Shackles of rural India
Khap panchayats have allowed the evils of foeticide and casteism to flourish
They are self-proclaimed conscience-keepers of society, encouraging honour killings and pronouncing punishments to adults in inter-caste or inter-faith marriages. The Supreme Court has repeatedly warned khap panchayats against spreading the fear of retribution among inter-caste and inter-faith couples. These caste councils abound in North India, where sex-selective abortions are still reported and neglect of the girl child is evident with heavily skewed sex ratios.
In a vengeful response to the Supreme Court's observation that khap panchayats cannot interfere when two adults decide to marry, a few khap leaders have threatened to destabilise society by stopping the birth of the girl child, if the court interferes in their customs. A number of khap leaders have threatened and warned the court against meddling in their age-old tradition.
Naresh Tikait, head of Balyan khap, said that the court is "unnecessarily meddling" with traditional laws. Tikait threatened to stop the birth of the girl child if the court allowed girls to marry by their choice. Tikait said that there are many ways to stop the birth of a girl child, including female foeticide. "We spent Rs 50-60 lakh on a girl child, how can they decide their life partner," he says.
Another Khap leader, Rajbir Singh Malik, head of Malik khap, said that the Supreme Court is barely 100 years old and their norms at least a 1,000 years. The court should take care of this age-old tradition, he added. Most of these khaps are in western Uttar Pradesh and Haryana—states notorious for their skewed sex ratio and for killing girls as soon as they are born. The sex ratio in Meerut, Uttar Pradesh, where Balyan khap is primarily located, is 930 females per 1,000 males and in the last five years, the situation has further worsened. Only 858 girls were born as compared to 1,000 boys in the last five years according to the 2015-'16 National Family Health Survey (NFHS). Another khap dominated district, Baghpat in western Uttar Pradesh shows a bleak picture. In the last five years, only 763 girls were born as compared to 1,000 boys.
While Haryana's sex ratio is 876 females per 1,000 males, the national sex ratio is 991. More so, in the last five years, the situation in Haryana has worsened—only 836 girls were born in comparison to 1,000 boys. In India, 919 girls were born in the last five years, says the report. The worsening sex ratio has pushed the Centre and state governments to campaign for saving the girl child through Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao.
The threat to kill newborn girls is not only contempt of the apex court but is also a violation of the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act which makes feticide illegal in the country. They are also violating Article 21 of the Constitution which guarantees Right to Life and Personal Liberty. The Supreme Court reiterated its earlier stand and confirmed that if an adult man and woman decide to tie the knot, no one, including the khap, can question the decision. The statement came on February 5, when Chief Justice Dipak Misra, Justice DY Chandrachud, and Justice AM Khanwilkar asked the Centre to come up with effective suggestions to protect couples threatened by khap panchayats.
It is undisputed that gender bias runs deep and the continued preference for the male child was, of course, a non-negotiable reason behind the abysmally low child sex ratio–914 girls for 1,000 boys–in India. There has been no denying Union Home Secretary GK Pillai's statement: "Whatever measures that have been put in over the past 40 years have not had any impact on the child sex ratio and, therefore, it requires a complete review." However, the question we sought an answer to was why was the child sex ratio consistently declining; in fact, it was recorded as the lowest in 2011 since Independence? Why has the preference for a male child increased in Independent India?
We had some inkling of what one of the answers could be from our meeting with two former Professors of the Population Research Centre of Institute of Economic Growth, University of Delhi, but their indicative answers were reiterated on our visit to Jhajjar. SC Gulati and Ashis Bose pointed out that the cost of "bearing and rearing the child had gone up tremendously but the preference for a male child still remained." Female foeticide, according to Gulati, contributed the maximum to this drop. Bose hinted that food inflation could be a factor but both of them recommended us to wait for the complete census data before drawing any conclusion.
We put this question to Singh for he had experience as a government medical practitioner across Haryana and he had been instrumental in identifying and conducting proceedings against doctors who had carried out sex determination tests in the past. Singh drew us to the same answer. "In the past decade, there has been a shift to a one or two child norm because neither a stagnant income-earning farmer nor a salaried family can raise more than two children. Land holdings are reducing for each family, so most families want one boy," he told us.
He further mentioned some "secondary issues" of dowry and increasing crime against women in Haryana. The hospital roster he prepared while talking to us said more about the extent of crime than what the police records reveal. For the past couple of years, the roster was prepared considering two-three cases of rape each month in the Jhajjar town government hospital. Another "obvious answer" to our question was that the access to technology for sex identification of a baby growing in the womb. Yet, even a fair bit of questioning was useless in getting Singh to shed light on the magnitude of female foeticide in the district. But, he did direct us towards the Bahrana village in which 55 girls took birth in the local public health centre against 158 boys in 2010, in other words, 378 girls were born for every thousand boys.
About 50 km from the Delhi border, amidst more than 10 peacocks and over buffalo's milk, a chat with some of the women from this village reaffirmed the link between price rise and female foeticide. "An almost stagnant food grain production, falling water table and the decreasing size of land holding for each family is what we women talk about when we meet," said Sheela Ahlawat, daughter-in-law of former sarpanch Prahlad Singh. Sheela's supportive family is why her two daughters and one son study in the local school.
Sheela knows many families in the village that get a hysterectomy operation done if their first child is a boy. "But if a family's first child is a girl, collective breast-beating in the family over the cost of bringing up the girl, safeguarding her from rapists or in the worst case, her having an affair and paying for dowry when she grows up starts, and the only known rescue from that scenario is a visit to any of the clinics in Rohtak till the woman is sure a boy is growing up in the womb," Sheela said. Immediately after the second child, a boy is born, the majority of women get a hysterectomy operation done. The maximum a person can raise is three children in these days of rising prices.
When some of the villagers like Subedaar Satyanarayan Singh, who got his daughter-in-law's hysterectomy operation done after she gave birth to a girl, came out in opposition to the practice of foeticide and set up an example. On his insistence, the panchayat passed a resolution last year to "treat girls and boys like equals." Many women in the village and Satyanarayan himself are not sure if the resolution has made any difference. "The land holding of some families in the village has dropped to less than an acre and they want one boy who can inherit it but they don't have the money to raise another child." That, according to Subedaar, may be the reason why most of the 158 boys born in the village were first born.
(The authors are Anish Gupta, Kundan Pandey, Ruhi Kandhari, and Trishna Sarkar. The views expressed are strictly personal)