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Book Extract

The case of the missing girl child

Despite governments’ efforts, studies show that adverse sex ratio remains a dark spot in 21st century India. It requires a syncretic feminist perspective and multi-pronged approach to tackle the menace of sex-selective abortion


ACKNOWLEDGING sex-selective abortion as gender discrimination and its countering through various interventions and initiatives have become common in policy articulation and execution pertaining to a range of local, regional and global bodies, both in India and elsewhere. One of the most important actors in this arena is the state. The state in India, which includes both its central and state government machineries, has been seen to be engaged with confronting the practice of sex-selective abortion.

The ‘add gender and stir approach’ has been severely critiqued for assuming falsely that gender discrimination can be effectively tackled through strategies and crafty interventions without substantially questioning the dynamics of power and inequity in society.

What needs to be critically examined here is the fundamental understanding of gender discrimination in the various policies, interventions and initiatives which claim to be ‘gender-sensitive’ and the potentiality of mobilising them for the countering of sex-selective abortion and the possible emancipation of women in India.

Defining the problem
Sex-selective abortion became a concern for the state with the noting of the declining sex-ratio, especially in the 0-6 age group in its decennial census. This concern led to a varied perception of the problem; and the strategies to counter it were based on these perceptions. These perceptions can be broadly divided into three categories.

The first perception of this problem for the state has been its leading to a demographic imbalance; the second association of it has been in terms of gender discrimination, and the third is the misuse of reproductive technology amounting to an illegal practice or crime. Based on these three pre-dominant modes of understanding it, the state has outlined policies, programmes and strategies to counter it.

As Martha Nussbaum points out, all public policy formulation unavoidably reflects normative positions and so should be subjected to critical philosophical reasoning (Martha Nussbaum quoted in Fukuda-Parr 2007: 331). Although the approaches of the state are said to be ultimately concerned with human well-being, their evaluation needs to examine whether they have been focussed on rights, freedom and agency. Gender analysis enriched by feminist theorising contributes to this evaluation, providing it the lens and flexibility to encompass issues of inequality that would otherwise go unnoticed. A syncretic feminist perspective with an inter-sectionality approach provides a framework to evaluate the approaches of the state. It broadens the concern with countering gender discrimination and with the policies necessary to achieve that goal.

Revisiting the Debate
Sharp regional variations in sex ratio have been a subject matter of a long debate in India beginning with the first population Census in 1872 (Agnihotri 2001: 37). It continues to be a perplexing problem even today. The exercise of census taking began in colonial times. A census is not a passive account of statistical tables, but also engages in reshaping the world through categories and their definitions.


Bhagat in his study of census taking in colonial times points out to how the exercise of census taking differed between the imperial state and its colonies. The census taking in colonial India was due to the desire of the colonial government to learn as much as it could about the people and the land under its control. In Great Britain census was largely a secular institution; in colonial India, the government emphasised on the questions of religion, caste, race and community.

The main principle behind this exercise was to project the social cleavages that existed in colonial society so that the colonial rule is sustained. Enumeration and categorisation for reasons of the colonial state had a deep social impact. It is in this context that the very concept of majority and minority in religious terms emerged as an outcome of a modern consciousness of population numeracy (Bhagat 2001).

In a similar way the issue of declining sex ratio became a concern for the colonial regime due to various reasons which had to do with caste and community interconnections. Another such interconnection is pointed out in Oldenburg’s work on dowry.

Oldenburg argues that dowry murders and female infanticide received a sharp fillip by the decisions of the British to create individual peasant ownership as the centre piece of their revenue policy. Dowry, which served as a woman’s safety net in pre-colonial times, was transformed into a deadly institution during the days of the Raj. Before the British arrived in India, land was not seen as a commodity which could be bought and sold. The land belonged notionally to the king and the produce of the land were shared by all villagers. When land was put exclusively in male hands, it made them responsible for the payment of revenue and also made the Indian male, the dominant legal subject.

The first evidence of female infanticide was found in December, 1789, by Jonanthan Duncan, the British Resident at Benares, among Rajkumar Rajputs in Jaunpur district of Benares Division. The Rajputs in north, west and central India which means undivided Punjab, Rajasthan, U.P. Malwa and Saurashtra, as per the colonial records, are identified as a caste which resorted to extensive female infanticide.

