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Home > Archives (2006 on) > 2006 > December 23, 2006 > A Question of Half of India

VOL XLV No 01

A Question of Half of India

Tuesday 24 April 2007, by Razia Ismail Abbasi

Mapping Eleventh Five-Year Plan from the Girl Child’s Perspective

Our country is on the threshold of the Eleventh Five-Year Plan. This is a good moment for some serious thought on whom it is being designed to serve and benefit. One deserving group at risk of being cheated of a fair deal is the girl child. The Plan approach is all about rapid-result strategies to produce skilled manpower for the ‘knowledge economy’ goals being set for the coming five years. A perceived world supply foothold is to be captured. An allied competence provision blueprint is being drawn for chosen within-country skill requirements. Even if the term is changed to ‘personpower,’ girl children could fall off the conveyor belt—if they get onto it at all. Will this matter? It will matter to girl children, some 220 million of them.

It is timely and important for as to discuss this issue of focus, access and coverage. One good reason is that the available visioning for the new Plan reflects a very limited understanding of what we could mean by ‘development’ or ‘progress’. Another good reason is that even with acceptance of this tunnel vision, the participation, coverage, or gain at stake relates to half of India’s children. Girls are that lesser half—and they also constitute nearly half of India’s total female population.

To date, they have been short-changed by both child development and women’s development plans and programmes. In two critical age-groups— of 0 to 6 and 15 to 19—they are steadily disappearing from the ranks of the alive, and the graph of the ‘missing’ is on the rise. Simply bewailing what they suffer both as children and as females solves nothing. Just using words like ‘development’ and ‘empowerment’ without making any move to evolve beyond a welfare formula and token coverage of flawed schemes brings about no change. Social choices and negative social practices continue largely unhampered. Early disposal of daughters is a new service industry, with a growing clientele. India’s official decision-makers seem unable to come to grips with the situation as one of national risk, loss and crisis.

The status, condition and prospects of half of India’s children, half of India’s female people, will surely influence both the promise and the achievement of any national development plan. Is this a welfare question, or one of radical reform? Are safe motherhood and literacy adequate objectives ? Are India’s women’s lives, and therefore their girlhood years, to be those of actors or of recipients? Are they, at most, to be trained only for second-line functions and should this perspective determine their path? If we are for empowering women, we cannot avoid enabling and empowering girl children. But what are we empowering them for? Can this subject be left as a minor portfolio in governance? It cries out for higher commitment and greater leverage. All that has happened is that a Central Department has been elevated to a minor Central Ministry. What does this achieve?

The question on the aims of empowerment deserves our attention when we are in the doorway to a new investment period in our development journey. The challenge for civil society and citizens at large is to effectively communicate to the government and legislators whatever insights we can obtain by asking—before the Eleventh Plan is decided and the die is cast for the next five years of the nation’s life.

Enquiring what fate the Plan will decree for the girl child is asking only about one of the large constituencies to be affected. All the same, at this point, when the Plan’s very character calls for ethical examination, a question on the girl child impact does serve as a litmus test of where India thinks it is bound.

The official clue to the government’s perspective for the coming five years is the Approach Paper for the Eleventh Plan, ‘Towards Faster and More Inclusive Growth’. It is certainly intent on speed and quick-fixes; it is puzzling on inclusion; it has its own connotation of growth. It is not a reassuring statement of intent. On gender equity, it says that the Plan “must pay attention to all aspects of women’s lives”. It makes just three references to girl children: to examine the subject of “toilets for women and girls,” to “reduce the incidence of anaemia and malnutrition among adolescent girls to break the cycle of ill-health and maternal and infant mortality”, and to spread messages on violence, health, economic empowerment and political participation to and through youth. In the listing of monitorable socio-economic targets, it includes two goals: (i) that at least 33 per cent of direct and indirect beneficiaries of all government schemes will be women and girl children, and (ii) that of reducing the girl-boy gap in the 0-6 age group (from its present 927:1000 ratio) to 935:1000 by 2012, and to 950:1000 by 2017, when the Twelfth Plan will end. There is nothing said about how this improved ratio will be achieved. The grim 858:1000 female to male ratio of the 15 to 19 age-group escapes mention. It is not anaemia or hunger but forced early child-bearing and possibly early sex-selective abortions that lie behind this worst ratio of all ages of females. Very young girls account for a disproportionate share of maternal mortality, which stands at an awful rate of 540 for every 100,000 live births.

