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Sunday, July 22, 2018

Expecting trouble: A crackdown on sex determination centres

A crackdown on sex determination centres is near impossible without the help of pregnant decoys. From Ahmedabad and Sonepat, two districts awarded for their vigilance, the stories of the women who set the trap.

Written by RITU SHARMA , SUKHBIR SIWACH | Updated: March 25, 2018 12:09:25 am
Sex determination, sex determination ahmedabad, sex determination sonepat The four-member PC-PNDT cell under the Ahmedabad district health department has carried out 42 decoy operations since 2013. Only three doctors/clinics were caught red-handed. (Source: File photo)

‘I want to save at least one girl’s life’

Ritu Sharma

Inside, the doctor was waiting at the ultrasound machine. She had insisted that Varsha (name changed) step in alone. The Accredited Social Health Assistant (ASHA) worker who had accompanied her to the clinic in east Ahmedabad, at least 20 km from her home, was instructed to stand outside. The doctor and her attendants appeared to be on their guard. “They asked me why I had come so far when there are so many other doctors near my house. I remained calm and said that one of my relatives had referred her to me,” she adds.

After the preliminary examination, Varsha opened up. “I told her that I want to get a sex determination test done. She got angry at me and said it is illegal,” Varsha says. She insisted, saying she already had a seven-year-old daughter. Her husband did not earn much either. “The doctor finally agreed. But she said it would cost Rs 15,000. She gave me 15 days to arrange the money. I pleaded with her to reduce the fee but she remained unmoved,” Varsha recounts. When she finally came out, the ASHA worker breathed easy. The decoy had not been found out. The plan was working.

Varsha is a young housewife in her 20s, of moderate build. Wide eyes look out from a cheerful face. At 20 weeks, she is visibly pregnant. She says she volunteered to be a decoy client to help raid doctors who carry out sex selection — as a part of a team enforcing the Pre-conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PC-PNDT) Act. Neither the ASHA worker nor the decoy is paid for the raid.

“I have a daughter but this thought never struck my husband’s or my mind that the second child should not be a girl. We may not be well off and highly educated but we understand that it is a crime and a sin to undergo this test. I wanted to do this because even if one girl’s life is saved because of my effort, it is worth it,” Varsha says. She had dropped out of school after Class IV and is married to Amit (name changed) from a village in the city’s western parts. Her husband works as a driver with a private company.

Ahmedabad district has recently been listed as one of the top performers across India in the ‘Beti Bachao Beti Padhao’ campaign. It is one of two districts (the other being Sonipat) especially awarded for the implementation of the PC-PNDT Act. According to the 2011 census, the district’s child sex ratio is 857 (between 0-6 years of age) and 904 overall. This has increased from 835 and 892 respectively (2001 census).

“The performance was measured during the last three to four year period after the launch of the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign in 2014. Ahmedabad has registered an improvement in 12-14 points. The deterrence in female foeticide has been due to convictions under the PNDT Act — three so far, which we believe is an encouraging number,” says Ahmedabad collector Avantika Singh Aulakh who received the award.

The four-member PC-PNDT cell under the Ahmedabad district health department has carried out 42 decoy operations since 2013. Only three doctors/clinics were caught red-handed.

“Once the cell receives an anonymous complaint online on the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao website, or through any other form, we keep a watch on those clinics. We also monitor clinics that are negligent in filling Form F (a compulsory record of any prenatal diagnostic test or procedure). Once we get an opportunity, we move in,” says Navnit Vora, district programme officer at the PC-PNDT cell.

But it is not easy to nail doctors and clinics. “Doctors involved in the sex determination tests are so well aware about the modus operandi adopted by our teams that they play very safe and are exceptionally cautious. They do not grill women from affluent sections, who can easily pay their fee for this test. But because our decoys are from the less privileged class, they are very suspicious of them,” says Ahmedabad municipal health officer Dr Bhavin Solanki, who heads the municipal corporation’s PC-PNDT cell. It takes several visits by a decoy to the clinic to build trust with the doctor, before he will agree to reveal the sex of the foetus.

In one of the successful raids in Vastral area of the city in 2016, the decoy was harassed tosuch an extent that the district health department had to seek police protection for her.

