Even before Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s much touted ‘Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao’ (Save girls, educate girls) scheme, launched in 2015, was to show some results, the slogan was extended with another part, ‘Beti Khilao’ (let the girls play) in the aftermath of Rio Olympics. The enthusiasm behind rephrasing the slogan came from the superb performance by Indian women players, particularly PV Sindhu and Sakshi Malik in badminton and wrestling respectively. They added silver and bronze medals to India’s kitty at the Olympics. Dipa Karmakar also achieved distinction in gymnastics. But for the mark made by these three girls, Indian Olympic contingent would have returned empty handed, obviously as big an ignominy as our country. Therefore, Beti Khilao became an obvious and logical addition to the slogan ostensibly aiming at improving the persisting gender discrimination in all spheres of life.
On the basis of my own experience as an international Volleyball player and an activist of the women’s movement, I feel it is the third component of this slogan, Beti Khilao that can play a crucial role in empowering our girls. Beti Bachao was coined to rectify the alarming imbalance in sex ratio. Under the scheme, over hundred districts of the country were identified for immediate action. According to the 2011 census, Haryana continues to be the most infamous state for its skewed sex ratio which stood at 866 females per 1,000 males. In March this year, after two years of implementation of the Beti Bachao scheme, Haryana Chief Minister Manohar Lal Khattar made a tall claim. He said that a remarkable improvement was recorded in the state’s sex ratio with 950 female births per thousand male, registering an improvement of more than 100 points. This sounded unbelievable on the face value, itself. Later on, the audit team of the Beti Bachao scheme found serious discrepancies in the data related to birth registration methodology in 8 of the 10 districts covered under the scheme. Sections of media exposed that the inflated claims made by Khattar were based on deliberate misrepresentation of the figures supplied by concerned district level officials. Even the Consultant Demographer with the United Nations Population Fund, Arvind Acharya issued a public statement that ‘scientifically, we cannot compare the census data and the civil birth registration data because the data elements of two systems are different.’ In fact, Haryana’s Health Minister, Anil Vij, had to take a public note of this gaff and announce an enquiry into the apparent fudging of the numbers.
Just two weeks ago, an RTI revealed that in just two years Haryana government has spent Rs 190 crore on advertising. According to the information, the state government paid Rs 173 crore to print media and Rs 11.5 crore to electronic media between October 20, 2014 and January 4, 2017 for advertisements. Besides, the government spent Rs 5.5 crore on flax boards to publicise its schemes and events such as Beti Bachao Beti Padhao.
However, the reality of the Beti Padhao component was starkly laid bare in May, this year. There were a series of unusual protests by girl students at several places in Haryana demanding an upgradation of their schools to senior secondary standard. Thirteen, 16-year-old girls, of Gothra Tappa village of Rewari district of Haryana, sat on a hunger strike for eight days, facing worst weather conditions, to get their village school upgraded to senior secondary level. The primary reason behind this was that girls, often, have to discontinue their studies if the higher secondary schools are far off, as parents worry for their safety because of the increasing sexual harassment and violence. This episode depicted a deep seated assertion of young girls that attracted national media’s attention. It is not a coincidence that most of these matriculate girls on huger-strike happen to be players of their school hockey team.
In this light, the seriousness of the Central government to empower the young girls is suspect. The Central government, supposedly perturbed at the medal debacle in Rio Olympics, took a single strategic step. This was the formation of a task force with a mandate to prepare a long term roadmap for the next three Olympics and a short term strategy for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Shockingly, not a single woman was included in this eight-member task force that comprises of Abhinav Bindra, Pullela Gopichand, Viren Rasquenha, S Baldev Singh, Om Prakash Pathak, G. L. Khanna, Rajesh Kalra and Sandeep Pradhan. With such an exclusionary and gender-blind approach, it is not hard to imagine the outcome.
The so-called ‘Task Force’ submitted its interim report to the Prime Minister’s Office in May this year. If we go by the media coverage, among the several recommendations made by them, not a single one concerns women’s participation in sports. No one has a problem with the general approach of the interim report. But how can it be totally indifferent to take note of the immense potential of women players, which they have appropriately displayed at the Rio Olympics, in-spite of rampant patriarchal discrimination right from birth as reflected in the country’s skewed sex ratio.
The undying assertion among our women, especially young girls, can be witnessed in all spheres of life despite the indifference that surrounds them. The essence of unprecedented success of the recent Bollywood film Dangal, on women wrestlers from Haryana, and the tremendous acclaim it won actually lies in the spectacular manner of bringing this assertion in focus. This zeal to dream and dedication to follow them in most hostile conditions has the potential to create magic, if facilitated by family and society. The film touched so many hearts because it was based on a real life story of Phogat sisters, the wrestling champions, from Haryana. A change in attitude towards girls, even by virtue of their proven capability, could have gone a long way had it been supported and followed by drastic changes at various levels, including policy-making level. All stakeholders, therefore, will have to ensure that women sportspersons and young girls are no longer denied their share in resources and are guaranteed the dignity that’s overdue.
The vicious cycle of persisting adverse female ratio, continued gender discrimination, denial at institutional level, has to be broken now. This can only be done by adopting a holistic approach towards establishing a girl’s identity as no lesser citizen. And, their promotion in sports has a tremendous potential to do so. Beti Khilao can play a catalyzing role in supporting Beti Bachao and Beti Padhao, if there is an honest attempt. Else, our country will bear the cost of its apathy towards its women.
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