Usilampatti. The nondescript town in Tamil Nadu’s Madurai district shot to national notoriety after an investigative report in a magazine in the 1980s revealed the widespread practice of female foeticide in a community.

The chilling report recorded how new-born girls were sacrificed at the altar of abject poverty and the obsession for a boy child. This was the backdrop for the Cradle Baby Scheme introduced in 1992 by Jayalalithaa, then Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu.

Cradles were placed in hospitals, primary health centres and orphanages so that any ‘unwanted’ baby could be placed in them. These reception centres were set up at Madurai, Theni, Salem and other places where female infanticide was rampant.

For and against

The scheme had its detractors, who said the initiative encouraged people to abandon their girl child. But the initiative also had its supporters, many appreciative or just plain relieved that the State was acknowledging this societal crime and taking steps to address it.

Maya Gaitonde, Managing Trustee of Bala Mandir Kamaraj Trust, calls the initiative pathbreaking as the late CM institutionalised the adoption, which was possibly practised on a smaller scale by certain Christian institutions and orphanages.

“What she (Jayalalithaa) added to it were several other parameters including getting the government machinery involved,” says Gaitonde. Top goverment officals and District Collectors would counsel parents on the girl child. Social Welfare Department offices would symbolically hangcradles. “She added to the scheme by supporting a family if it had a second girl child,” says Gaitonde on a little publicised fact. Bala Mandir has been involved with adoptions for over 50 years and receives children from the scheme.

But did the scheme encourage “irresponsible” behaviour? Gaitonde says, “initially the girl child was being saved, but in the process many boys also got saved (children born out of wedlock).”

Recently, the Madras High Court's Madurai Bench asked the State on steps taken to educate parents; in a sense, asking how much longer the Scheme was required to be run. An uneasy question that crops up often, as it only means that there has been no let up in the horrific practice of abandoning or killing the girl child.

Gaitonde says people are increasingly adopting girls. The abandoning will stop only when men are seen as “unwed fathers”, she says, referring to the stigma on women, and people are lifted out of their poverty.

Path-breaking initiative

The Cradle Baby Scheme is laudable as it came before maternal and child health initiatives, anti sex-determination directives and the “Beti Bachao“ (protect the girl child) campaigns arrived on the national stage.

Today, television commercials educate people on how determining the gender of the baby to be born could land them in prison, and pathlabs and radiologists are under scrutiny to prevent them from revealing to parents the sex of the foetus.

As the country still grapples with skewed gender ratios in several States, the Cradle Baby Scheme stands out. Baby steps taken over two decades ago towards gender equality have come a long way.