Female fetuses are being aborted at higher rates in India than ever before, new data from the national census have revealed, embarrassing a government with a nominal commitment to end discrimination against female children.
While the national census has found a small increase in the overall ratio of men to women, this reflects only that women are living longer, so there are more older women.
But in the critical demographic category of zero to six years, the ratio dropped to 914 girls from 927 for every 1,000 boys. It's the lowest figure recorded since India gained independence in 1947.
"It's very distressing," said N.B. Sarojini, a leading campaigner on the issue. Most who work in the field thought the figures might drop, she added - but not this much. (The global norm of sex ratios at birth is 950 girls to 1,000 boys.)
"Even when you expect the numbers to be bad, you have some hope. One was never expecting it could be so drastic."
The new figures suggest both that female fetuses continue to be aborted, even though prenatal gender detection has been illegal since 1994 - and, a much less discussed problem, that parents continue to discriminate in the resources they give to girl children, including allocations of food and spending on health care, causing more girls to die in their first years than boys. The child mortality rate is 64 per 1,000 for boys, and 73 for girls, even though there are considerably fewer girls to begin with.
This trend comes against an overall picture painted by the census of considerable progress in the country: Population growth has slowed, with fewer people being added in the past decade than the one previous, for the first time since statistics began to be collected in the 1870s.
Literacy is up, from 65 per cent to 74 per cent of the population. But these and other signs of rising prosperity have done nothing to change the strong social preference for sons that carries across all religions and cultures in this vast country.
"In 2011, to have sex ratios that are so pathetic - how can you talk about development?" Ms. Sarojini asked.
The Indian central government and many state administrations have used a variety of policy instruments in recent years to try to erode the prejudice against girl children.
These include providing payments to parents at the birth of a girl, providing girls with bicycles and grants for secondary education, and making regular payments intended to provide a girl with dowry at the age of 18. (This latter initiative recognizes the fact that while the practice of dowry is also illegal, it is still widely practised, and that the need to provide dowry - and thus "give away" many family assets - is a major reason why families do not want girls.)
"Whatever measures have been put in place over the last 40 years have not had any impact on the ratio," Home Secretary G. K. Pillai said. He added that government policy must undergo a "complete review."
Ranaja Kumari, who heads the Centre for Social Research in Delhi and works at the village level to try to end sex-selective abortion, said the new census results prove something she has warned of for years: There is no real political will or implementation behind the official pro-girl policy.
"This is an issue that is just not being taken seriously at all," she said. "When you see the lack of effort at the local level - the widespread availability of [ultrasound]machines and the quacks using them - it comes as no surprise."
Prof. Kumari sits on the national government's Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act Control Board - the body meant to supervise implementation of the law that bans sex-selection - but, she said, it has not met in more than three years and the Health Minister, who supervises the board, will not reply to calls or letters from board members.
While fetal sex determination is ostensibly illegal, it is only ever more ubiquitous - especially in the wealthiest neighbourhoods here in the capital and in other states. It was headline news a few weeks ago when five Delhi doctors were convicted of offering the tests and abortions of female fetuses. But the courts gave them the choice of five years in prison or a 1,000-rupee fine - about the cost of lunch in a nice restaurant.
"I'm very angry with the way this has been dealt with, such a serious issue with such a lacklustre effort," Prof. Kumari said.
The ratio of girls to boys fell in 24 of India's 35 states and territories compared with 2001 data (one stayed the same). The sole bright spots were in the states of Haryana and the Punjab, which have each, at points in the past decade, had the grim distinction of showing the lowest sex ratios anywhere in the world: they were 819 girls per 1,000 boys in Haryana and 798 in Punjab, in the last census.
It is not clear from this first release of data what may have caused the improvement in these states (to 846 in Punjab and 830 in Haryana).
Demographers noted that the skewed sex ratios and apparent son preference have spread to states that were once largely immune, including the Muslim-dominated Jammu and Kashmir, and states in the northeast with traditionally matrilineal societies such as Sikkim and Manipur.
Ravinder Kaur, professor of sociology at the Indian Institute of Technology in Delhi, speculated this may have to do with the general rising level of prosperity, since everywhere in India, sex ratios worsen as more people join the middle class.
She noted that laws are a weak method to try to address sex ratios, and policies such as old-age security for parents (so that there is not the same pressure on a son to care for them) and better free public health care (so that the poor don't have to debate whether to take a sick girl child to a clinic) would ultimately make a larger difference.