|Caring, but uncared for|
While the recent census reports have shown an alarming drop in the number of girls against that of boys, there is a silver lining around the dark cloud. Or so it seems to our census commissioner. The sex ratio among some of the economically weaker and backward sections of our population, mainly the rural scheduled castes, tribes and Dalits, is much better than the corresponding figures among the richest and socially advanced sections of the country. In a recent conference, the census commissioner, J.K. Banthia, has said, ?A surprising aspect is that rural and SC/ST populations show sensitivity towards their female population and urban and socially upwardly-mobile groups do not want female children.?
While the country?s average ratio is 928 girls per 1,000 boys, the sex ratio in Punjab, for example, is just over 800 girls born for every 1,000 boys. A survey done by a voluntary organization a few months ago in some of the posh localities of Delhi has thrown up similar results. These facts point to a murky world of female foeticide, of an invisible line of malignance running along the gender divide in upper-class society. They surely prove the census commissioner?s apprehensions about the urban upwardly-mobile groups? reluctance to have female children. But does it also validate his observation on the ?sensitivity? of the lower castes towards their girls?
Simply put, does the absence of a skewed sex ratio among the socially and economically backward sections of our country indicate a positive attitude towards the girl child?
Far from it, if one takes into account the census data itself. Literacy rates, for example, are consistently lowest among SC, ST and Dalit women. The same is true of health, mortality rates, social empowerment, rights to land and other markers of human development. Let us take the case of West Bengal, where caste prejudices and other forms of social deprivation are relatively low compared to some of the states in north India. According to the 2001 census, the percentage of female literates in West Bengal is 60.2. But the level of literacy among rural ST women is 30 per cent and among SC women, around 50 per cent.
Such depressing figures undermine Banthia?s claim of ?sensitivity? towards girls among the backward classes. And surely it would be wrong to say that more girls are born to these communities because, unlike their rich upper-caste counterparts, they do not have access to prenatal diagnostic clinics. In some marginal and tribal communities, women traditionally enjoy a form of freedom and dignity. Crimes against them are lower and in some regions, women even enjoy rights to land. But that is not the whole story.
A part of the truth lies elsewhere. We are talking about informal child labour among girls in the backward areas. This is so common that it almost eludes the eye. On a journey to the rural backwaters, especially in the tribal areas, one normally comes across more women than men. They seem to be everywhere ? working in the fields, tending the livestock, and, of course, doing the household work. The men remain away from home for most of the year in distant construction sites or as farm labourers. Sometimes able-bodied women also join them, leaving the care of the household to younger members of the family, especially girls. Where there is access to schools, it is generally the boys who go there. A girl?s life revolves around household chores. Unfortunately, a narrow definition of child labour excludes any work by children that cannot be termed as wage employment. These girls thus remain outside the purview of the makers of policy and law.
It is depressing that most development agencies seek to distinguish between children who work at home or in agriculture from those who work outside the home for a wage. This naturally discriminates against the female children because it is they who largely assist in the household. But things can still be set right. Himachal Pradesh is a case in point. Recently, government schemes and initiatives of local bodies have helped bring piped water and LPG connections in rural households in the hill regions of the state. This has had a dramatic effect on female literacy in the state, which, at 68.09 per cent, is among the highest in the country. Subsidized cooking gas and piped water have freed school-going girls from tasks that used to eat up the greater part of their day ? that is, collecting water and firewood.
So a girl in a tribal or backward community is seen as an asset because she contributes to the family with her labour. She is made to believe that this labour is the necessary initiation into her pre-ordained role in her future husband?s family. Interestingly, the same cultural stereotyping sees a girl in an upper class setting as a liability. Here she is seen as a transient member of the family on her way to her future in-law?s home. Spending on her education is seen as an obligation, while for a son, it is an investment. In post-liberalization India, the urban, upper-middle classes provide education, even jobs, for their sons; for their daughters they spend money for education and also save for the dowry. Perhaps it is no coincidence that some of the recent cases of corruption in high offices, such as the one involving the chairman of the Punjab Public Service Commission, were reported from places where the sex ratio shows an alarming bias against the girl child.
So the spectre of missing girls in the upper class segments and the more stable sex ratio in the backward classes are merely two faces of the same disquieting reality. It is not a case of ?sensitivity? towards the girl children or the lack of it. Either we condemn our girls into the darkness, or we never allow them see the light of the day. It cuts both ways.