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A price for life


In spite of laws that prohibit sex determination tests, unauthorised clinics across the country have a flourishing trade.

Working towards dignity and freedom... female infanticide continues to be practiced in the country.

CEHAT, a Mumbai-based NGO, along with social activist Sabu George, had recently filed a writ petition alleging that laws notwithstanding, large-scale illegal sex-determination and subsequent aborting of female foetuses was going on in several Indian States. The Supreme Court has summoned the Health Secretaries of eleven of the richer States that according to the latest Census reports have seen a horrific decline in their girl child population, in the 0-6 age group. The Court has ruled that it would be desirable for the Centre to frame appropriate rules that would ban the sale of ultrasound machines to unregistered clinics. And it has severely indicated the State governments for not complying with its earlier orders for registration of all ultrasound clinics and prosecution of those who resort to illegal sex-determination.

Social activists and women from urban slums and rural communities agree that if India's population policies are to succeed, it is imperative that women have absolute control both over their productive and reproductive lives. It is senseless to pour energy and resources into controlling female fertility, to the neglect of restoring the basic dignity and human rights for women. For women, our legal system can have no relevance, unless it also guarantees freedom and dignity for them. The new laws may technically give women the right to protect their unborn female foetus from being aborted under pressure from families, but how many of them are going to be able to exercise that right? Our population problem can and must be tackled in the overall context of the ground realities of democracy and human rights, not demography alone.

Half a century after the makers of India's Constitution opted for a socialist welfare State, a new globalised system seems to be emerging. It decrees that in the 21st Century, the volatile market forces shall be the guiding locomotive. Elected governments and the people must learn to live with invisible hands controlling their lives. This model relies a lot on both the State and markets behaving rationally in the pursuit of their legitimate interests. But the flourishing clandestine market for sex-selecting abortions in India shows that given socio cultural pressures, human behaviour will not always remain rational. Historic evidence too shows that the desire to procreate is deeply embedded in human nature and that matrimony and childbirth will therefore continue to be treated as a holy and ennobling experience by all communities in India, even if the State refuses to endorse this view. So while the government cries itself hoarse decrying large families, culturally sanctioned procreative activity is still subtly encouraged, and the poor ignore even sensible appeals for planning their families. India's Supreme Court may or may not favour privatisation of medical and health services, but its recent ruling reveals that it expects them to be monitored and supervised strictly by a national authority. Privately run hospitals and clinics similarly look to the State for the order, within which contracts can be enforced and commerce can flourish.

In society, the new economics India has opted for, has resulted in two kinds of life, two kinds of growth. On the one hand, there are gigantic shopping malls, coming up everywhere. One is struck by the richness and variety of goods displayed there, also by the number of rich urban and rural customers they attract through the year. At the same time, the numbers of the poor and their unauthorised colonies are also growing. Theirs is a lean and disempowered world, furnished with objects of the most elementary kind, overflowing with malnourished children and filth. Indian life here has entirely come to be sustained by symbolic values and meanings that the poor will impart to the most mundane things. Here a pubescent girl being fed rotis from five neighbouring homes, shall become a symbol of nascent and holy fertility that creates life, a smudge of black kohl or honey on a child's tongue shall become shields that will protect him from all illnesses. A smear of red on a new mother's forehead shall anoint her as a Laxmi, the fertile creator of wealth and life. There is nothing here. No money, no nutritious meals, sterilised water, not even medicines of the most basic kind. A few coins, a small dish with vermilion, jaggery and wild flowers, a coconut shell with a few teaspoons of oil and a gourd with rice liquor. And yet those who are gathered around the objects will look wildly excited and proud. The young woman by giving birth has attained a great honour, and her new baby is deemed an honoured addition to the family no matter how scarce its resources. Scientists tell us that under certain circumstances even inanimate objects such as molecules may reveal a capacity for self-organisation. This seems be true of India's poor in the age of coercive sterilisation.

The NGO's template for better reproductive and child health thus begins to look increasingly more sensible in a scenario such as this. With its liberal multilateral support for local customs and culture, its tendency to consult with those for whom the programmes are meant, the model developed by the NGOs for protecting the reproductive health of the poor, while helping them achieve the small family norm, reveals how arrogant, and full of disdain our Government's policy-making is in the arena of family welfare and population control.

One wonders, however, whether the old-timers on the population-policy team will be able to learn the new disciplines necessary in these circumstances. Will the financial advisors to the present NDA Government for example be more willing to allocate larger funds for healthcare than the Congress or United Front governments were? Will an administration filled with promoters of privatisation be willing to put the necessary pressure for cross-subsidies for public health insurance? Will they espouse a thought for better monitoring of private clinics and demand a compulsory apprenticeship for all students of medicine? And above all, will the Indian public have the patience, the sophistication and the fortitude to do some serious soul-searching on the matter, and become more engaged with healthcare issues? If they do, they might find several exciting possibilities, if not in heaven, at least here in good old Jambu Dweep of the Bharat Khand.

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