In 1817, British officials observed that female infanticide was so extensive among the Jadejas, a Rajput clan in peninsular Gujarat that whole taluks inhabited by the clan were without any female children. Perhaps alarmed by these figures, in 1856, an official who investigated the phenomenon of female infanticide in Benares Division, found that Rajput female children were deficient in 308 out of 418 villages in which census was taken; of these, 62 villages, nearly one-fifth, had no Rajput female children below 6 years. The other castes, which the colonial records observe, killed their female children were the Lewa Kanbis and Patidars of central Gujarat and Jats, Ahirs, Gujars, Khutris and Moyal Brahmins in north India.

When the census enumerations were launched in the last quarter of the 19th century, it reconfirmed the observations in the archival records. According to Vishwanath’s elaborate study, perhaps taking the cue from the records, the authors of more than one census reports refer to the Rajputs and Lewa Patidars as having a ‘stigma’ or ‘a tradition’ of female infanticide since ‘olden times’ (Census 1901, 1921). Vishwanath further explains that the 1921 census report classifies castes into two categories, namely castes having ‘a tradition of female infanticide’ and castes without such ‘a tradition’ (Vishwanath 2007: 270-2).

This census provides figures from 1901 to 1921 to show that in Punjab, United Provinces and Rajputana castes such as Hindu Rajputs, Hindu Jats, and Gujars with ‘a tradition’ of female infanticide, had a much lower number of females per 1,000 males compared to castes without such ‘a tradition’ which included: Muslim Rajputs, Muslim Jats, Chamar, Kanet, Arain, Kumhar, Kurmi, Brahmin, Dhobi, Teli and Lodha.

HOWEVER, Vishwanath maintains that it is difficult to conclude from this that the lower castes will not or will never practise female infanticide because sanskritisation, acquisition of assets, modern education and dowry adoption can push the lower castes towards female neglect and infanticide. As a confirmation, recent data for the Chamars and scheduled castes in U.P. suggest that the dalit castes are moving in the direction of deficiency of females and possibly female infanticide or foeticide.

Thus, in 1901, the Chamars in U.P. had a female to male ratio of 986; but by 1981 the female to male ratio among Chamars in the same ratio among SCs in U.P. was 970; by 1981, it was down to 892. Drawing attention to these figures Dreze and Sen note that ‘So far as gender relations are concerned, the scheduled castes in Uttar Pradesh are now more like the higher castes than they used to be.’ The records provide evidence of the lower castes getting influenced by the higher, so far as female infanticide is concerned.

The Female Infanticide Act, 1870 was enacted and enforced on 17 April 1871. It provided for a system of compulsory registration of births, deaths, marriages, and remarriages by a registrar appointed for this purpose by the Government. However, the pre-colonial logic for female infanticide was strengthened by imperial and land ownership policy even though the British had outlawed the practice.

THE Infanticide Act of 1870 was repealed in 1906. The claim that infanticide was no longer practiced was patently untenable. If anything, the British knew well from their own careful monitoring and enumeration that sex ratios continued to worsen in Punjab.


Political exigency probably forced the repeal of the Act of 1870. It was only during the tenure of Ashok Mitra (1958-68) as Registrar General and Census Commissioner of India that a broad range and themes which had not been till then included as a part of the census operations were included. For Mitra the steadily deteriorating sex ratio was an obsessive concern for more than six decades. Presiding over the 1961 Census, he publicised the influential work of Pravin Visaria, which was the first major effort to understand the worsening deficit of females in the Indian population (Visaria 1971).

This study put an end to earlier speculations about undercounting of females across several age groups, as the prime reason for low female sex ratios. Ashok Mitra returned to the question of worsening female deficits, after reading the results of the 1971 Census. He wrote what is perhaps the most comprehensive review of the social malady covering all that is relevant. He discussed at length the possibility of undercounting of females in the different censuses and went on to examine the nature and extent of higher female mortality under normal conditions and under famines.


