It is a cruel irony of a fast-growing India that there are fewer and fewer girls as a ratio of total births, as a result of complex factors that include parental preference.
New data from the Civil Registration System of the Registrar General of India point to the hardening of the pattern, with a fall in sex ratio at birth from 898 girls to 1,000 boys in 2013, to 887 a year later.
This trend is consistent with evidence from the Census figures of 2001 and 2011. What is shocking is that the overall data mask the horror of particular districts and panchayats falling well below the national ratio, especially in the zero-to-six years assessment category.
The scourge has, in some cases, prompted the Supreme Court to take note of the situation, and the National Human Rights Commission to ask for an explanation from State governments.
In the understanding of the Centre, which it has conveyed to Parliament, girls stand a poor chance at survival because there is a “socio-cultural mindset” that prefers sons, girls are seen as a burden, and family size has begun to shrink.
The government responded to the silent crisis with the ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ campaign, which focusses on the prevention of sex-selective abortions, creation of opportunities for education and protection of girl children. Now that the scheme is set to enter its third year in January, there should be a speedy assessment of its working, particularly in districts with a poor sex ratio where it has been intensively implemented.
A wider assessment needs to be made on why States such as Tamil Nadu with a strong social development foundation have slipped on sex ratio at birth (834), going by the CRS data for 2014.
The cradle baby scheme was started in 1992 in Tamil Nadu to raise the survival chances of girl children by encouraging mothers to give them anonymously for adoption. Yet, the latest numbers, together with the persistence of the programme after 24 years, and 260 babies being abandoned in just one centre over a six-year period, make it clear that policy has achieved little in real terms.
Clearly, there is a need to go beyond slogans and institute tangible schemes. Enforcement of the law that prohibits determination of the sex of the foetus must go hand in hand with massive social investments to protect both immediate and long-term prospects of girls — in the form of cash incentives through registration of births, a continuum of health care, early educational opportunities and social protection. Half-measures cannot produce a dramatic reversal of the shameful national record.