MUMBAI // Indians are aborting more female foetuses than at any time in their nation's history, with the practice growing fastest in the more affluent states, new census data show.
There are now 914 girls for every 1,000 boys under the age of 6, according to the data - the largest gender gap since India became independent in 1947.
Easy access to ultrasound technology is a key factor in the rise of female foeticide, experts say. Another, they say, is the reluctance of many in India's expanding middle class to pay out a greater portion of their expanding wealth for dowries.
That finding shatters the misconception that aborting female foetuses is largely a practice limited to India's poor, who have traditionally favoured boys.
The Indian prime minister, Manmohan Singh, last week called the new statistics "an indictment of our social values."
He cited notable achievements by women in many professional fields, and said that it was "a national shame for us that … female foeticide and infanticide continue in many parts of our country. The social bias against women has to be fought with all the physical and moral resources at our command".
Relatively wealthy states such as Punjab, Maharashtra and Haryana have lower girl-to-boy ratios than poorer states, according to the 2011 census data released last month.
"In fact, the concern emerging out of New Delhi and Haryana is, as a family gets wealthier, it is unwilling to part with a share of its property to its daughters," said Dr Ranjana Kumari, director of the Centre for Social Research, a New Delhi institute that focuses on women's rights.
"What is new, I think, is that the practice is filtering into even the middle class and lower middle class."
Dr Kumari said the number of female foetuses aborted in India each year, solely because parents don't want to have a daughter, had probably risen since a study published in the medical journal The Lancet in 2006 put the figure at 500,000.
Foeticide is not the only problem spawned by India's obsession with sons. The lack of women leads to human trafficking, female slavery and a host of other crimes against women.
"In Haryana, you'll see women brought in from states like Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh or even as far away as Assam - women from poor households whose families can't afford to get them married," said Manasi Mishra, a researcher who has studied female foeticide across northern India.
"Trafficking networks in women exist across India now."
Traditionally, the birth of a boy in India has been cause for celebration, the birth of a daughter has brought the burden of a dowry.
Female foeticide in India is hardly new. The earliest records of killing female infants date back to the late 1700s, when a British official found members of the Rajput clan killing baby girls in northern India. In the late 20th century, as abortions and gender-determination technology became available, families began to eliminate daughters through abortion. India's gender ratio of children up to age of 6 is now 914 girls per 1,000 boys. It has been falling since 1981, when it stood at 962. It was 945 girls in 1991 and 927 girls in 2001, according to census data.
In China, where the government restricts the size of a family, the ratio is 837 girls per 1,000 boys. The ratio worldwide is 952 girls, according to the United Nations. In the United States, it's 954 girls.
India's ratio "is linked to the introduction of sex-selective abortions," according to a 2007 report from the United Nations Population Fund.
Abortion has been legal in India since 1971. In 2008, India recorded 6.4 million legal abortions. The country has no data on the number of illegal abortions performed, and gender-selective abortions are done illegally.
"People are performing sex selection and abortions across caste and class," Ms Mishra said. "In New Delhi, in fact, we've found that even highly educated people are opting for it."
The census results are not surprising, Dr Kumari said. "In a sense, Punjab and Haryana have always been wealthier states, and yet they've always had this tradition [of discriminating against daughters]," she said.
The current figure is "alarming", said Girija Vyas, chair of the National Commission for Women.
It has prompted the health minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, to reconstitute a board that had first been set up in the mid-1990s to advise the government on how to curb female foeticide.
An early government step to battle discrimination against daughters was the outlawing of the dowry in 1961. But unless cases of families demanding dowry are reported, they are difficult to track. The National Crimes Bureau has reported that nearly 25,000 women are still killed or maimed every year when their families fail to pay a dowry.
Some families are still killing their female infants, or at least badly neglecting them. About 15 million boys are born in India each year, compared to 12 million girls.
But the girls have a higher infant-mortality rate. About one million of the girls die by the age of 1, and a third of these deaths take place soon after birth, according to a non-profit organisation called Child Relief and You.
Aggressive government campaigns, featuring huge billboards across India as well as media advertisements, warn that gender-selective abortion and female infanticide are illegal, but they appear to have had little impact.
Another law - the Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PNDT) act, that took effect in 1996 and bars doctors from divulging the gender of a foetus to a parent - also has been ineffective.
Improved technology has given more families access to scanning equipment, especially in small towns and villages. Ultrasound machines, used to determine a foetus's gender, were once bulky and expensive. Now a small ultrasound machine from China can be bought for only 20,000 to 30,000 rupees (Dh2,477), and used by unregistered clinics to provide sex-selection services, Ms Mishra said.
The portable kind is often ferried around the countryside on motorcycles by unlicensed practitioners, bringing gender-selection to the doorsteps of expectant mothers in rural India.
But the biggest factor has been the failure of authorities to enforce PNDT, said Varsha Deshpande, a lawyer in Maharashtra state.
Ms Deshpande has been active in fighting female foeticide for many years, and has served on the supervisory board and a national committee that monitors the effectiveness of PNDT.
"We're still treating this as a women's health issue, when in reality it is a crime issue," Ms Deshpande said. "Many people in the medical community are being unethical, and they aren't hesitating to breach the law. But there seems to be no will to act against them."
The supervisory board, for instance, was allowed to lapse in 2008 simply because no one has been appointed to fill board vacancies.
Cases of rogue doctors performing gender-selection abortions were not prosecuted aggressively enough, either because authorities were paid off or were simply not doing their jobs, Ms Deshpande said.
Last month, five doctors were convicted in Haryana for performing sex-selection abortions.
But while the law provides for a maximum punishment of three years in prison and a fine of 10,000 rupees, these doctors were fined only 1,000 rupees. "I mean, what is 1,000 rupees?" Dr Kumari asked. "That's just a coffee and a croissant at a five-star hotel."
Dr Kumari cites the once-widespread practice of suttee to explain why the campaign against female foeticide has failed.
Sati - in which a widowed Hindu woman would immolate herself on her husband's funeral pyre - was outlawed in 1829, but it continued for some time afterwards.
"It was a socially ingrained idea, but the law enforcement finally became strong and rigid," Dr Kumari said. "That's why it has become so rare now, and that's the kind of enforcement of the law that is missing in the case of female foeticide."