Where have all the girls gone in a country full of men?
Mumbai’s taxi drivers are repositories of earthy wisdom. They come from all parts of the country. A few are grumpy. Some are silent. But mostly they are loquacious, if you ask them the right question.
In the last couple of days, I have been at the receiving end of some down-to-earth and commonsensical opinions about life, values and politics from such taxi drivers.
The first, a young taxi driver from Vasai, which is on the outskirts of Mumbai, informed me that he was actually a “Hindu Brahmin”, but loved Jesus Christ. Without much prompting, he then proceeded to predict that Narendra Modi would win the elections. Would he vote for Modi, I asked. Not necessarily, he said. Then whom would he want to vote for? Arvind Kejriwal, he said. Why, I asked. Because, he said, he had watched Kejriwal’s TV interviews. He was convinced that this was a good and honest man. More than that, he was educated, qualified, had a good job and yet gave it all up to do something about corruption. These were the kind of people India needed in politics, he asserted. Above all, he said, this was the only man who had the courage to take on the richest and most powerful man in India.
The other was a Tamilian who had lived in Mumbai for 35 years but continued to read a popular Tamil newspaper (that now arrives in the morning because it is printed in Pune). Despite the many years in Mumbai, he had a clear view of Tamil politics. There was no doubt in his mind that “Amma” would sweep the polls in Tamil Nadu. Why, I asked. Because she has looked after the poor, he said. And she does not discriminate between Hindu, Muslim, Dalit and Christian.
More important, he continued, she has addressed the problem of families not wanting to give birth to a girl child. He then proceeded to explain to me in detail the government schemes that encourage families to look after girls. He also gave graphic details of how families kill infant girls. He was clear that this was an evil practice and must be ended. And he gave credit to “Amma” for putting in place monetary incentives to help raise the value of girls.
So, corruption and schemes that help the poor and stop female infanticide were the issues these two men talked about. Corruption features in election talk. And every party ruling a state, or the centre, speaks of its pro-poor schemes. But what about India’s steadily disappearing women?
Results of the Annual Health Survey conducted by the office of the Census of India — reportedly the largest sample survey in the world — have recently been released. The survey covered 20.94 million people and 4.32 million households in 284 districts in nine states.
While the survey has a lot of interesting information on several aspects of health, including infant and maternal mortality rates, its findings on the sex ratio — at birth, in the 0-4 age group and overall — are perhaps the most significant.
According to the survey, in 84 of the 284 districts there was a fall in the sex ratio at birth. In some districts like Pithoragarh in Uttarakhand, the sex ratio at birth was as low as 767 girls to every 1,000 boys. That is a worrying sign as it suggests that the law to prevent sex-selection has not succeeded in creating enough of deterrents against the practice of aborting female foetuses.
Equally worrying is the decline in the sex ratio in the 0-4 age group. This was visible in 127 districts and was significant in 46 districts. Rajasthan recorded the lowest levels in this category, while Chhattisgarh recorded the highest. The reason for the decline in this age group is clearly neglect of girls after they are born. Otherwise, there is no reason that more girls should die than boys. Overall, the sex ratio was worse in urban areas than rural, suggesting again that the availability of sex selection technology and higher incomes contributed to this decline. In a state like Jharkhand, for instance, while the sex ratio at birth was 961 in rural areas, it was as low as 903 in urban areas.
In this election season, where rhetoric is king, the reality of India’s disappearing women — who everyone seems to want to “empower” — is not even a blip on the horizon. Yet, it has been evident for decades that all this talk about “women’s empowerment” has little meaning if we are unable to deal with the despicable attitudes and practices that guarantee that girls will not be born, and if they are, that they will not live to become young women.