Recently, the controversy over suspension of the PCPNDT Act, which prohibits prenatal sex determination, subsided only after the Union Health Ministry clarified that it has not suspended the Act but has only temporarily relaxed some rules related to submission of reports due to the coronavirus lockdown. Although many people are aware that prenatal diagnosis is misused in India, very few know the extent of this practice and its consequences.
Following the Census of 1991, the subject of declining sex ratio due to prenatal sex determination and selective abortions of girls was extensively reported in the media. To control the situation and regulate the use of such techniques, Parliament enacted a special Act in 1994. In conformity with the various directions issued by the Supreme Court, Parliament further amended the Act in 2003. It is now called The Pre-conception and Pre-natal Diagnostic Techniques (Prohibition of Sex Selection) Act (PCPNDT Act).
According to Sections 4 & 5 of this Act, genetic clinics are banned from directly or indirectly revealing the sex of the fetus, except in cases of genetic abnormalities or sex-linked diseases. Several offences and penalties have been included in the Act, including strict guidelines for the genetic clinics to maintain and preserve the record of tests as enumerated under form “F” of the said Act. Every offence under this Act is cognizable, non-bailable and non-compoundable with punishment which includes imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years and on any subsequent conviction, with imprisonment which may extend to five years.
Problem with the whole scheme of things is that although the rules and regulations are in place there has been sharp and constant decline in child sex ratio. As per 2011 Census report, the child sex ratio in India has fallen to 919 females per 1,000 males, which is the lowest since Independence. Various studies have found that decline in the child sex ratio is unequivocally linked to the widespread use of prenatal sex determination and selective abortions of girls. Studies have also shown that regions with a higher number of registered prenatal diagnostic facilities per 100,000 women have a lower child sex ratio than where these facilities are less available. Due to gender biased morality of Indian society, there is a demand for sex-selective abortions; those who would not have contemplated female infanticide are making massive use of selective female foeticide and this generates lucrative business for some greedy medical professionals.
It is unfortunate that the science of prenatal diagnosis which aims to protect mother and child by detecting fetal abnormalities is abused in the country by some unscrupulous professional for prenatal sex determination and female foeticide just to earn some money. The main reason for the practice going unchecked is indifference on the part of authorities to implement the law. Therefore, it is the role of the media to make the government authorities and human genetics community aware of the magnitude of the misuse of prenatal technologies and its impact on the sex ratio and status of women.
Surat, among all cities in India, is the worst example of widespread use of prenatal sex determination and selective abortions of girls. As per the Census data of 2011, Surat among all districts of the state of Gujarat has the highest literacy rate (85.53%) and yet has the lowest child sex ratio. It is settled principle of demographic studies that wherever literacy rate increases the sex ratio of the population also increases, but Surat is going in reverse direction. This anomaly leads to the conclusion that the growth of girl children is being stopped by applying artificial means. It is for this reason, Surat has emerged as IVF (In Vitro Fertilisation) hub of India and consequently the city has become overcrowded with mushrooming of all sorts of maternity clinics.
In the past seven years alone, appropriate authorities under the PCPNDT Act have filed as many as 44 court cases against some of these clinics. Taking advantage of the pendency of matters before the court of law and in connivance with the local health authorities, most of these unscrupulous clinics are back in business. This is in violation of the rule 18(A) of the said Act, which prohibits the renewal of operating licence during the pendency of the case. Out of 16 cases decided so far, only one has been found guilty and rest have either been acquitted or dismissed for default. Surprisingly, no appeals against acquittals and dismissals have been made by appropriate authority to the superior courts, despite the fact that rule under Section 18(A) of the Act compulsorily mandates appropriate authority to file appeals immediately.
All this has been happening even after the Supreme Court, in its landmark judgment on the PCPNDT Act titled ‘Voluntary Health Association of Punjab VS Union of India’ (2016), has removed all anomalies with respect to the implementation of rules and regulations under the Act, with the direction to the concerned courts to preferably decide the pending matters within six months. However, the worst part of the story is that some of these clinics, having made fortune out of the misery of unborn girl children, masquerade as champions of saving the girl child by organising various functions under the garb of “Beti Bachao Beti Padhao” campaign to hide their misdeeds. To add fuel to fire, some of these so-called saviours of girl children, on the strength of their financial power, have managed to acquire positions in regional bodies of state medical council of Gujarat.
It is high time authorities take note of things before the situation goes out of control. To conclude, it would be apt to quote the comment of the Supreme Court in one of its judgments on the PCPNDT Act: “It is unfortunate that in an age where people are described as civilised, crime against female is committed even when the child is in the womb as the female foetus is often destroyed to prevent the birth of a female child. If that child comes into existence, she starts her life as a daughter, and then becomes a wife and in due course, a mother. She rocks the cradle to rear up her infant, bestows all her love on the child and as the child grows in age, she gives to the child all that she has in her own personality. She shapes the destiny and character of the child. To be cruel to such a creature is unthinkable.”
Abhijit Bhatt is a senior journalist based in Gujarat.