The sex ratio continued to decline steadily in the 1980s producing the lowest ever ratio of that time period both in the adult as well as in the juvenile population. The 1991 Census counted 927 females to every 1000 males in the Indian population and 945 (from 962 in 1981 Census) in the 0-6 age group. The phantom of under-enumeration, raised by some demographers, was to be deservedly put to rest by the accuracy of the data.

As reliable data accumulated, it became increasingly clear that female deficits at birth and early childhood were responsible for this decline. The well-established preference for the male-child and its nexus with the misuse of reproductive technology leading to sex determination and followed by sex-selective abortion became attributed as the primary cause of the female deficit in India.

Amartya Sen’s spectacular observation of 100 million missing women in the world and 30 million in India paved the ground for numerous articles and research on the issue. The census office’s data was made available to Sen in the late 80s and in the 1990s, for making of his two seminal works on the issue: 100 Million Women Missing (Sen 1990) followed by Inequality Re-examined (Sen 1995).

Interestingly, while demographers continued to raise the bogey of under-enumeration of females and the over-counting of males, the Registrar-General and Census Commissioner of India of that period, A. R. Nanda, writes this as an interpretation of the data: ‘The main reason for the declining sex ratio has been identified as the gap in the rate of mortality decline between males and females. While both male and female mortality has declined over the years, the decline has been faster in cases of males compared to females’ (Nanda 1991).

The declining sex ratio of the population can be examined better when the age distribution of the census is available by the end of 1993. The population aged 0-6 has so far been tabulated in the 1991 Census. While the sex ratio has declined from 935 to 927 during the last decade the sex ratio of the population aged 0-6 has declined sharply from 962 to 945, i.e. by 17 points. It may be seen that during the previous decade, i.e. 1971-1981 the sex ratio of the 0-6 population had declined by 2 points only. During the decade 1961-71, the decline in the sex ratio was more or less the same for the total population and the population aged 0-6 years (Nanda 1991).

The gender dimensions of declining sex ratio were noted in 1991 Census. The women’s movement at this time was also raising questions about women’s work and its definition in the census. The under-enumeration of women came up for discussion and debate. It was now not enough to just recognise that women were under enumerated and that their work underestimated. The under-enumeration of women was theoretically taken up for research and papers by well-known researchers like Leela Visaria, Amartya Sen and others revealed that this was not under-enumeration but a problem of missing women who were not present due to female infanticide, sex-selective abortion, girl-child neglect, etc. The underestimation of women’s work also came up at this stage. It was the voices from the women’s movement that challenged this and a continuous pressure was built up on the state to address the underestimation of women’s work.

The 1991 census operation gave special visibility to gender issues, the result of a cumulative effort of various women’s groups, women’s movements, feminist academia, UN bodies and a sensitised bureaucracy heading the operation. It focussed on the declining sex ratio and its link with sex-selective abortion and it emphasised on the under-enumeration of women’s work.


THE 2001 Census drew its reference on gender issues from the 1991 census operations and the recommendations, planning and policy implementation that followed it. The buzz on the declining sex ratio, especially in the 0-6 age group declining from 945 to 927, became a major rallying ground for noting the rampant practice of sex-selective abortion which led to it.

The Census Commissioner of that time, J. K. Banthia, highlighted this issue inviting attention from the women’s groups and other organisations working on it (Banthia 2005). The office also instituted the position of a ‘Gender Head’ who would be involved in disseminating this information to all and focus mainly on the issue of how sex-selective abortion was contributing to this slide in numbers.

The 2011 Census again revealed a further lowering of the child sex ratio (CSR). It stands today at 919, which is lower than the CSR of 927 in 2001. This decline is noted in all regions defying the earlier clear divide between the North and the South. The urban-rural divide has also lessened. Tribal regions which were considered to be egalitarian are now manifesting deficit of girls in their community.

This decline has been attributed to the widespread availability of new reproductive technologies and its facilitation by medical providers who are reaping the benefits of such misuse through huge monetary gains.

The total fertility rate (TFR) stands at 2.3 in India (SRS Statistical Report 2013). So while there is a decrease in population growth rate, the deficit of females in the population has increased. The reports clearly pointed to the male-child planning along with misuse of reproductive technologies which had brought about the worst ever female deficit. However, pressures to provide for a caste census and the National Population Register did not allow the space or time to the census office for a critical focus on the issue.

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