“It was on the third visit in three months at the clinic of an ayurvedic doctor, when we were successful. After the sonography, the doctor conducted a sex determination test for which he had demanded Rs 25,000. He reduced it to Rs 15,000 on my requests. He told me it’s ‘satte pe satta’. When I asked him the meaning, he said it is a girl child,” says Aruna (name changed) a 27-year-old decoy who trapped the doctor. The mother of two left the clinic only to have people, allegedly sent by the doctor, harass her. The village head, from her own community, pressured her to withdraw her statement. Her husband was threatened with a boycott. “When I did not accept their offer of money, I was even threatened that if I did not withdraw my statement, it would be harmful for me and my family. Finally, I had to complain to the health department,” she says.

A big part of the work is for the health workers to convince the family members. “We tell them that it is for the good of society. We tell them that they have to find brides from other states if the sex ratio continues to fall,” says the ASHA worker.

Varsha had to keep her family in the dark when she set out on the raid. But before her second visit, she revealed it to her husband who then informed his parents. That was the point when her husband asked her to back off.

For the future: Decoys in Sonepat district. (Express photo by Jaipal Singh)

“Their only concern is what if our identities are disclosed? They are also worried that once it becomes a police case, they would be harassed by repeated visits at the police station and courts,” she says. She is not sure if she can convince her husband. If she cannot, the PNDT cell staff have to start off again with a new decoy, hoping the next one ends in a successful operation.

‘If we do nothing, there will only be boys around us’

Sukhbir Siwach

A few days after Babita helped government health officers bust a sex determination clinic in Meerut, there were visitors at her husband’s shop in Sonepat. “They threatened my husband, asking me not to give evidence in the court,” says Babita, as she cradles her three-month-old son.

Babita is one of the 25-odd decoys, mostly ASHA workers, who are used by Haryana health officials to raid ultrasound clinics. In Sonipat district, they have been a part of 45 raids to nab 15 persons, including 30 doctors, in the past three years. At least 22 of those raids have been across the inter-state border in Delhi and Uttar Pradesh.

The Sonipat administration was recently awarded by Prime Minister Narendra Modi for effective implementation of the PC-PNDT Act. The sex ratio at birth in Sonipat has climbed to 1,005 girls per 1,000 boys in January with the implementation of Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign, says the government. It was 830 at birth in 2014.

“We try our best to hide our identity but sometimes they get our details from the police stations. When an FIR is registered, police officers insist on our residential details, including a copy of Aadhaar,” says Babita. For each successful raid, Babita got a cash award of Rs 20,000. “But that’s too little for the risk involved,” she says.

“When I joined Sonipat as chief medical officer in August 2014, I found the sex ratio here at a very dire stage. I thought something extraordinary has to be done. We identified a motivated team headed by Dr Sharma,” says Dr JS Punia. He believes that a crackdown in Sonipat has pushed the trade to Delhi and Baghpat, Meerut, Noida, Ghaziabad and Bulandshahr in UP. As many as 10 of the 45 centres raided were mobile — that is, they were portable ultrasound machines which could be carried in a car.

Punia explains that they have also infiltrated the ranks of the middlemen. “As touts, they were getting just Rs 500 to Rs 2,000 per case. We offered them Rs 1 lakh as part of a government scheme for each successful raid,” says Punia.

Khushi, 26, recalls the 19-hour-long operation that led to the arrest of a Ghaziabad-based doctor and two touts, who were organising sex determination tests in December 2016. A local resident who had got the sex of her foetus checked at the clinic had tipped them off.

Khushi and her husband met a woman at Begumpur village of Delhi, who would lead them to Ghaziabad. The officials say the woman fixed the deal for Rs 35,000. “As we left with the woman, the officials kept following us in a car. Once at the ultrasound centre, we gave a signal after the scan was done, and they trooped in to arrest the doctor,” she recalls. Each decoy is given a GPRS-fitted mobile set so that she remains in touch.

Nevertheless, there is always the risk of losing contact. Sonipat’s deputy chief medical officer Dr Adarsh Sharma, who led the raiding teams, says, “The touts keep changing vehicles to throw us off the trail. In a 2015 case, first they travelled with the decoy in an e-rickshaw, then took a bus, then the metro, and, ultimately, a bike to reach to a clinic situated at Vasant Vihar iin New Delhi.” “My sister-in law always asks me why I take this risk,” says Khushi. “I reply, ‘To save girls like you’.” Sarita, 26, another decoy who helped nail an ultrasound centre in Uttar Pradesh, says, “If we do nothing, there will only be boys around us.”

(Names of the decoys have been changed)

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