“Chhori hai ! Kal marna tha , aaj mar gayi” (It’s a girl! She’ll have to die tomorrow, she died today). Deputy civil surgeon Viresh Bhushan’s face twists into a grimace as he recalls the incident at Sirsa’s Civil Hospital four years ago. A grandmother in her fifties had strangled to death her newborn granddaughter and mumbled nonchalantly about the fate of a baby girl in Haryana. “I still remember the baby — a healthy, pink girl. She weighed 4 kg,” says Dr Bhushan. The grandmother had walked out of the ward with the newborn — the fourth girl in the family — strangled her and placed her back by the mother’s side.

Bhushan hasn’t kept track of the case, but knows an FIR was registered and the grandmother arrested. It anguished him enough to write a one-act play, which is occasionally performed across schools and colleges in Sirsa, as part of efforts to raise awareness about saving the girl child.

But such efforts in Sirsa are mere tokens — an event in a school, an endowment for the village’s top-scoring girl or a poster with the latest female sex ratio.

This westernmost district in Haryana, fenced by Punjab and Rajasthan, wasn’t part of the first phase of the much-touted Beti Bachao Beti Padhao (BBBP) programme. However, if numbers are to be believed, the district has given the baby girl something to cheer about. According to health department and municipal corporation committee data, the district registered a sex ratio at birth of 1,007 girls to 1,000 boys in March 2016, crossing the 1000-mark for the first time.

In the 2011 census, Haryana registered a child sex ratio (CSR) of 834 girls to 1,000 boys, languishing at the bottom of the table. Sirsa’s CSR record has been one of slow, determined rise from the depths — from 816 in 2001 to 862 in 2011.

Of late, the district has been skirting the 1,000-mark in the month-wise sex ratio recorded. In December 2015, it clocked 997 to 1,000. The New Year brought a dip, with January registering 965, which dropped to 935 in February. Since August the district’s monthly sex ratio hasn’t dropped below 900.

From Delhi, Sirsa is a straight drive on NH10 but with regular interruptions by ‘work in progress’. The district’s Delhi Public School sits in the middle of a paddy field stacked with golden harvests. Fatehabad, the mofussil town on the way, has its own Royal Enfield showroom. There are empty fields on either side, yet some young men prefer to do their sit-ups on the highway dividers. Co-travellers on the road are usually two-wheeler riders undeterred by the mountain of aluminium milk cans strapped to the bike. Trains of mini-trucks with billowing harvests head towards the markets.

 At the vast complex that is the district administrative headquarters, everyday activities are dulled by the relentless April sun. Sirsa is close to Rajasthan, hence the sun is harsh. Nevertheless, a small group of protesters are getting ready with their flags and posters outside the tehsildar’s office. Inside, Sharandeep Kaur Brar, the deputy commissioner, is awaiting the health officers for the weekly meeting. She has identified three ‘black spots’ in the district where the sex ratio hasn’t shown improvement and wants discussion. She isn’t swayed by numbers, instead intends to keep up the momentum and monitoring systematic.

In a State singled out for its abysmal disregard for the unborn girl, Sirsa appears determined to crack down on Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PNDT) Act violations. It’s among the few districts where the administration, police, health department and, to an extent, the civil society are working together to clamp down on sex determination facilities. Satender Kumar, superintendent of police, says since January 2015, 15 cases have been registered under the PNDT, Medical Termination of Pregnancy (MTP) and Indian Medical Council (IMC) Acts. In the last two years, three specialist doctors have been arrested in Sirsa, which included a senior doctor couple who have since been convicted and their licence cancelled for five years. Unqualified men and women who performed ultrasound tests in mobile units, and racketeers who made customers cough up nearly ₹18,000 for an ultrasound report when they didn’t even have a machine, are among the nabbed. On an average, says Dr Bhushan, a sex determination test costs between ₹30,000 and ₹40,000.

 Now that saving the girl child is among the government’s flagship programmes, officials and activists in Sirsa have plunged headlong into the task and have assiduously built a network of informants. “We can’t stop people from going to the sex determination facilities,” says Kaur. Instead, they sought people’s help in implementing the PNDT Act. There’s a helpline to share information on offenders. The caller’s identity is protected and prize money of ₹1 lakh rupees awaits solid leads. So far, there have been two winners.

 On the other hand, the medical officers have been working to strengthen the network on the ground. At a recent meeting in Kalanwali, the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA) and Auxiliary Nursing Midwifery (ANM) workers were introduced to a secret ballot. These workers at the village level were wary of identifying offenders despite being in the know. Now, they could anonymously put down what they knew into chits of paper. “We got 13 slips with the same name on it,” says Dr Bhushan. “Action was taken in two to three days. That enhances their confidence,” he adds.

The administration, the police and the health officials claim there is a fear of being caught in Sirsa. The district shares borders with Punjab and Rajasthan and customers are now increasingly ferried across the border for sex determination tests. That, in turn, has called for greater coordination between the departments and cross-border assistance. Tip-offs have taken them to Moga in Punjab and Hanumangarh in Rajasthan, where a doctor was arrested and a case registered. 

