India’s 2011 census report has many heartening things to say. More educated men and women indicate a surge in literacy. People are living longer than ever before. Stability can be seen in the size of family; couples are having fewer children.

One exception to this hunky-dory picture is the steep fall in the number of girls. There are only 914 girls, 6 years old and under, for every 1,000 boys­ — not shocking if one considers that as many as 60,000 girls go missing every year. To use the word missing is a misnomer: The girls are killed often as soon as they are born in a society obsessed with boys. Many are aborted in the womb.

According to statistics, the sex ratio in India may be less slanted than it is in China. But while China’s ratio has stabilized, India’s is showing a disturbing trend. The gap between the number of boys and girls is widening alarmingly.

Social activist Sabu George, who has been working on gender issues for a quarter century, says that the murder of girls is nothing but “gendercide.” More than 8 million girls have been killed in the last decade alone, pulling the sex ratio from 927 in 2001 to 914 in 2011.

“We will soon have the dubious distinction of being the nation eliminating the largest number of girls every year — along with being a place that has the largest number of starving children and the highest maternal mortality,” George said. “In the coming decade, over 10 million girls will be killed if something is not done immediately to stop this massacre.”

Although the government is well aware of the problem, it has done precious little to curb gendercide. And what is scary is that the economically well-off states like Punjab, Haryana and Gujarat have been in the forefront of murdering the girl child.

Equally frightening is a widely prevalent misconception that sex selection will check population explosion. However, the truth is something else. Of the 5 million fetuses aborted in the last decade, 3 million were girls and 2 million were boys. So, it was a clear case of going in for a sex determination test merely to have a boy. Limiting the size of the family appears to have been the second priority.

Unlike in China, where the one-child policy has been ruthlessly enforced by the dictatorial regime, India’s democracy — except during the Emergency in the 1970s — has never involved coercing its population to go in for smaller families.

Of late, though, educated, elite Indians have been voluntarily having fewer children. They also have the money to get expensive scans done. If a couple already has a girl, they tend to get rid of the second child if the fetus happens to be a female. Sometimes, several female fetuses are aborted in this way.

In the impoverished regions of India and among the poor, the birth of a girl is not welcome. It is looked upon with not just trepidation but a sense of doom. To start with, girls cannot be married without huge dowries or bride prices, and they are of little use to their own parents once they leave home. Girls once married are hardly expected to take care of their parents. Boys do, and their brides could bring home dowries — an attractive proposition in a nation of 1.3 billion people where 75 percent live in abject or semi-abject poverty.

In the final analysis, such a warped sex ratio can have serious repercussions. Rape, for instance, tends to increase in a community that has an unusually large number of single men. Other social maladies also rise.

The 2003 Indian film “Motherland: A Nation Without Women” examined the impact of female feticide and female infanticide on the gender balance, and consequently on the stability and attitudes of society. Its plot bore some resemblance to real-life instances of gender imbalance and economics resulting in fraternal polyandry and bride-buying in some parts of India. The picture was grim and disturbing.

Yet, there is hope. With rising female literacy and employment, girls are not considered as burdensome as they once were. There is some societal reflection on the issue.

The government needs to encourage more girls to attend school and provide financial incentives to those willing to bear and nurture girl babies. State subsidies for their education may be an added motivation to cherish girls.

Gautaman Bhaskaran is a freelance journalist based in Chennai, India.

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