the atmosphere and lifestyle of the area.
Singh contends, “If you look at our family tree we have more men than women and I can vouch for this, that there has not been any sex determination in our family.”
The more you talk to them the more vehement their assertions that environment is the main factor behind more males than females, but inside their hearts they probably know that there is something more to it. Singh himself may believe in the “something in the air” theory, but as a government official he has done surveys and studies to find out why the sex ratio is skewed in this village.
He is well aware of the social scenario. “Some factors have always existed in this society. For instance, every couple is greedy for at least one male child, including me. At the same time, they do not want more than two children. In such a situation, couples go in for illegal sex determination followed by sex-selective abortions if the fetus is a female.”
How long has this been going on in the village? Kamlesh Devi, who heads the sub-primary health centre and maternity home, reminisces: “When I started in 1997, ultra-sound machines had just started making inroads in the village and people would talk to each other about it. I think the accessibility of technology is the main reason for people choosing sex-selective abortions over natural births. And since the need for a boy always prevailed, the machines catered to the demand for a boy.”
The situation has worsened between the 2001 census and the 2011 census, despite stringent laws in place. Amnioscentesis is not a cheap process and it is illegal, so fraught with risk. If caught, the consequences could be serious. Then who are the people going in for sex determination? The health department conducted a survey early this year to determine precisely this.
Singh says: “If the first child is a male parents do not want a second one. Bahrana is a typical example of this phenomenon. We did a survey of the single-child families and found that of a total of 103 in the village, 60 had male children and 43 females as their first and last child. Among the parents of the males, 38 have adopted permanent measures of sterilisation and the rest are using contraceptives.”
Besides social factors there are economic factors at play. Rizwan Parwez, a campaigner with the Centre for Policy and Research notes that, “With the rising cost of living people prefer smaller family sizes. In such a case the desire for a male child is higher and they resort to illegal means to achieve it. The wealthier the family, the more likely the indulgence in illegal practices. The economically weaker sections end up having more than two children in order to fulfill the wish for a boy.”
Studies in India show
a connection between sex ratio and incomes. People with higher incomes have the
resources to adopt illegal methods to bring a baby boy into the world. Preeti
Devi’s case is a good example. As she lies in labour on the table at the sub-primary
health centre and maternity home in Bahrana, she wonders about the gender of
the baby. It is the gender that takes priority above everything, even health.
“I’m scared; if a girl is born she will be not be welcomed by the family. That’s why I went with my husband to Jhajjar town to find out the sex of the baby. They asked us to pay ₹3,000 for the test. We couldn’t afford it. All our requests for concession fell on deaf ears. Now, here I am, stressed out about the sex of the baby. More than the pain it is the gender that is taking a toll on me,” she says.
Rani who has been at the centre since 2000 has noticed that it’s mostly the poorer people who knock on the doors of the centre. “We maintain records of all pregnant women in the village but the rich families don’t come to our centre. So we can never really keep tabs on their pregnancy. Those who register here are the ones who need free medicines, money and other benefits given by the government to pregnant women. In my experience the women who come to the centre end up with more than four pregnancies in the yearning for a boy.”
This obsession with having a boy has taken over the minds of one and all in Bahrana. They have their reasons, good ones, doubtless. For instance, take Mahendra, 40, proud father of two boys. “Who will take the family name forward? You see this house, these fields, all belong to our family and we need sons to take care of this after us. I feel every household needs an heir, without which the family will be ruined.”
As people in the village get more candid I notice that the myth of “something in the air” is beginning to break down. Definitely, there is a demand for a baby boy and there are means available to fulfill this demand.
Of course, this urge
for a boy is not something special to Bahrana. It’s simply that this village
has become the extreme example of a national trend which is prevalent in other
parts of the country. The decline in the sex ratio became apparent in the 2001
census. Since then, many steps have been implemented to control the decline.
Things have got worse, however, and this raises questions on the effectiveness
of policies and implementation of law.
It was in January that the census officially named Bahrana as the village with the lowest sex ratio in the country. The consequent notoriety has forced the Jhajjar district administration to become far more vigilant in the implementation of the law. Since previous steps have not delivered results the administration has come up with a new plan. To keep tabs on ultrasound procedures in the district, it has introduced advanced technology in the form of “Active Tracker” at all 29 ultrasound clinics in the district.
A lot of attention has been paid to make it tamper-proof. Singh explains, “In case someone tries to tamper with it, the SIM inside will immediately send an SMS to me and the DC [District Collector] on the registered mobile phones. We have ensured that no one tries to mess with the system.”
This is the first district in Haryana to install trackers in the ultrasound clinics. Singh says they’re already seeing results.
“Last year, between January to March 2,000 ultrasounds were done in our district. It has risen to 2,800 in the same period this year. Now these 800 could have been illegal sex-determination tests but we know about them as the tracker has kept a record.”
All trackers are
linked to a website, www.merigudia.com, through a special server which helps
monitor the ultrasound machines round-the-clock to prevent their misuse for sex
determination. They can’t be detached from the machine as the source of power
for the tracker and the ultrasound machine is the same. If one is disconnected,
the other can’t operate.
With the help of Active Tracker the government can keep tabs on all the clinics and the patients. Singh spells it out. “We’re keeping a list of ante-natal cases and also a list of people who have gone through an ultrasound to check their pregnancy in the third trimester. We track the outcome. If after six months there is no pregnancy that means sex determination. And then we know the child has been killed so we go back to the ultrasound machine and investigate the case. This way we are keeping a vigil on the clinics day and night.”
