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Last Updated: Saturday, 18 August 2007, 10:46 GMT 11:46 UK
Girls at risk amid India's prosperity
By Nick Bryant
BBC News

India is in the throes of a revolution of rising expectations, a country animated by a providential sense of its own possibility.

Indian girls in at slum in Bangalore
Female infanticide is highest in some of India's wealthiest districts

Already, it is close to dislodging Japan as the world's third largest economy, if purchasing power is taken into account. And by 2040 should have eased past China to become the planet's most populous country.

Though progress can be agonisingly and needlessly slow, especially in the countryside, living standards are improving, along with literacy rates and life expectancy.

In Mumbai not so long ago, I visited what can only be described as a gentrified slum, where a young father sat in front of his colour television mesmerised by the fast-moving ticker racing across the bottom of the screen.

He was checking on the value of his share portfolio, and happily it was increasing with each occasional blink of his eyes.

Daring to dream

Even in the shanties, still stinking and overcrowded, people are daring to dream. The signs of change are everywhere.

Inequalities aside, the crude equation that increased wealth will lead ultimately to decreased suffering should apply to most of India's social and economic maladies.

Indian girls playing
A baby girls means a future dowry and a financial burden for a family

Yet there is one problem that prosperity is actually aggravating.

I saw this for myself in a hospital in Punjab, where we filmed a young mother giving birth, with the help of a surgeon's scalpel, to her second daughter.

The Caesarean section was a complete success, and the safe arrival of such a beautiful ball of life should have been greeted with uncomplicated delight.

But the mother had failed once again to provide her husband with a son and heir, so it was a singularly joyless occasion.

Old attitudes

Handed the little girl, not yet 10 minutes old, the women of the family were disapproving and edgy, fretful perhaps of how they would break the news to the men folk, who had not even come to the hospital.

On the maternity ward a few minutes later, I was asked by one of the ladies - the mother's sister, I think - whether we would like to name the baby girl.

A Muslim Indian girl prays in Calcutta
Why pay 50,000 rupees to your new in-laws when you can pay 500 rupees for an abortion?

We demurred, of course. Then came an even more extraordinary request: did we want to take the baby, not just to hold, but to have?

In another time, she might have been killed.

For this prosperous Punjabi family, we seemingly offered a less savage means of disposal.

In modern-day India, sex selection, the all-too-common practice by which female foetuses are terminated before birth, conforms to a very different and disturbing calculus: increased wealth brings increased access to prenatal ultrasounds and sonograms.

New and more widely available technology, the engine of India's relentless economic growth, is also fuelling female foeticide.

Illegal

According to a study by Unicef, a higher percentage of boys are born now than 10 years ago in 80% of India's districts.

FACTS AND FIGURES
Female infanticide occurs in 80% of states
Worst-affected states include wealthiest areas
927 girls born for every 1,000 boys
Infant mortality rate: 60/1,000
Source: Unicef

Only last month in the state of Orissa, the skulls of 40 female foetuses and newborn girls were discovered in an abandoned well.

More distressing still, sex selection is worst in the most affluent parts of the country: Punjab, Haryana, Gujarat.

In northern Punjab, for example, there are just 798 girls under the age of six for every 1,000 boys. The national average is 927.

Even though it is illegal in India for a doctor to reveal the gender of an unborn child, the law is rarely enforced.

Over the past 20 years, it has been estimated that some 10 million female foetuses have been aborted.

Girls are unwanted because they are seen as a financial burden. Landholdings can pass to in-laws and dowries, which themselves are illegal, siphon money from families.

First birthday

Why pay 50,000 rupees to your new in-laws when you can pay 500 rupees for an abortion? You do not even have to leave home.

Many unscrupulous doctors carry portable ultra-sound equipment in the boots of their cars.

Increased consumer choice is one of the hallmarks of the new India.

Tragically, it is being applied, with almost industrial efficiency, to depress the female birth rate.




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