Published in Times of India, Delhi Edition, Feb 10, 2007
One-year-old Devki lies unattended on a string cot at her home in Sasaikhurd village in Shivpuri district of Madhya Pradesh, while her twin brother Rahul gurgles in her grandmother's arms. He weighs 7.5 kg, and she 4.7 kg the normal weight of a child half her age. "We feed her but she just doesn't eat," says Gangabati, mother of the twins and a labourer. "My son was born far healthier. The girl has always been like this." But the village Anganwadi worker, Naresh Sharma, has a different take. "Because the girl was born weak, we advised the family to take greater care of Devki," he tells TOI. But what happened was just the opposite. The family consisting of farming-grandparents and labourer-parents took better care of the boy. When the district collector visited the village in November last year, he found the girl was severely undernourished and weighed less than 3.5 kg. Her brother was a healthy 6.5 kg. It was only after the collector threatened her family with legal action that the parents started feeding her properly. Devki's case is symptomatic of the malaise sweeping through northern Madhya Pradesh, where three districts show child sex ratios below 850 girls per 1,000 boys.
The situation has worsened since 2003, when ultra-sonography and sex-determination technology became accessible to the remotest parts of Chambal, one of the most backward areas in the country. Sasaikhurd today has 91 boys and 63 girls aged between 1-5 years. Neighbouring village Gandhinagar has 75 boys and 50 girls aged 5 years or less. With foeticide being added to the old practice of infanticide in the region, health workers find it hard to persuade parents to treat their daughter better. Devki weighed only 1.6 kg in March last year. The anganwadi workers and Unicef volunteers had taken her and Rahul, weighing 3 kg, to a nutrition rehabilitation centre. After 15 days of rehabilitation, the girl's weight rose to 1.9 kg while Rahul became 3.1 kg. One month after discharge, the nutrition rehabilitation centre followed up on the twins and found that while Rahul had grown to 3.3 kg, Devki's weight was constant at 1.9 kg. Werner Schultint, Unicef India's chief of child development and nutrition, who has been monitoring the twins, feels it is not entirely the lack of resources that is responsible for Devki's malnutrition.
It's systematic neglect as well. "The levels of malnutrition in India, at about 45%, are very disturbing. India ranks far below Ethiopia (35%) and sub-Saharan Africa (32%) in malnutrition indices," he says. An elderly villager of Sasaikhurd sums up the general attitude. "Daughters are 'paraya-dhan'. She will take away a fat booty when she gets married. But the son brings money, he helps in the fields. Who gives you fire when you die? The son does," he explains. These biases, coupled with the technology to kill female foetuses, has resulted in Shivpuri town's child sex ratio dropping alarmingly to 846 girls per 1,000 boys from 904 in 2001 a trend reported by TOI on February 6. In neighbouring Morena, there are 837 girls to every 1,000 boys and in Bhind, 832 girls. "The number of girls is falling everywhere," says Rama Garg, anganwadi worker at Gandhinagar village. "Families just want to have two sons and stop. Nobody wants a daughter." Shivpuri district collector Manohar Agnani says female infanticide is rampant in Morena and Bhind, which have the worst sex ratio in the state.
"I was posted in Morena in 2004. Female infants in these two districts are often brutally smothered the leg of a cot is put on the girl child's chest and pressure applied till the weight kills her. If the parents are a little kind, they put opium into her mouth and that's the end of the baby," says Agnani, who has authored the book, 'Missing Girls', an account of infanticide in Bundelkhand. "The situation has worsened after 2003, when sex determination became easy. Whenever I went to villages, I asked for the register and found that the number of girl children was much lower than boys. 'Why aren't the girls registered', I would ask. Anganwadi workers would say that they could register girls only if they are born," says Agnani, adding that they surveyed village after village and found that the rural folk knew of ultrasound and sonography. Nandram of Sasaikhurd has six daughters aged between 20 and 6 years. "I am fed up of having daughters," he says. "I know this place in Shivpuri town where doctors tell you if it is a boy or a girl. Couples from my village have been there and got two sons in a row.
It only takes Rs 1,500 for an abortion and Rs 350 for the X-ray (ultra sonography)." It is obvious that the Integrated Child Development Services that is expected to address issues of malnutrition, has not been implemented effectively. In fact, in a telling instance, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh was forced to write a letter to state chief ministers pointing out inadequate coverage and quality of the ICDS scheme. Directions for regular monitoring and "political will" for implementation have been issued by the PMO. On ground zero, however, there remains little hope for children like Devki.