FOUR decades of public awareness campaigns and a raft of laws have failed to prevent a chronic and worsening gender imbalance in India, Delhi has admitted.
The first data from a census carried out this year shows that for every 1000 Indian boys under the age of six there are 914 girls.
The equivalent figure in the last census a decade ago was 927; in 1991 it was 945.
Officials are most disturbed by data showing that areas of India that had previously registered healthy ratios are now beginning to follow states such as Gujarat, Haryana and Punjab, notorious for sex-selective abortion and female infanticide.
Although the northwestern states registered small improvements, according to the provisional data from the 2011 census, those gains have been overwhelmed by a slide in many other areas.
The steepest decline was registered in Jammu and Kashmir and states in southern and eastern India are joining the ranks of those where one in eight girls are “missing” from the register.
Campaigners said that cheaper and more mobile ultrasound technology and lax control over its illegal use was driving a “genocide” of India’s female population.
Researchers in London estimated last month that, within two decades, there would be 20 per cent more males than females in India.
The preference for male children, reinforced by cultural traditions and economic factors, is found in many Asian countries but Therese Hesketh, one of the authors of the report, said that India was bucking an improving trend. “Elsewhere in Asia you are seeing an emerging middle class … use abortion less and the figures are getting better.”
The report by the UCL Centre for Health and Development said that sex-selective abortion, although illegal, was still carried out “with impunity by medical personnel, usually qualified doctors, in hospitals and clinics, not in backstreet establishments”.
One explanation for the worsening gender imbalance may be decreasing family size. India’s population growth is slowing, according to the first results of the census, which show that 1.21billion people live in the country – 17 per cent of the world’s total and a 17.6 per cent increase on a decade ago.
Sabu George, a public health activist, blamed the Government for failing to implement its own legislation to outlaw pre-natal sex determination.
“The number of registered ultrasound clinics in India has grown … to 40,000 today and yet the supervisory board supposed to enforce the law has not met for three years.”
With the supply of Indian medical graduates currently outstripping domestic demand, sex-selective abortion was often the only work that newly qualified medics could find, he added.
Mr George said that, while middle-class Indians in Delhi and other big cities might pay up to 10,000 rupees ($210) for an illegal scan, the advent of portable scanners meant that some villagers could know the sex of their unborn child for as little as 300 rupees.
Mr George criticised the underlying attitudes that allowed the practice to continue. “People know full well what is going on and who is doing it. Until civil society comes out on the streets against what is happening, it will continue.”
The manufactures of the scanners such as the US giant GE have been challenged by campaigners to ensure that they do not profit from illegal sex-selective abortions.
“GE’s internal audit ensures that the ultrasound machines are only sold to a licensed doctors, so the potential for misuse is not there,” V. Raja, the head of GE South Asia said.