Mission Girl Child and Haryana’s Pregnant Agents

Gender

Mission Girl Child and Haryana’s Pregnant Agents

Illustration: Sushant Ahire

R

adhika Phogat is 22, a housewife in an urban village pregnant with her second child. But her life in Charkhi Dadri, with Rajbir, her wrestler-turned-construction-contractor husband is anything but predictable. On the day of her “mission”, Phogat waddled into the front seat of her Hyundai Santro with Rajbir, and sent up a silent prayer and a tiny apology for the child in her womb. After all, it was her baby that Phogat was going to use – to save the lives of many other unborn ones.

The Phogats are undercover agents for the Haryana Health Department. In a state with one of the lowest sex ratios in the country, they help unearth and implicate ultrasound clinics that conduct illegal sex determination tests, a crucial link in a chain that ends in female foeticide.

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By the end of the last millennium, sex determination and abortion clinics had sprung up in every little town and city in Haryana. The state government has tried hard in the past years to clamp down on these clinics, but they are enabled by a population that continues to put a premium on the male child. The Pre-Conception & Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, 1994 was turning out to be a toothless law, as perpetrators went scot-free for lack of evidence. In the last two years, more than 1,000 raids were conducted by state authorities, but FIRs were registered only in about 450 of those cases.

While the war against female foeticide is a long and weary one – fought on mental and physical frontiers – a small yet crucial battle is to catch red-handed the technicians who carry out these illegal tests. And women like Radhika, 12-14-weeks pregnant, serve as the perfect bait for these ultrasound clinics.

The decoy mission was started in January 2015 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Beti Bachao-Beti Padhao campaign from Panipat, Haryana. Close on the campaign’s heels, the state government called for pregnant women to become their allies – for a reward of ₹1 lakh. Rajbir and Radhika approached the health authorities when they learnt about Kamlesh Devi, a 50-year-old nurse in a private hospital in Jhajjar. Kamlesh worked as a tout and was the go-between the ultrasound clinic and the pregnant couple.

The babus were all business. They handed Radhika ₹26,000 in marked currency notes as “fee” for the test, and hooked a palm-sized GPS tracker in the folds of her kameez.

The couple were aware that they were on a mission fraught with danger. They’d heard horror stories from past such operations, where the owners of ultrasound centres had gathered a mob, preventing the pregnant woman from escaping. Another time, the mob had attacked and held hostage the health department officials.

On that April morning, Radhika’s mind was racing with these concerns – would the day end for her on a similar note? Was she putting her child at risk? But then, Radhika remembered what her parents had always taught her: To stand for what she really believed in.

Rajbir and Radhika set off on the mission, journeying through the dusty roads of Bhiwani to meet the District Health Department officials. The babus were all business. They handed Radhika ₹26,000 in marked currency notes as “fee” for the test, and hooked a palm-sized GPS tracker in the folds of her kameez. By 11 am, they were heading toward Jhajjar, followed by two private cars with four cops and a team of health officials.

They stopped at Sadolla village in Jhajjar, where they picked up Kamlesh Devi, who would lead them to the underground ultrasound centre. Radhika had been in touch with the woman since February, and had been telling her that she did not want another daughter. Kamlesh gave her a date for two months later, which she later kept changing. Finally, at the end of April, the appointed day arrived.

Kamlesh turned out to be a cagey woman: Despite the couple’s best efforts, she refused to reveal the name of the clinic she was taking them to. After a while, she made a phone call, and then cryptically told Rajbir to head toward Delhi. Once at AIIMS Hospital, they picked up another 50-year-old named Roshni Devi, who introduced herself as an operation theatre assistant in Safdarjung Hospital. Roshni quickly demanded the ₹26,000 and stashed it in her bag without counting the notes: She said she trusted Kamlesh’s “clients”.

Rajbir was directed to just drive, but was not given a final destination. Along the way, Roshni boasted about her clients, claiming that they were from all strata of society. The car crossed the Delhi-Noida border, into Uttar Pradesh. Afraid that the cops might have lost them in Delhi’s chaotic traffic, Radhika asked for the car to be stopped on the pretext that she wanted to vomit, giving Rajbir an opportunity to coordinate with the cops.

Female Foeticide

By the end of the last millennium, sex determination and abortion clinics had sprung up in every little town and city in Haryana. The state government has tried hard in the past years to clamp down on these clinics, but they are enabled by a population that continues to put a premium on the male child.

The India Today Group / Getty Images

Finally, around 6.30pm, Roshni told Rajbir to stop the car. They were in Dadri, outside a bare clinic named “Vidya Ultrasound”. Instructing Rajbir to remain in the car with Kamlesh, Roshni asked Radhika to step out. With a pounding heart and unsure feet, Radhika followed Roshni into the clinic, sick to her stomach with worry.

Once inside, a doctor who identified himself as Rajbir Singh Naagar, conducted the ultrasound and declared that she was about to have a baby boy. The Phogats had spent half a day and ₹26,000 for this ten-minute procedure. But Radhika knew she had accomplished something momentous – now if only the rest of the operation would unfold smoothly. Outside the clinic, before she got in the car, Radhika raised her hands over her head, the pre-arranged signal for the teams of police and health officials to swoop into action.

Inside the car, the couple withheld their disgust and thanked the touts as sincerely as they could. In high spirits, they started the journey back home – with a detour at Bhiwani.

At the Bhiwani Bus Terminal, Kamlesh and Roshni were arrested with ₹16,000 in marked currency. The remaining ₹10,000 had been passed on to Dr Naagar, who had managed to give the cops the slip. A case was registered against Roshni, Kamlesh, and Naagar under Sections 4, 5, 6, and 23 of the PC-PNDT Act.

That night, the Phogats went to bed happy. They were aware that the effects of what they were doing would only be seen a generation later, when the sex ratio would hopefully correct itself. The next week, they would have to start afresh on another mission. For tonight though, the three of them could congratulate themselves on a job well done.

Edited by Karanjeet Kaur

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