A sting op gets its bite back

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Satyamev Jayate has sharpened the focus on female foeticide. Baba Umar speaks to the two intrepid journalists who panned their camera over an endemic crime seven years ago

Shripal Shaktawat and Meena Sharma
Torchbearers: Shripal Shaktawat and Meena Sharma, Photos: Vijay Pandey

SHRIPAL SHAKTAWAT and Meena Sharma knew the pitfalls of nailing 120 medical practitioners involved in female foeticide. And yet, the two Jaipur-based journalists secretly filmed doctors willing to abort female foetuses — sometimes for a paltry Rs 2,000 — in private and government hospitals across Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Gujarat in a year-long sting operation between 2005-06.

Retribution was swift. Shaktawat suffered the ire of doctors across Rajasthan and elsewhere. He was accused of blackmailing and extortion. His house was vandalised and family harassed. Ironically, the errant doctors were never penalised. Many of them were promoted despite the overwhelming evidence against them.

Seven years later, the sting operation is back in the news after it was aired as part of the episode on female foeticide in Aamir Khan’s television debut Satyamev Jayate.

“Aamir Khan’s show brought back the case that was otherwise rotting in oblivion. Let’s see how the Ashok Gehlot government acts,” says Shaktawat, 45, at Jaipur’s biggest maternity hospital, Chandpur Janana Hospital, where he was honoured for his work by the hospital staff on International Nurses’ Day on 12 May. “The irony is that our sting operation began at this very hospital. The then assistant professor who agreed to eliminate a female foetus was promoted and is currently the medical superintendent of this hospital. Everyone, including the hospital staff, knows it. But the government has chosen not to act.”

In 2005, a newspaper story about the dumping of three female infants in a Jodhpur garbage heap caught the eye of Shaktawat, who was working at television channel Sahara Samay. He soon saw the television footage. Images that he saw sent a chill down his spine: three female foetuses wrapped in a polythene bag, partially eaten by feral dogs. “It was then that I decided a sting operation against doctors is imperative to expose crimes against women,” he says.

From her childhood on, Meena was also witness to intolerance against women. At Sahara Samay’s office in Jaipur where she heads the bureau, Meena, 33, recalls how her uncle broke her cycle into pieces when she rode it in her village. She also remembers how a girl who had topped the Class X exam was made to sit at home for the rest of her life and years later how an insensitive gynaecologist suggested to her pregnant aunt “to go for better treatment in Jaipur if it were a boy or eliminate the foetus in case it were female”.

“Female foeticide was very normal those days. Like birthday bashes, marriage ceremonies, passing-out parties and other routine household chores, killing female infants was normal. People had internalised this act,” she says.

For Shaktawat, Meena, who had just joined the channel in 2005, was the right person to carry out the sting with. While Shaktawat took care of logistics and implementation, Meena had to convince pregnant women to act as decoys.

“It was difficult. No one wanted to take the risk,” says Meena. “I approached many women — those who sold bangles on the streets to the ones who worked in the government — but no one wanted to be our decoy. One day, I approached my pregnant sister as well. She refused, fearing her in-laws’ backlash. It wasn’t easy.”

Sifting women who were pregnant with boys from those with girls proved to be a difficult task. Meena needed only those who had female foetuses. More than 500 pregnant women were approached. Only five would finally agree.

Meanwhile, Shaktawat prepared a list of more than 140 high-profile and powerful doctors whom he knew were involved in sex determination and aborting female foetuses.

On 25 March 2005, the journalists taped their first target: the then Assistant Professor (currently Medical Superintendent at Chandpul Janana Hospital) agreeing to perform abortion on a decoy pregnant with a girl child.

Soon, Shaktawat had five case studies with proof. “It was only after five cases that I informed my channel. They wanted to air five cases and break the news but I insisted the sting be allowed to trap the remaining 135 medical practitioners. The channel agreed,” he says.

In one year (25 May 2005 to 4 April 2006), the duo managed to film 120 doctors involved in the crime. Every case includes a footage showing the first conversation of doctors with Meena and the decoys, until the patient is taken inside the operation theatre. More than 80 doctors were taped in Rajasthan, the remaining doctors operated in Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

“A lot of energy and sweat went into the string. There was always a risk of getting caught. Memories of the night when I was caught still gives me goosebumps,” says Meena.

The sting went haywire in Palanpur, Gujarat. It was 11 pm when the doctor agreed to see the patient. Meena was still taping the conversation as her decoy stood nearby. The doctor got suspicious. Before he could raise an alarm, Meena alerted Shaktawat, who was sitting outside. Shaktawat asked Meena to get out without the camera. He soon convinced the doctor that the duo were touring the state and were shooting pictures of heritage sites.

“We pacified him. Soon, he began to quote the money he would charge to determine the sex and abort the foetus. This time, I didn’t have the camera. Minutes later, Meena came back into the chamber, with the camera hidden behind her dupatta. That was really brave of her,” he says.

But before the duo completed their sting, the doctor realised that he was being taped secretly. He raised an alarm and Meena and the pregnant decoy had to race down the stairs towards their vehicle. “We sped away as fast as we could. The hospital staff tried to chase us,” he recalls. “But our confidence had bolstered so much that we went for another sting in the same area the next day.”

Things took a dangerous turn on 4 April 2006 when Meena was caught while secretly filming a doctor at Jhotwara Hospital in Jaipur. Shaktawat was beaten up, the camera confiscated, and his cell phone snatched. A Superintendent of Police, who happened to be a doctor’s brother, accused Shaktawat of blackmailing and took him into custody.

But the police had to give in to media and NGO pressure. Shaktawat was released and the SHO transferred. The entire sting operation was aired on Sahara Samay. It went live for many days. During this time, Shaktawat’s house was vandalised by hired goons. But he was hopeful of state support. After all, Rajasthan had three women politicians heading the state: Pratibha Patil (governor), Vasundhara Raje (CM) and Sumitra Singh (Speaker). “But nothing happened. We were successful in highlighting a social evil, but it exposed the government’s failure too,” says Shaktawat.

The duo says the case was handed over to CID/CB and FIRs were filed at Ashok Nagar police station in Jaipur. But the doctors, who had affiliations with politicians, bureaucrats and top government officials, got the cases moved back to their respective police stations. As soon as the sting operation was aired, the Rajasthan Medical Council cancelled the licences of 21 doctors. But they were reinstated six months later.

“Thousands of doctors were after my life. Everyone thought that they were covered under the sting, when I had evidence against only 140 doctors. Even now, the harassment continues,” claims Shaktawat.

While current Chief Minister Ashok Gehlot has reportedly promised to try the erring doctors in fast-track courts, Shaktawat and Meena are thankful to Aamir, who, they say “made the CM respond urgently over the grave issue”.

Baba Umar is a Correspondent with Tehelka.
babaumar@tehelka.com

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