Lack of access to healthcare, malnutrition and selective abortion — all these have contributed to over 40 million women dying in India. And these are the issues the government needs to address now…

Last month, on March 8, we celebrated the centenary of International Women's Day. A day later some celebrated the passage of the Women's Reservation Bill in the Rajya Sabha while others ranted and raved against it. Still others asked whether 63 years after Independence, any of this made a material difference to the lives of the majority of Indian women.

The latter were, of course, right. Symbolic gestures have little meaning when every year over 40 million Indian women die for no other reason than not being able to access healthcare, if and when they do being discriminated against, being so malnourished that even if they get treatment they cannot survive, and all this only if they are not eliminated before birth or after being born.

Yes, also on March 8, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) released its 2010 Asia-Pacific Human Development Report titled, “Voice and Rights: A turning point for gender equality in Asia and the Pacific”. The picture that emerged of India was not a happy one. In most countries, women generally outnumber and outlive men. As a result, they are a little over half the population. But in India, they constitute 48.2 per cent of the population, worse than Pakistan where the situation is bad enough with women being 48.5 per cent of the population. Even Bangladesh is better at 48.8 per cent. The reason this has happened is a combination of the factors that have led to 42.7 million “missing” women (2007 data).

Chilling reminder

As if we needed another reminder, The Economist magazine carried a hard-hitting feature under the headline: “Gendercide – The worldwide war on babies” (March 4, 2010). “Technology, declining fertility and ancient prejudice are combining to unbalance societies”, stated the article as it reported on several Asian countries, particularly India and China and the skewed sex ratio. The article should have been titled “Femicide” as only one gender is being eliminated — the female. Still, it was a chilling reminder of the reality in the world's two most populous nations, where, as an old Chinese lady who witnessed female infanticide was quoted by The Economistas saying, “It's not a child. It's a baby girl, and we can't keep it…Girl babies don't count.”

But someone is counting baby girls and boys, men and women. In fact, thousands of people are right now fanning out across India for the mammoth exercise, one of the largest in the world, of the 2011 Census.

The 2001 census brought home the point starkly that millions of girls in India never saw the light of day. Either they were never allowed to be born, due to sex-selective abortions, or were killed shortly after birth. As a result, in the 0-6 year age group of children, there was a marked increase in boys as compared to girls in some of the richest districts in the country. Clearly medical technology, that the better off could afford, had been perversely put to this kind of use — of ensuring that girls were eliminated before birth.

The 2011 census will be significant in more ways than one. In 2001, the problem that had been lurking for years was exposed through stark, irrefutable data. As a result, the government had to act. It tightened the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act 2003 (also known as the PCPNDT Act). Campaigns were run for the “girl child”, incentives given for her education, and threats held out of punishment and fines against those misusing technology for sex-selective abortions. How effective were all these efforts? Results from the 2011 census will tell us.

It is small comfort to know that this problem is not unique to India. The article in The Economist, for instance, gives startling data on the situation in China where decades of son preference and a one-child policy as well as sex selection have resulted in a marked difference between the number of young men and women. The article quotes research by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences that predicts that by 2020, China will have 30-40 million more men less than 19 years of age as compared to women. (The current sex ratio in China is 123 boys to 100 girls).

Serious consequences

Such a situation fraught with serious sociological consequences, not the least of which is the shortage of brides. In India, in states like Haryana this has already come about with brides from other states being bought by young men who just cannot find a woman from their own region. Every other day we read stories about women from as far away as Kerala or Assam who have made Haryana their home. Nothing wrong with such cross-fertilisation in a country that is so divided by caste, religious and regional identities as long as the women know their rights and have a way out if things don't work out. What is disturbing is the reason this is happening — not free choice but no choice.

Tragically, none of this kind of data seems to create any ripples amongst those in a position to make a difference. Take Maharashtra, for instance, one of the richest states in India. This year's Economic Survey revealed that by 2011, the state's sex ratio would be 915 women to 1000 men, down from 922 in 2001 when it was significantly lower than the national average of 933. Maharashtra also has the dubious distinction of ranking 15 out of 28 states in India in terms of its sex ratio.

Yet, what is preoccupying the men who govern the state? Chief Minister Ashok Chavan has been tying himself up in knots trying to explain how the actor Amitabh Bachchan, who has chosen to identify with Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi as the state's brand ambassador, came to share a dais with him at an official function. How does any of this matter? States like Maharashtra need governance, not showbiz.

The Economist referred to India as “that super giant”. But such compliments count for nothing if our government does nothing about “femicide” and those “missing” women.

Email the writer: sharma.kalpana@yahoo.com