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Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Dowry and Female Infanticide

I thought I was going to pontificate about how can we hold on to the IT boom in India. But instead I came here and got distracted.

My read on the subject of dowry and female infanticide is slightly different from that of Atanu's and Prashant's. I think it is important enough to follow through.

Firstly, I have my doubts about whether the percentage of Indians that have access to doctors/technology that can determine foetus's sex beforehands and the percentage of people who can get a proper abortion is statistically significant. Likely, a good percentage of deaths are occuring after the childbirth. I would be happy to be corrected on this score. But I think we are talking about some truely sick stuff here.

It also took 10 years for the national average of girls to drop from 945 to 927 per 1000 of boys. At this rate, we'll have to go through at least 50 years of female infanticide (which happens at least in some cases against the wishes of the mother) before we have people worrying at a level where we can potentially have national impact.

Of course, the Indian Express article also says that the problem is most accentuated in states like Haryana, Punjab etc. which has a sex ratio of less than 800 women for every 1000 men. Haryana incidentally, is also the state where in some parts they have started this wonderful social practice of getting the wife of the elder son married to the younger son when the older one dies (In post independent India, property now goes to the wife). Knowing rural Jats, I doubt anyone bothers to ask the woman before the second marriage. You guys honestly think that this society left unchanged will evolve rationally?

In Bihar, there is this place called Saurastra. Every year, they have a mela (a fair) there called Suarastra Sabha for the express purpose of holding an auction. The fathers sit there along with the priests (and sometimes the potential groom) and apparently they shout out the groom's qualifications -' IAS officer! A minimum of Rs 4 lakhs!!" etc. etc. to the interested parties. The fathers of the daughters bid. When two parties close a deal and a good price is reached, they go over to collect the bride who is all made up and ready to get married. They get her married off right away and a good fun is had by all.

This is of course an extreme example.

But I think it is important to think about it for a moment to feel the outrage of it. The best way to fight stuff like this is really to bring back the practice of horsewhipping. Since that is not feasible, we need to start by stop being rational about it. RamMohan Roy did not stop the practice of Sati in eighteenth century Bengal by waiting for the light of Renaissance to penetrate India. I have a huge amount of respect for what he, one man, achieved in the face of overwhelming social disapproval on one hand and British disinterest on the other. We already have the law. Indian really needs someone of national stature with an organization behind him that would go out of its way to socially ostracize people who are trying to get a dowry and who would try to change the law to make dowry related prosecutions easier.

We need to get the fear of god into people. Until a momentum for that builds up, we should support whatever NGO is doing anything worthwhile in this direction and start turning our faces from people who we know took dowries. Stop going to marriages where you know someone took a dowry. We all probably shy away from people who take dowry. But do we make them feel like shit? That's a hard choice I have never made either. It is so much easier to conform .....

But the Indian society is changing. It is changing every day in ways we can not measure and (I would be the first to admit) not always for the better. But some of the change is really for the good. I wrote in a mail to Edward quite some time back:

"It was not socialism, which eradicated odious social practices in India. It lived on in various guises. It was the kids who are subverting it. It is the engineering schools, the medical schools etc. which require you to stay in a hostel for 4 years, that in India is creating a generation that in twenty years will create an affluent, educated, largely secular work force the dimension of which we don’t know yet." I think it is still our best bet.

We may not need to wait for enough female infanticide (as I said, I have reservation over what really is going on here) over the next 50 years to end this madness. I dont think dowry is going to completely go away at least in our lifetime. But I think, I hope, that in the next 20 to 30 years we would reach a place where most Indians will look at people who knowingly took a dowry and wrinkle their noses in disgust.

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