By Partha Dasgupta
KOLKATA, KNOWN to be a bastion of progressive forces, hides in its womb a startling fact: one out of every six pregnancies end in sex selective malpractice — the official term for female foeticide. Evidence emerged when the Department of Health and the State Women’s Commission conducted a survey on pregnant women. Tallying the F-forms (issued by the government to gather details of pregnant women coming for tests) with the present status of would-be mothers, they were shocked to find that in nearly 16 percent cases, the target child was missing — circumstantial evidence that female foetuses are being aborted.
What kind of family still believes that unborn daughters must be sacrificed to make way for sons? There is Suseela Rao, the mother of two daughters aged eight and five, who says she knows exactly what she is doing. Wife of a senior central government officer, the Telugu homemaker in her mid-30s, says, “I have two daughters. I cannot afford to have any more. If I have a son, we can recover the expenses that will be incurred in the marriage of my daughters.” She confesses to having aborted two female foetuses in a particular hospital in Andhra Pradesh after ultrasonography performed in Kolkata clinics.
Records from as many as 25 out of 141 wards of the Kolkata Municipal Corporation show a reduction of more than 10 percent in the sex ratio between the 1991 and 2001 census.
State Women’s Commission chairperson Malini Bhattacharya believes that the “conservative and regressive section of the affluent, educated society” is responsible. “Mediocre gynaecologists have grabbed this opportunity as a money spinner. The government must make its vigilance mechanism more effective,” adds the former MP.
There are also women like Shobha Agarwal who had three miscarriages in the past three years after her husband took her to a clinic in Phoolbagan for ultrasounds. “Can’t really say what is happening with me,” says a naïve Shobha. “I had no problems during the birth of my first three daughters.” But she keeps trying despite having two daughters in college, because her husband wants a son “to look after the business”.
Contrary to popular perception, it’s not poverty and lack of education which lead to this kind of selective abortion. A third of the families engaged in this malpractice are affluent, about 22 percent belong to the middle class.
“Sex determination is rare among slum dwellers,” says Arpita Guha Thakurta, who led the survey with five volunteers. Unborn children go missing here because of the mother’s malnutrition and anaemia. Neepa, a volunteer, was locked up by a family when she asked ‘disturbing’ questions. The city police commissioner had to intervene to set her free.
The survey has identified and indicted many clinics in Kolkata which offered incomplete and anomalous F-forms with false addresses of patients and most strikingly, omitted the reason for conducting the ultrasound. Dr Satyajit Chakraborty, deputy assistant director (clinical health), refuses to admit that these clinics are involved in female foeticide but says vigilance will be stepped up.
Dr Arati Basu Sengupta, veteran gynaecologist and former president of the Bengal Obstetric & Gynaecological Society, – insists that the problem is a grave one, especially when clinics and nursing homes are run by doctors themselves and they fall for the lure of easy money. “But the doctor is also under tremendous pressure from the patients,” she points out.
*Some Names Have Been Changed