Sex Selection
While there could be some discrepancy in the latest data that has been released, experts say that improving technology to aid sex selection has led to the worsening numbers.
Image for representation. Courtesy: Picxy.com

Over the last decade, a lot more girls in south India went ‘missing’ as Amartya Sen said, than their sisters in the years before. They were not given a chance to be born, thanks to son preference. Barring Kerala, the sex ratio at birth of the south Indian states have witnessed a dramatic plunge over the last nine years. This, as per data based on the Civil Registration System (CRS)  for 2016 released by the Office of the Registrar General.

States like Tamil Nadu, Andhra and Karnataka, whose sex ratios were much higher than the national average just nine years ago, are now staring at bleak figures – much below states that have struggled with their sex ratios for decades. But while the numbers may come as a shock for you and me, activists and experts who have been working on preventing sex selection at birth say, this turn of events is not surprising in the least.

“Everyone knew it was going to happen,” says Gita Aravamudan, a journalist and author of ‘Disappearing Daughters: The Tragedy of Female Foeticide’. Gita has researched and written about sex selection in India for several years now, and says those in the field were not surprised by the data. “If medical help is available (for sex selection), people will take it. They are not ignorant. It cuts across caste, community... sex selective abortions are happening,” Gita says.

Sabu George, an activist who has been campaigning against pre-natal sex determination, also says, “There is no question. All southern states are falling. There is no doubt that sex determination and sex elimination are taking place.”

While the underlying issue of son preference has always existed, people working in the field say that over the last decade, several factors have aided the drop in sex ratios. Firstly, several new technologies have emerged that make sex selection easier. “It’s not just scans anymore,” says Gita. Another reason is the pushback from doctors, who have been claiming harassment by law enforcement officials if they search hospitals under the law to prevent sex selection.

How the numbers stand

Andhra Pradesh together with Rajasthan recorded the lowest sex ratio at birth for the year 2016 at 806 girls for 1,000 boys. Tamil Nadu was the fourth lowest in the country at 840, below states like Uttarakhand and Bihar. Both Andhra and Tamil Nadu are below the national average of 877 for the year 2016. States like Telangana and Karnataka fared no better at 881 and 896 girls for 1,000 boys respectively. Only Kerala witnessed a slight increase in its sex ratio at birth, from 944 in 2007 to 954 in 2016.

Sikkim (999), Andaman and Nicobar islands (987) and Chhattisgarh (980) have the highest sex ratio at birth as per CRS data.

India, on the whole, has seen a dip in SRB from 903 in 2007 to 877 in 2016. Worryingly, however, states like Andhra which had a “normal sex ratio at birth” in 2007 at 974 has seen a 17% drop in nine years. Significantly, its neighbouring state Telangana has also recorded a sharp decline since 2013 when the state was formed. From 954 in 2013, Telangana’s SRB dropped n 2015 to 834, and then marginally increased to 881 in 2016.

Tamil Nadu as well has seen its overall sex ratio at birth drop by 10% in nine years. While it plummeted to 818 in 2015, the sex ratio at birth saw a slight increase to 840 the next year.  Even Karnataka, whose sex ratio was slightly imbalanced towards girls until 2010 at 1025 has seen its numbers crash in the subsequent years.

Puducherry has also seen a small decrease in its sex ratio at birth from 950 in 2007 to 931 in 2016.

Significantly, as per CRS’s data, all the southern states have over 95% registration of births in 2016. States like Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have recorded 100% registration. So it’s not a question of female births not being registered in these states.

New technologies, old methods

In India, where sex selection and female infanticide have traditionally been practiced, the government brought in the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act in 1994. Under this law, sex determination is prohibited – that is, with the help of medical practitioners or other means, parents are not allowed to know the gender of their unborn child.

One way of determining the sex of a foetus is an ultrasound scan after the 12th week of pregnancy – and doctors and nurses are prohibited from telling parents the child’s gender.

However, over the last decade, there have been several technological advancements, and expectant parents today have several other means of sex selection – and there are no laws to check and combat these methods. This includes sperm sorting, implantation of male embryos (during IVF), DNA testing using blood, etc.

Pushback from doctors

Another reason, activists point out, is the pushback from doctors and hospitals when it comes to implementing the law. For a few years now, doctors have been complaining and protesting about what they call ‘draconian’ provisions in the PCPNDT Act, which includes searches at ultrasound centres and a lot of paperwork. With doctors going to court in several instances, activists say this has affected the implementation of the law.

“If courts begin to accept the argument that doctors are being harassed due to the sex determination laws, that is when we are lost,” says Sabu. 

Why some states are improving

States like Maharashtra, Haryana and Rajasthan, which had low sex ratios, have improved marginally over the years. “Wherever the law (Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act) has been implemented, we have seen an improvement,” says Sabu.

Gita also adds that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s pet project Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao may have also contributed to the increase in sex ratios in some states. “Awareness may be much higher as a lot of money was pumped in there because of Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao,” she notes.

Discrepancy in data

However, Sabu is slightly skeptical of CRS’ figures. “Are things as bad as the data suggests? I am not sure,” he says, pointing out that CRS moved to the online system in 2015. “Did this capture every birth? I am not sure,” he says.

The activist urges one to look at the differing data sets. Take the National Family Health Survey -4 which has data for 2015-16. The survey gives a break-up of the urban and rural sex ratio at birth. SRB in Urban Andhra, Kerala, Tamil Nadu and Telangana is higher, while in Karnataka and Puducherry, the sex ratio at birth is higher in rural parts of the state. 

Moreover, Karnataka, Kerala and Tamil Nadu witnessed an increase in the sex ratio at birth compared to NFHS-3 data for the year 2005-06.

The NFHS’s sex ratio at birth data for 2015-16 also varies from CRS’s numbers. Similarly, data from the Health Management Information System shows that sex ratio at birth in Tamil Nadu for 2015 was 912, as opposed to CRS’s figures which was 818 for the same year. The Sample Registration Survey Statistical Report released by the Office of Registrar General and Census Commissioner recorded the sex ratio at birth in Tamil Nadu for 2012-14 at 918.

Pointing to the differences in the data, Sabu says, “Each will claim theirs is accurate. We need to build proper systems.”