Perched almost a mile above sea level and circled by majestic Himalayan peaks, Uttarkashi is a spot where religious pilgrims often make a pit stop before proceeding on the sacred Hindu Char Dham Yatra, the Four Abode Pilgrimage, which they believe will bring them closer to salvation. With its verdant landscape, dotted by temples and yoga ashrams, Uttarkashi is a place of breathtaking beauty.
But all is not well in this peaceful Himalayan district. Between February and April, not a single female child was born here in 216 births across the 132 villages. Local authorities, suspecting sex-selective abortions, have launched an extensive investigation, spearheaded by the district magistrate, Ashish Chauhan.
I think back to the months that I have spent over the years in Uttarkashi, living across a footbridge from a nursery school. I would often see groups of little boys walking to school but rarely girls. I thought that perhaps the girls were being dropped off by their parents on motorcycles. Or, in the worst-case scenario, they weren’t being sent to school. But it never crossed my mind that they did not exist at all.
Chauhan, the highest government authority in the town of Uttarkashi, chanced upon the figures while monitoring the work of female health workers in the region, known as ASHAs (short for Accredited Social Health Activist, a word in that means “hope” in Hindi). ASHAs are women selected from the local community and act as an interface between it and the public health system.
In an interview, Chauhan told me that he suspects that there may be a nexus between the ASHAs and owners of ultrasound machines that can determine the sex of a fetus. “I feel that there could be a perfect collusion between villagers and ultrasound machine owners. They are in hand-in-glove with each other. Though Uttarkashi only has three registered ultrasound machines, all in government clinics, people can easily travel to the city of Dehradun,” Chauhan said.
Although it has been illegal nationwide for doctors to disclose the sex of a fetus since the 1994 Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques Act, the ease of ordering cheap and portable ultrasound machines, especially online, has kept the practice of sex-selective abortions alive. Although exact numbers of such terminations are not available, according to the first national study on abortion overall, an estimated 15.6 million abortions took place in India in 2015. Although the practice is legal up to 20 weeks into a pregnancy under a broad range of criteria, an estimated 10 women die every day due to unsafe procedures. As many as 56 percent of abortions in India are estimated to be unsafe, and about 8 to 9 percent of all maternal deaths in India are due to unsafe abortions.