Rajasthan is cracking down on illegal sex determination tests: Can other states follow suit?

It was a scene right out of a Bollywood blockbuster.

In December 2016, two known middlemen from a village in Rajasthan were approached for an illegal sex determination scan to be done on a pregnant woman. A deal was struck. It would cost her between Rs 25,000 to 30,000. The cost of a normal, legal pregnancy scan in a government clinic is about Rs 300.

The two men took the pregnant woman and her assistant in a car and drove them to several places during the day. They were dropped back in the evening and told that the test would be done the next day. This time they were driven to the adjoining state of Gujarat. They finally landed in the house of a 65-year-old doctor in Gandhinagar, Ahmedabad.

Pregnant women are used as 'decoys' to crack down on those offering illegal sex determination tests. Reuters/File Photo; for representation only

Pregnant women are used as 'decoys' to crack down on those offering illegal sex determination tests. Reuters/File Photo; for representation only

The agreed amount of money was handed over and the doctor started scanning her. And then came the climax.

A team from the Rajasthan government’s PCPNDT (Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques) cell burst into his clinic. They had been tracking the woman with the help of a GPS device which she carried. The moment she gave them a signal that the money had changed hands, they raided the clinic.

And so the 52nd decoy operation of the PCPNDT cell of Rajasthan ended in a success. The doctor was arrested and his machine seized. The money given by the woman was confiscated, to be produced as evidence in court. The pregnant decoy, her assistant and the informer who had led the team to the agents were all paid and the team moved on to its next operation.

According to Naveen Jain — the special secretary and MD of the National Health Mission and chairperson, State Appropriate Authority, PCPNDT Medical, Health & Family Welfare Department, Rajasthan — this was their sixth successful operation in a row in December, their fourth foray into Gujarat and their eighth interstate operation.

On 20 January 2017, Jain jubilantly posted on his Facebook page: “One more ugly face of sex determination exposed by our team while following an inter-state gang. Govt doctor in govt hospital in Radanpur, Patan, Gujarat caught red-handed — fifth operation in Gujarat after four successful decoys in private hospitals... three people including two touts arrested in the entire exercise and they will be produced in the court at Barmer tomorrow. Shamelessly, some people — who claim to be “protectors of daughters” — tried to save the culprits but our team bravely performed the job.”

Naveen Jain is a man with a mission: an all-out battle against sex selective abortion. He has miraculously managed over the last four years to actually raise the child sex ratio in this traditionally girl-child starved state.

Even as he started tightening the screws on the many illegal clinics flourishing in Rajasthan, he found that that the agents were taking couples across the border into other states where sex selection was more easily available. That is when he got the help of his legal team to devise a strategy for targeting illegal clinics in other states too.

Pregnant decoys have been used by PCPNDT cells before for sting operations but usually they have had to confine themselves to clinics within the state. This is because they need to get the cooperation of the other state’s PCPNDT cell if they need to do an interstate sting. But acting under legal advice, the Rajasthan state government started booking sex determination crimes under Section 315 of the IPC. This gives them the freedom to arrest persons from any other state as well, without having to go through the State Appropriate authority. Furthermore, the punishment for the accused under this section is much more severe than the one they would have received otherwise.

Section 315 is actually an old law which pre-dates the PCPNDT Act. According to this, any “act done with the intent to prevent a child from being born or to cause it to die after birth” is deemed a non-bailable offence and the accused can be sentenced to 10 years in jail. Some activists have expressed reservations about using this law as it blurs the lines between legal and illegal abortions. In a society where unsafe abortions are already a matter of deep concern, using Section 315 could create further confusion.

However, if used judiciously and honestly, this law can obviously have a salutary effect on the unethical medical practitioners who have been getting away scot free, often with the connivance of law enforcers.

Jain is passionate about his decoy operations which he described in detail to me over the phone. A sum of Rs 2 lakhs is budgeted for every such sting. Of this about Rs 80,000 goes to the informer, Rs 80,000 to the pregnant woman who is the decoy, and Rs 20,000 to the coordinator. The rest is used for expenses. Once the informer gives the confirmed identity of middlemen in an area, the decoy is sent equipped with tracking devices and currency.

The members of the Rajasthan PCPNDT Cell

The members of the Rajasthan PCPNDT Cell

A very crucial element of this is the law enforcement: the Rajasthan PCPNDT cell also has, attached to it, a dedicated team of police officers who are vigilant and on call during these raids. The decoy system was introduced in 2009 in Rajasthan. But after the initial spurt of enthusiasm when nine raids were conducted, the number of raids decreased to three per financial year. In the year 2015-2016, this increased to six, and then dramatically in the financial year 2016-2017 already 20 raids have been conducted.

Naveen Jain and his team have a multi-pronged approach. They also use a software called IMPACT (which stands for Integrated System for Monitoring of PCPNDT Act). Using this, sonography machines are connected with tracking devices (Active Tracker or Silent Observer) to improve the monitoring of the centres.

This system was designed and developed by the Rajasthan National Informatics Centre. By 2016, more than 1,600 sonography centres were registered online. Each center was given a special user name and password which it could use to upload all the information onto the website. More than one crore Form-F had been submitted online and more than 8,000 online Form-F were being submitted by the centres on a daily basis. Jain said nearly 3,000 tracking devices had been installed.

This was an excellent move to get paper work out of the way and all the information digitised and hence, hopefully tamper proof. But the question still remains whether this would deter unscrupulous doctors who could still communicate the sex of the child through other means, to a patient who was willing to pay.

The question is, can the Rajasthan model be replicated in other states? And more importantly, is it sustainable?

Activist and researcher Sabu George, who spent some time with Naveen Jain and his team, observing their strategies, said that for the first time in 16 years of visiting Rajasthan, he felt hopeful that things were finally working. However, he also pointed out that most often, the success of such programmes was hinged on the dynamism and sincerity of the officer in charge. If he is moved from his post, there are good chances of the programme slipping again.

The problem with this issue is that there are too many elements involved. An entire mafia is still at work exploiting our society’s craving for male children. It’s not just the girl child who is endangered. In the process of eliminating her, her mother’s life is also put at risk. There are many black holes. Over the years, sex determination has become a huge money-spinning black market racket. Many untrained quacks using unregistered portable Chinese machines are willing to visit homes to conduct the tests. Often their clients don’t know that the reading in these machines could be inaccurate and more importantly that the “sonographers” using them may not even know how to read the data.

And then there is another scam. While a sex determination scan alone costs Rs 30,000, if it has to be followed up with an illegal abortion, the cost could be around Rs 80,000 to Rs 1 lakh. Therefore, irrespective of the sex of the foetus, the woman is told she is carrying a girl and is made to undergo an abortion. Many of the clinics who offer these underground services have a network of nurses and midwives who can even do the abortion at home.

The Rajasthan model indicates the direction that could be taken to enforce the laws we already have. Sting operations, stringent punishment and wide publicity (all the operations are given extensive coverage in the local papers) combined with use of technology like digitisation, GPS tracking and spy cameras, and follow up by an honest and dedicated police cell are some of the elements which have contributed towards making this model a success.

Can this be replicated in other states? Is there a glimmer of hope that the strong arm of the law can actually bring about much needed social change? Only time will tell.

Published Date: Jan 21, 2017 09:58 AM | Updated Date: Jan 21, 2017 09:58 AM

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