A board with the 'beti bachao beti padhao' slogan greets you as you enter Sangli district's Mhaisal village on the Maharashtra-Karnataka border. Incidentally, just a few metres away is the Bharati Hospital of Dr Balasaheb Khidrapure, the doctor who was arrested for allegedly running an illegal abortion and female foeticide racket.
Swati Jamdade died on 1 March while undergoing an abortion performed by Khidrapure. Following Swati's death, her husband Praveen Jamdade was arrested. During investigation, police found 19 foetuses, some in a state of decay, some buried under a stream close to the hospital. Gradually, a horrifying tale of female foeticide unfolded.
On 1 March, Swati had gone to Khidrapure's hospital to undergo sonography, during which the doctor allegedly revealed the sex of the foetus to the couple. She later underwent an abortion which caused her death. Suspecting foul play, Swati's parents lodged a police complaint. Investigation revealed that she underwent the illegal abortion as the sex of the baby was that of a girl. A case was registered against Khidrapure, following which he fled the village. He was later arrested in Belgaum, Karnataka, along with his wife. The police also found that he had a well-equipped hospital with an operation theater in the basement of the hospital.
Khidrapure was a homeopath and was legally not allowed to conduct surgeries. The police suspected a Maharashtra-Karnataka cross-border racket. This led to the arrest of 12 people till date, three of which, including Khidrapure, are doctors. Arrested include Dr Shrihari Ghodke (homepath) from Kagwad and Dr Ramesh Devgikar (MBBS) from Vijapur. These doctors had appointed agents in the two states who would get cases to the doctors. The patients in Maharashtra were sent to Karnataka and vice versa to avoid raising suspicion. They also made sure that the patients undergo tests in four to five different hospitals before the abortion is conducted. Instead of conducting the abortions in an operation theatre, a temporary hut would be built where the patient would undergo surgery and could stay for further treatment. Investigation revealed that sometimes, in the absence of doctors, the compounder or the nurse would perform the abortion. After the abortion, they would bury the foetus or flush it down the toilet with acid or feed it to the dogs. It was only because some foetuses were put inside plastic bags and buried underground that the entire racket came to light.
An agent, whose identity remains undisclosed, revealed, "Doctors would charge Rs 25,000 per abortion. There are times, when the patients would be informed that it was a female foetus, when it was male, just for the money."
A complaint against Khidrapure was filed last year which had led to a raid by the officials of the health department, but they now claim that they did not find anything during the raid. However, this year, another raid was conducted after the police case was filed, they found that illegal medicines were being used and that the operation theater was illegal and the doctor had no licence for years to conduct surgeries.
"We are still investigating the matter. Twelve people have been arrested from Maharashtra and Karnataka so far. We are investigating their involvement," Deputy superintendent of police Deepali Kale, who is investigating the case, said.
"A raid was conducted on a tip-off. But the official claimed that he did not find anything, therefore, no action was initiated," Archana Patil, additional director health services, said.
"Police can initiate action only when there is a criminal angle involved. We could initiate the probe because of Swati's death. But why aren't the health officials taking any action? There were more than enough factors that could have aroused suspicion. But they conducted only one raid and claim to have found nothing. Everything seems fishy," said a police officer investigating the case.
But this is not the first such case in Maharashtra. On 18 May, 2012, Vijaymala Patekar from Beed district died while undergoing an illegal abortion. This led to the arrest of Dr Sudam and Dr Saraswati Munde. Munde too was accused of conducting sex determination test a year before his arrest. But he managed to continue with his practice despite the allegations. Seventeen people were arrested in connection to this case. And now after five years, trial is still going on.
Incidentally, Sangli and Beed both happen to be the districts with the lowest child sex ratios in the state. The sex ratio in Beed has been on a constant decline since 1991.
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Yearly data collected by the authorities has also shown a rise.
The data on the Maharashtra health department website indicates that sex determination and female foeticide take place in these districts. Does the health department wait till a patient dies to investigate the doctor?
"The problem lies in the way cases are registered," said Girish Laad, an activist working for 'Save the Girl Child' campaign. "We had conducted a research a few years ago and found that doctors can be charged under Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act only when the documents are incomplete or the agency concerned has proof that sex determination was conducted. There is an easy way out — under-reporting. If the foetus is female, they simply don't record it, but go ahead with the abortion," he said.
"Silent observer installed in the machines a few years ago was able to keep a check to some extent. But doctors found a way out by using old machines which did not have the equipment installed," he added.
A recent case registered in Daund taluka of Pune district proved this theory right. Dr Shinde from Phaltan was arrested along with four accomplices in Yawat village, Daund taluka while conducting a sex determination test. He had installed the ultrasound machine in a car and would take it to various places. Police acted on a tip off that led to the arrest.
"We had sent a proposal to the government for the installation of a device that we have developed called active tracker," said Laad. "This equipment is like a CCTV camera for ultrasound machines. It is connected to the power supply and keeps a track of all the sonographies conducted on the machine and simultaneously sends the data to government officials. But we did not get any response from the government. Union minister Maneka Gandhi has ordered the installation of device marked under the 'Beti Bachao' campaign. Few states like Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan are using this technology. But there is no response from the ministers and officials of Maharashtra. We had even told them that we will give it for free," he said.
Kiran Moghe, president of Janawadi Mahila Sanghatna, posed a pertinent question: Why don't the health and revenue department officials, who have the authority, initiate any action? Why wait for a police complaint? "The PCPNDT Act is near perfect. There are no loopholes. What we are probably falling short of is action," she added.
The long pendency of cases is another problem. In Maharashtra, 572 cases were registered under PCPNDT Act since 2002, of which 26 are decoy cases. Hearing of almost 55 percent cases is going on. As most cases are registered based on incomplete documentation, it becomes difficult to prove them in court. Decoy cases are small in number. According to a Supreme Court judgement, these cases should reach to a conclusion within six months. This seems far from possible.
"The mentality needs to change. Moreover, the doctors make a large profit in these kind of cases and tend to influence patients. Apart from the burden of dowry, an insecure environment for girls remains a concern for parents. Probably why it leads to female foeticide. We need to take these issues into account and focus on the action that can be taken under the PCPNDT Act," said Moghe.
When the Mhaisal issue was raised in the ongoing Assembly session of Maharashtra, minister Deepak Sawant announced that a report about the case will be tabled before the Assembly. The health department has also formed a committee which will be chaired by the dean of the medical college of Sangli to help the police investigation. "They will focus on the technical aspects," said Patil.
After the Beed and Mhaisal cases came to light, multiple raids were conducted but these are just temporary measures. The declining sex ratio is alarming. Awareness drives are being conducted, but the government should play a serious role to curb such incidences.
Updated Date: Mar 17, 2017 18:50 PM