Maharashtra gets ready to give up the fight to save the girl child
IT'S NOT just bewildering but worrying. Over a month has passed since the Maharashtra Legislative Assembly’s Public Accounts Committee (pac) submitted a report in the state assembly, recommending that prenatal sex determination test should be made mandatory. Such a test is currently illegal under the PreConception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (pcpndt) Act of 1994 that aims to prevent female foeticide. pac’s report has raised a furore among social activists, academics and health rights experts, with several of them demanding its immediate rejection. But the Maharashtra government remains tight-lipped about it.
This is worrying because Maharashtra was one of the first states to recognise the problem of sex-selective abortion way back in the 1980s and became the pioneer in implementing the pcpndt Act. But of late, child sex ratio in the state has been declining—census reports show that the number of girl children in the state declined from 913 for every 1,000 boys to 894 between 2001 and 2011, and is much below the national average of 919. A recent incident highlights what could be the reason for the declining trend. In March, just a few days before pac made its recommendations public, the state police busted a sex-selective abortion racket at Mhaisal village in western Maharashtra’s Sangli district, and found 19 aborted foetuses dumped near a hospital.
Activists fear that such incidents would become rampant if the government accepts pac’s report. pac, however, claims otherwise. It says once the parents come to know that the mother is carrying a female foetus
through compulsory sex determination test, they would be encouraged for follow-up check-ups and the mother would be monitored for any suspected ill-practices or attempts to abort the pregnancy. If the couple discontinues coming to the hospital for check-ups, doctors would visit them at their residence. District health officers and nonprofits would also be involved in the monitoring process. Tracking the mother throughout the pregnancy would help ensure that the girl child survives.
State legislator Gopaldas Agrawal, who heads pac, says the recommendation brings the parents under the purview of the pcpndt Act. So far, only doctors were held liable for illegally letting the parents know about the sex of the child and helping them abort. “I will not say that the pcpndt Act has proved futile. No law is perfect,” says Agrawal. The government needs to improve the law so that it becomes more effective. pac of Maharashtra is the first in the country to suggest amendments to the pcpndt Act and help improve it, he adds.
But why victimise the victims?
Kamayani Bali Mahabal, head of Mumbaibased network Forum Against Sex Selection, says the recommendations would result in round-the-clock surveillance of pregnant women both within the family and by the authorities. Besides, the authorities may link all cases of abortion to sex selection. This will create needless pressure on women even though they have little say in continuing or terminating a pregnancy, she adds.
The amendments made to the pcpndt Act in 2003 recognised this lack of autonomy faced by women and had thus kept the pregnant woman out of the ambit of the Act.
Yogesh Joshi, a doctor from Pune who runs a diagnostic lab, elaborates another likely scenario. “Mandatory sex determination test would fuel a proliferation of illegal facilities for getting rid of unwanted female foetuses. Couples would first go to illegal facilities to get the sex determination test done and approach the state machinery only if they have conceived a male child. The authorities would never get to know about female foeticide,” says Joshi. His words underscore the fact that despite the pcpndt Act, the government has failed to keep track of the illegal scanning and abortion centres that have
"No law is perfect... Maharashtra Public Accounts Committee is the first in India to suggest amendments to the Pre-Conception and PreNatal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act and help improve it" -Gopaldas Agrawal, Head, Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Maharashtra
mushroomed across the country since 1994.
Anant Phadke of Jan Swasthya Abhiyan in Pune says the recommendations would affect women’s already poor access to safe abortion. As the government would make abortion-related rules stringent, licensed centres may shy away from performing abortions to avoid legal complexities. This would force women in need, such as those carrying babies with genetically inherited diseases, to rely on illegal abortion centres, who may charge exorbitantly and may not provide safe abortion and post-abortion care. Besides, Phadke says, the government does not have enough human resource and infrastructure for tracking women carrying female fetuses and monitoring their health.
This is not the first time such suggestions have been floated. Last year, Union Cabinet Minister for Women & Child Development Maneka Gandhi had suggested making sex determination during pregnancy legal. It stirred up a hornet’s nest before Gandhi could issue a statement, saying that her remarks were personal views.
Manisha Gupte, co-founder of nonprofit Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsh Mandal in Pune, says it is ironical that such a recommendation is being made in Maharashtra, where women and health rights activists had forced the state government to implement the law by linking the use of sex-selection and sex-detection technologies to gender-based discrimination and thereafter to the declining child sex ratio in India.
When Down To Earth told Agrawal about the opposition by human right activists, he said that the recommendations are only suggestions to the state government. If the state government finds them worthy, it will apprise the Union government of it. The Union government, which is the ultimate authority, will further analyse the recommendations and decide whether to amend the pcpndt Act or not. “This is a long and tedious process. We do not understand why people are criticising it,” he said.
While sources say the state government is yet to begin studying pac’s recommendations, activists maintain that the government should focus on stringent implementation of the pcpndt Act, which has clearly acted as a deterrent to female foeticide wherever it has been used effectively.
"PAC suggestion would victimise women who have little say in continuing or terminating a pregnancy" -Kamayani Bali Mahabal, Head, Forum Against Sex Selection, Mumbai
"This will affect women's already poor access to safe abortion. Most governmentrecognised centres do not perform abortions due to legal complexities "-Anant Phadke, Jan Swasthya Abhiyan, Pune, India chapter of People's Health Movement
"It's ironical that such suggestions are being made in Maharashtra, which had pioneered in implementing the PCPNDT Act" -Manisha Gupte, Founder, Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsh Mandal, Pune