The clinics spent about Rs 28,000 to install the trackers. Dr Rakesh Garg, ultra-sonologist in Jhajjar, welcomes the tracker. “It’s a good initiative. Also it helps doctors who are not indulging in malpractices to keep their heads above the water. It works well for us as everything is in black and white. Even though I had to spend money for it I think it is for the larger good.”
Another doctor from Jhajjar, on condition of anonymity, speaks about how after the installation of the tracker fewer people are coming with requests for sex determination. “Earlier, invariably, one would get at least two to three requests a month. Now this has come down. Word about the monitoring of clinics has spread and people have stopped coming at least to the clinics in Jhajjar.”
The other steps include creating awareness. The administration conducted a huge campaign to save the girl child in November 2011. It is also involving stakeholders in being part of such campaigns so that they become aware of the issue and avoid illegal practices. Apart from this, government schemes for paying for the education of daughters are running in parallel. The government opens bank accounts for the girl but the money is available only after she is 18.
These are small steps to solve a huge problem but most feel the law must be implemented in its entirety. The Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act, 1994, prohibits “sex selection, before or after conception” and prevents expectant parents from using pre-natal diagnostic techniques to find out the sex of their baby. Singh believes the Act needs more teeth.
“There are loopholes in the Act. If there’s no complainant the case fizzles out. There is a need for an amendment so that I as civil surgeon should be able to register FIRs against the clinics based on a complaint.”
While changes in the Act might take time, the impact of the decreasing sex ratio
is visible both in the village and in Jhajjar district. The women feel there’s
a threat to their security surrounding them, always. If one looks at the figure
of crime against women in the last five years once notices an increase. Kavita,
42, a mother of daughters expresses her anxiety.
When I got married and came, this village had a balance of sexes
“Till my daughters come back home from school and college I’m worried. These days the outside world is not safe for women and with many men in our village not getting married the women have to face the brunt.’
Basanti, 95, the oldest woman in Bahrana, has seen it change over the years. Hale and hearty she walks around the village exchanging greetings with one and all. She feels the pressure of the present imbalance of sexes and expresses her concern about it.
“When I got married and came, this village had a balance of sexes. We as women had to cover our faces but we moved around freely. Today I cannot let my granddaughter go alone after dark. I feel the woman today is more oppressed than in our times.”
She adds: “We have more than 400 men in our village who have reached or crossed marriageable age. In fact, the marriageable age has got later and later for our men in the village. The problem is that there are no women to marry these poor boys.”
Taqdeer is not yet married although he’s 29, well past the time in most vilalges. His family has been looking for a bride these past five years. Finally, though, a deal has been struck. The girl whom his brother is marrying has a younger sister and the family has decided to marry the two girls to Taqdeer and his brother.
“It feels like I’ve won a lottery. I was on the verge of breakdown and tired of listening to the taunts of my friends and elders.‘When will you get married?’ That’s all they asked. Since the women are fewer than men, it’s difficult to find girls, all the more so for an uneducated man like me. But now I will marry soon. It’s been a long wait. Most of my friends are still struggling to find girls to marry.”
Taqdeer, as his name suggests, may have been lucky, but many in the village have started buying brides from other states. Satyendra Yadav, 47, travelled all the way to Tripura to get a bride for his brother but it didn’t work out.
“My brother’s still not married. But more and more people are bringing brides from West Bengal, Bihar, Assam and Tripura. We have to pay the family of the bride for marriage as mostly they are very poor,” he says.
Aarti, the bride from Tripura who has been married in this village, now plays intermediary in getting more women from her village. ‘I’m comfortable here. In the beginning I had problems adjusting, but now I’ve accepted the customs of this place.” Aarti speaks perfect Haryanavi now.
The condition of women with daughters is particularly grim. Naveen, 25, is a mother of three daughters. Her frail demeanour shows that she’s not in good health. She is pregnant a fourth time, hoping for a son.
“The doctor scolded me when I went to her for a check-up after conceiving. She asked me to go for sterilisation last time but I did not as we had to try for a boy again. Doctor has advised me to take care as I am weak, but I am responsible for household chores, my daughters and the cattle,” she says.
It is not just the physical stress she has to cope with. The last two occasions when she had daughters, she was packed off to her father’s house for six months each time with all her girls.
“My children missed school while I was at my parents’ house. Both times when I had my second and third daughters, my husband lost his cool. He beat me up and disowned me. It was only after mediation by my family that I came back to my in-laws’ place,” Naveen says.
This time, she has found consolation in one sign. “In the previous three pregnancies I had a constant stomach, which is missing this time. So maybe it’s a boy. If I had my way I wouldn’t have any other child. I’m tired, but I have no say. My husband and his family want a son to carry the name of the family and also for an heir to the property. I’m listening to them as I have no choice but this time I’ve decided that I’ll get myself sterilised so that there’s no more pregnancy. I’m tired of the whole thing.”
While on the one hand
the girls of Bahrana attend school till Class 10 or 12, on the other hand the
urge for a boy is still strong among the villagers. The parents of these girls
ensure that they get an educated husband so that their daughter’s future is
secure but they still find them a social burden.
Ahlawat says, ‘Yes, I would like my daughter who is doing her Bachelor’s to marry an educated man but still I will have to pay dowry during her marriage. And for an educated boy the dowry is always more. That’s why a lot of people don’t want to bring up girls.’
While Bahrana is still struggling with the sex ratio, Aamir Khan’s “Satyamev Jayate” has given momentum to the issue of gender ratio imbalances. Villagers have seen the programme but aren’t sure if it’ll really open the eyes of the youngsters standing in line to marry.
As Aarti says, “If, after watching the programme, people allow girls to be born normally, women like me will not have to be uprooted from another culture to start a new life.”