 The team that responds to these tip-offs is compact. Giving it the edge are junior women staffers from health and police departments who become the decoys. Savita’s* (name changed) “Ram Ram” is heard much before she makes an appearance. The constable’s driving skills, be it a motorbike or jeep, come in for lengthy praise as she’s introduced. Savita and her pregnant colleague had approached a middleman posing as to-be mothers seeking to know the gender of the baby, and this led to an errant doctor in Moonak, Punjab. After becoming a decoy a couple of times, Savita now considers it a part of the job.

 Madhavi*, five months’ pregnant and an ANM staffer, appears more at ease guiding you to the washroom and talking of pregnancy-related discomforts. But this quiet woman in her early thirties has been the decoy during a couple of raids in recent months. A routine day at work for her is rather eventless. But there’s a spurt in action and an element of risk when she accompanies the team chasing a lead. Dr Bhushan recalls the time she was ill but insisted that they should not call off a planned raid in Fatehabad that day. Madhavi remains straight-faced as her boss recounts how she and a colleague posed as customers and were led into a car for an ultrasound test. She peeked in and then moved aside to throw up, which was the cue for the others to close in on the offenders.

Outside the Civil Hospital’s operation theatre, women — old, young and not-so-young — sit in a line, staring at passers-by and barely talking to each other. It’s rather quiet in the maternity ward too, the silence only ruptured periodically by wailing infants. Twenty-four-year-old Manpreet Kaur has had her second baby girl a day ago and is exhausted after the caesarean delivery. As her baby begins a spirited bawl, the two grandmothers sitting on the adjacent bed, get up to take a look. Kaur’s three-and-a half-year-old older child is sleeping on the grandmother’s bed, while her husband, a lineman, is at work. “ Bhagwan ki dein hain (She’s god’s gift),” Kaur mumbles. “ Padaoongi (I’ll send her to school),” says Kaur, who has studied only up to Std IX.

At the other end of the ward, a family from Lambi is huddled over Sharmila’s newborn. The baby girl has followed a boy a few years older. “The family is complete. We had told the doctors to perform sterilisation,” says Sharmila’s father-in-law, Rajendra Kumar.

Mamta is the staff nurse at the maternity ward and also its record-keeper. She makes monthly reports on the births at the hospital. She registers the numbers on paper, but a few reactions she has witnessed after childbirth have left a lasting imprint on her mind. She recalls a family that had its fourth girl recently. “They were surely upset,” Mamta makes a sympathetic face. A family that had its sixth girl a while ago had preferred to give up the child for adoption.

“At least they are now letting them be born,” says Prem Chowdhry. A Haryana-born social scientist, she has written extensively on the gender equations in the State. Of the 21 districts in Haryana, Sirsa ranked fourth on the basis of its CSR (862) and general sex ratio (897), according to Census 2011. The town has been unique since colonial times. “It was marked by a shifting population and the villages comprised Sikh Jats, Muslim Jats and Hindu Jats,” she says. The Partition reinforced the complexity of the border district as it brought in refugees, who in turn brought in their relatives and made Sirsa home. “It became a geographical unit without the khap ,” says Chowdhry. No khap meant its diktats, like no marriage within or from the neighbouring village, haven’t held much sway in Sirsa, she adds. With no khap to dictate its notorious preference for sons, the societal dynamics is a little different in Sirsa.

Sabu M George, a long-time advocate against female foeticide, views the hoopla over Sirsa’s new numbers with scepticism. “There is certainly improvement over the last two years in the State, after a decade of neglect by the previous government,” says George, who worked extensively in rural Haryana in the 1990s and continues to track the implementation of the law against female foeticide. There has been an improving trend in Sirsa after the low 800 ratios in Census 2001, he adds.  “But the assertion that normalcy is restored in late 2015-16 is most unlikely. The overall trend in Haryana and Sirsa is real, particularly since 2014. But I doubt its magnitude, since the overall number of annual births, specifically of boys, has reduced sharply relative to the reported number of girl births from 2013 to 2015 (800 versus 400!).” (According to Civil Registration System data, annual births have witnessed a drop of 1,204 from 2013 to 2015.)

The modus operandi for sex determination offences largely takes one of three forms. It could be performed by a medical professional at a clinic or in mobile units or by non-doctors. “The mobile units and the non-doctors are the easiest to nab,” says George.

Meanwhile, at the PNDT cell in Sirsa, things are quiet. It’s no different even when a raid is in the works… everything is done quietly. “We work on our leads alone,” says Dr Bhushan. The superiors and other departments are informed only on the day of action. “Even the drivers are not given clear directions. We fear losing a lead,” he says.

He and his colleague Dr Raj Kumar, who headed the PNDT cell previously, are dismayed that most of the arrested persons are out on bail. “We need tougher laws,” says Dr Kumar. The medical officers are surprised by the changing profile of the offenders too. In their latest raid, they nabbed an ASHA worker and her husband, who were selling MTP kits for ₹30,000.

Sirsa has plans. Of getting sarpanchs involved in the process. Of getting each panchayat to display its monthly sex ratio. The district is part of the BBBP’s second phase. However, stakeholders know that no real change can come about unless the idea of womanhood changes. And that’s a long haul.

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