Addressing India’s Missing Girls: Time To Re-Evaluate Strategies?
The government is approaching the issue of declining sex ratio with a new commitment. It is now important, that the issue is tackled with nuanced policy interventions.
The issue of declining child sex ratio has long been a national priority for India. However, Prime Minister Modi’s announcement of the ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao Yojna’ in January has brought the issue to the forefront again. While initiatives like ‘Selfie with Daughter’ have helped in symbolically mainstreaming the campaign amongst the urban-educated middleclass, it is essential that the built momentum continues and gets translated into concrete results.
The trend of deteriorating Child Sex Ratio (CSR), defined as number of girls per 1000 of boys between 0-6 years of age, has continued since 1981. According to Census findings, the CSR has consistently been on the decline, from 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001 and further to 918 in 2011.
A stable child sex ratio is one of the basic indicators of women’s empowerment; the decline, therefore, indicates deep-rooted gender biases in society. Additionally, economically forward states like Delhi, Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat display some of the lowest sex ratios in the country. At the policy level, this questions the oft-quoted theory that economic prosperity will eventually lead to gender equality.
Notably, this isn’t a strictly Indian trend. The fear of dowry, the south-Asian phenomenon of son-preference, the lack of equal inheritance rights for women, concerns over safety and security, and the widespread availability of pre-natal diagnostic techniques have led to more than 117 million women across Asia being classified as “missing”. According to Population and Development Review, India and China, the economic giants of South-Asia, account for 90% of all missing girls.
The imbalance in child sex ratio, therefore, reflects both, pre-birth discrimination manifested through gender biased sex selection, and post-birth discrimination against girls, which may be the cause as well as the result of the former. Patriarchal structures discriminating against girls combined with easy availability, affordability and subsequent misuse of diagnostic tools, have been critical in creating the present scenario. According to Minister of Women and Child Development, Ms. Maneka Gandhi, 2000 girls are killed every day in the country.
The situation, needless to say, is dire. However, are our counter-strategies effective and sustainable? While the ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ campaign aims at spreading awareness and bringing about behavioural change through communications and advocacy, it must be acknowledged that behavioural change and larger social change are not immediate. Awareness and advocacy are not efficient without being supplemented with wider policy changes. It is also hard to measure the efficacy of communications and advocacy initiatives even though, it must be stressed, they are significant in the larger context.
In comparison, the reach and result of incentive schemes and conditional cash transfer schemes (CCTs) can be easily assessed and subsequently made more effective. The lesser talked about ‘Sukanya Samriddhi Yojna’, a parallel scheme was launched on the same day under the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao initiative. The former is envisioned as a complementary scheme to the latter and aims at encouraging the education of girl-children.
Under this scheme, parents of girl children below the age of 10 years can open bank accounts under the children’s names and avail more interest and income tax benefits. The two programmes will initially be implemented in the 100 shortlisted districts, including 12 in Haryana where, as per government records, there are at least 70 villages where no girl child has been born in years.
Both the initiatives are commendable. But, certain caveats apply. First, this scheme comes on top of a variety of state-level cash transfer schemes, promoting girl-children. For instance, the ‘Dhan Lakshmi Scheme’ in Bihar, Andhra Pradesh and Punjab, the ‘Ladli Lakshmi Yojna’ in Madhya Pradesh, the ‘Ladli Scheme’ in Delhi (during the Congress government) and the ‘Indira Gandhi Balika Suraksha Yojna’ in Himachal Pradesh, to name a few. It is unclear how the central government scheme approaches beneficiaries who already come under the state government schemes.
There is some evidence indicating the positive effects of state-level incentive schemes on the health and education of girl children. But, due to the existence of multiple schemes, the lack of awareness of these schemes, the centre-state discrepancies, the lack of continuity due to change in the ruling party, delayed filling and follow-ups of applications, and the need for excessive documents and certificates to be furnished by applicants; they fail to cause a serious impact on the child sex ratio.
In the context of ‘Sukanya Samriddhi Yojna’, several of these issues have been addressed, however, some persist. Although the initiative has tried to reduce the need for cumbersome documentation, Certificate of Birth of the Girl child, Proof of Address of parents/guardians and Proof of identity of the parents/guardian are necessary. For migrants, therefore, it would be extremely difficult to avail this scheme in the absence of domicile certificates. Further, the scheme is applicable to 2 girl children at the most. Therefore, a third girl child would not be entitled to this, and many other CCT schemes. In sections of the society with high fertility rates, this proves to be problematic and reinforces the notion of birth of girls being burdensome.
Additionally, the scheme offers a stunning rate of interest at 9.2%, for 2015-16, but this isn’t fixed for the entire term and may vary. Due to afore-mentioned reasons, and due to the lock-in period of 21 years, it may be premature to accept the scheme as a long-term solution to the problem.
Though these initiatives may be flawed, they are necessary and could be improved. Moreover, the present monetary and advocacy initiatives mostly target families below the poverty line, it is critical to acknowledge that sex-selection is also prevalent among higher socio-economic sections of the society.
To its credit, the government is approaching the issue of declining sex ratio with a new commitment. It is now important, that the issue is tackled with nuanced policy interventions. Instead of introducing more schemes, the existing schemes could be made more accessible and the loopholes could be confronted.
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