By Nita Bhalla
KUREKSHETRA (TrustLaw) - Beneath the seeming religiosity of this quaint north Indian town, revered in Hindu scriptures, lies a sinister reputation: It has one of India's lowest populations of girls as illegal abortions flourish in a region with a strong preference for boys.
Despite years of campaigning against female foeticide, a ban on pre-natal gender testing and government schemes to promote girls, India's 2011 census last week revealed that efforts to curb the crime have been weak and futile.
And Kurekshetra in India's northwest Haryana, a prosperous agrarian region where patriarchy is part and parcel of everyday life, mirrors a trend seen in many of India's towns and cities where boys are seen as assets and girls as liabilities.
Such prejudices provide a counterpoint to a country where runaway economic development is not only freeing millions from crushing poverty, but also helping change conservative social attitudes as more people are exposed to Western cultures.
The number of girls aged six-years-old or below has plummeted for the fifth decade running, with 914 girls to every 1,000 boys compared to 927 in 2001, say activists -- proving that the killing of unborn girls in India continues unabated.
"This confirms our worst fears--something that we and many others have been warning about for several years now. It is a shame for the entire country," said ActionAid India executive director Sandeep Chachra.
"It is time to move away from patchy responses and look at the larger picture to evolve a stronger strategy to change the status quo."
Experts warn that the declining population of females, if not addressed, poses the risk of a demographic crisis. Implications for societies with fewer women or a scarcity of women include in a rise in sexual violence, child-abuse and wife-sharing.
BOYS VERSUS GIRLS
Just three hours drive from the swanky malls of the Indian capital New Delhi, Kurekshetra -- famed as the site of the legendary battle depicted in the Sanskrit epic Mahabharata -- has one of the most skewed child sex ratios in India.
While district-wise census results have not yet been published, activists say Kurekshetra district -- which includes the city -- could have as few as 700 girls to every 1,000 boys, compared to 770 a decade ago.
Along Kurekshetra's congested roads, all appears normal.
Devotees carry trays filled with rose petals and fruits as offerings to Hindu idols and tourists wander around the many shrines surrounded by water, such as the Brahma Sarovar, seen by Hindus as being the cradle of civilisation.
But, researchers say, take a closer look and the reality of Kurekshetra's missing daughters is clearly evident. Yet no one will admit it.
"We have been working here for two years and you notice it on the streets. There are lots of little boys playing outside but where are all the girls?" said Manasi Mishra of the Centre for Social Research (CSR), a gender rights think-tank in New Delhi.
"Patriarchy is at its highest form in Haryana and the community is in a denial mode about the issue."
Local anganwadi workers, or community health workers, say in these societies -- wealthy or poor -- the birth of a boy is welcomed, while that of a girl is often met with hostility towards the new mother by her husband and in-laws.
Sons are viewed as the main breadwinners, who will continue the family name, care for their elderly parents and perform their last rites -- an important ritual in many faiths.
Daughters often are seen as financial liabilities for whom substantial wedding dowries will have to paid – despite a ban on the practice of dowry payment.
Protecting the chastity of girls in India also is a major concern for many parents, say community workers, as pre-marital sex often is viewed as bringing disrepute on the family.
As a result, pregnant women can often coerced, if not forced, by their families into having an illegal sex determination test and aborting the child if it is found to be a girl.
CRACKDOWN ON "GENOCIDE"
In a bid to stop female foeticide, India introduced legislation in 1994 banning doctors from doing sex determination tests under the Prohibition of Sex Selection Act.
But gender tests and sex selective abortions continue -- not just in Haryana, but in the neighbouring state of Punjab, the capital New Delhi and India's western states of Gujarat and Rajasthan, which report the most skewed child sex ratios.
Sporadic reports still appear in local newspapers of discoveries of aborted foetuses dumped in wells behind clinics or hidden in the basement septic tanks of private hospitals in upmarket areas.
Government officials admit that the census results have proven that four decades of efforts to curb female foeticide have failed and say stronger laws are required.
"We want to revise the present act and make it more stringent to crack down on offenders and ensure speedy and effective justice in prosecutions, sentencing and convictions, which are very low," said Girija Vyas, chairperson of the National Commission for Women.
But activists argue that legislation on paper will do little and more vigorous enforcement -- raids on clinics, naming and shaming senior members of the medical fraternity and better awareness -- is needed to crack down on this lucrative underground racket.
In the back streets of cities like Kurekshetra, private clinics and unlicensed doctors cash in on age-old traditional views and abort girls for anyone willing to pay anything from a few hundred rupees to a few thousand.
Community workers add that door-to-door service is even being offered for those seeking gender testing in the privacy of their home.
"Over the years, the technology has changed and the ultrasound machines used for sex determination were huge and had to be carried in vans. Now they are small, portable and easy to transport even on the back of motorcycles," said Sabu George, a public health activist who has been campaigning against female foeticide for the last two decades.
"It's big business for the private clinics, the medical fraternity, as well as these quacks, who are also performing these tests. It seems no one is really bothered -- but what is happening is nothing short of genocide."