IN OCTOBER, Varsha Deshpande persuaded a pregnant friend to travel eight hours to Aurangabad, a thriving, medium-sized city in the state of Maharashtra, for an ultrasound scan that she could have easily undergone in her hometown. Ms Deshpande also persuaded her friend to go to the appointment with a small microphone hidden under her sari blouse. A man posing as her husband had a tiny video camera concealed about him. Using the recordings of what went on during the appointment, Maharashtra’s state government has filed a case against the doctor that could lead to a three-year prison sentence.
Ms Deshpande, a 45-year-old lawyer and women’s-rights activist, is taking an unusual approach to India’s skewed sex ratios. Many parents are desperate for sons but not daughters. Those who resort to aborting female fetuses are worsening an imbalance which has left the country with 914 girls aged six and under per 1,000 boys, according to the 2011 census, down from 927 in 2001. Ms Deshpande, who rolls her eyes at what she calls the typical NGO response of arranging workshops and didactic street plays, is instead conducting “sting operations” against the doctors who reveal to women the sexes of their unborn children during routine ultrasound scans. Disclosing such information is illegal in India, so as to prevent sex-selective abortions.
A formidable figure wearing a plain salwar kameez and a large man’s watch, Ms Deshpande has conducted 42 stings since her first, in 2005. These have resulted in a dozen convictions, she says, although all are being appealed. Ms Deshpande works in Maharashtra, India’s second-most-populous state with 112m people and home to its business capital, Mumbai. She is now teaching activists in Gujarat and Rajasthan, two other large states, how to conduct their own undercover missions.
Ms Deshpande relies on tip-offs from local social workers and nurses as to which doctors in a given neighbourhood are telling patients the sex of an unborn child, discernible roughly 14-16 weeks into any given client’s pregnancy. A doctor typically takes a bribe of around ten times the fee for the ultrasound scan for the illicit extra service—a scan costs around 200 rupees ($3.70) in Maharashtra’s poorest villages, and 1,500-3,000 rupees in Mumbai’s poshest districts. The bribe has to be the main piece of evidence in any resulting trial, as a doctor often uses bizarre codes to convey a fetus's gender. Ms Deshpande says they sometimes ask a patient to come back on Monday, using the code of "M for man”, or Wednesday, ie "W for woman”. They sometimes fill in the patient's forms in green ink to indicate a boy or red ink to indicate a girl.
Ms Deshpande is a rare example of someone who is trying to tackle sex-selective abortions among middle-class Indians. It is often assumed that the poorest and least-educated couples are the most likely to neglect daughters, or to take measures to avoid having daughters at all. Yet Bihar, India’s poorest state per capita, has 933 young girls per 1,000 boys, while Maharashtra clocks in at only 883. Haryana, which has India’s worst sex ratio, at 830, also had its fourth-highest GDP per capita in 2010-11. "The majority of them are upper-caste and rich patients—those who use dowry and [live] where sonograms are available,” Ms Deshpande says, of the couples who use the clinics she targets. She adds that those who have recently become wealthy and have newly acquired assets to keep in the family, especially property, are particularly desperate for sons.
In the long term, India can only smooth out its sex ratios by improving parents' attitudes to daughters (partly by using the touchy-feely methods of which Ms Deshpande is sceptical). If this were to be done successfully, then divulging the sex of a fetus would hardly matter. Yet Ms Deshpande is sticking to her approach. Her main problem is that she occasionally gets false tip-offs motivated by personal vendettas. She is also at a loss when it comes to the super-rich and their dodgy doctors. She says elite Mumbaikars increasingly can afford test-tube babies—and that the bribes for sex selection in such situations can exceed 100,000 rupees a pop. "We want to do stings in the richest areas, but it requires big money," she laments.
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