Skewed and fragmented visioning has become a pervasive characteristic of the national planning process. Shallow thinking is a frequent accompaniment. A rumour was recently afloat that the Ministry would declare a national girl child day—without any accompanying clue as to how that would help. The SAARC Day for the Girl Child came and went on December 8—perhaps the 15th or 16th anniversary of the forgotten regional pledge—without government notice. Meanwhile, there are mixed signals about whether the coming Plan will regard these 220 million young Indians as anything other than a group of social victims in need of compensatory benevolence. The Women and Child Development Ministry has so far confined its recommendations to a list of conventional measures, and the hope that better education and more child or girl-friendly service standards will help.
What kind of a change in mindsets, and what kind of new investments, do girl children actually deserve from a new planning cycle? Is the Plan formulation process showing anything positive in either respect? The Plan approach does not indicate it.

The Approach Paper unctuously declares on its 59th page that the development of children is “at the centre” of the Eleventh Plan. A nearby paragraph says that
any strategy for removing disparities, bridging divides and ensuring the well-being of our people must begin by respecting the rights of our child population.

All or some? A subsequent paragraph lists out the most vulnerable among children, deserving of special attention. Girls are not in that list. They remain Plan orphans. The Approach Paper also has a word to say on women: In the opening section on ‘Objectives and Challenges,’ it says the Plan “will recognise gender as a cross-cutting theme across all sectors”. This section clubs adolescent girls with primitive tribal groups, the elderly and the disabled as deserving of special attention. Younger girl children are evidently not seen as quite so deserving.

The Tenth Plan set out to address challenges of numbers and of survival. At mid-point with the change of government, the National Common Minimum Programme promised to deal with what it calls the population explosion, as well as to safeguard girl children’s rights. The National Rural Health Mission was crafted, with correctives enshrined for a long list of ‘high-fertility districts’. India would work for population stabilisation. Perhaps it is a mercy that the Plan achieved so little of what it declared it would do. It seemed to have escaped notice that most of the high-fertility districts are also high-mortality locations. It seemed to be just a by-product of something that couples opted for a two-child limit by aborting unborn daughters. The numbers of births are falling—but at what cost to population balance and viability? The Mid-Term Appraisal has issued a warning against
the obsession with population control, which assumes that all the failures in development can be mono-causally linked to population explosion.

Our declared plans for children, and for girls in particular among them, date back to 1979, and renewed commitments were made in the early 1990s. Official commitments to women’s advancement date back to 1975, and were reaffirmed in 1995. With all our high talk of defending children and empowering women, what have we not done to offer girl children a better chance of parity? In its Mid-Term Appraisal of the Tenth Plan, the National Planning Commission showed welcome honesty in reporting “glaring gaps and inconsistencies on the ground in the light of promises made” across the spectrum of social development relating to children and women. In assessing what became of the ‘must-dos’ for gender equity, the Commission called for a high-powered inter-ministerial review headed by the Prime Minister, to “bring the Plan back on track”. Its reference was to the Tenth Plan. That Plan’s final year has seen no evidence of retrieval action; now all correctives must await the next Plan period.

What were the promises? Many were gender-neutral, but most held out hope to girl children in particular. Aiming at the Tenth and Eleventh Plan deadline years of 2007 and 2012, the Tenth Plan pledged: all children in school by 2003, all to complete five years of schooling by 2007; a 50 per cent reduction of the gender gaps in literacy and wage rates, by 2007; the Infant Mortality rate cut to 45 per 1000 live births by 2007, and 28 per 1000 by 2012; the Maternal Mortality rate cut to 200 per 100,000 live births by 2007, and to 100 by 2012; arresting the decline in the child sex ratio; universalisation of the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) programme, and increasing women’s representation “in premier services and in Parliament”.

Identifying some concerns as “burning issues”, the Mid-Term Appraisal pinpointed the adverse child sex ratio, persistently high infant, child and maternal mortality, wide gender disparities in literacy and wages, and “escalating violence against women and the rising incidence of female foeticide and infanticide”.

With all the promises on record, what brought about the glaring gaps? “Gross under-achievement” is just one comment in the Mid-Term Appraisal report. Faulty programme design is another. A third is inadequate funding and programming attention to the 0-14 age group which amounts to 33.8 per cent of the population. In its scoring of progress, the report gives low marks to ICDS attention to the 0-3 age group, and cites failure to address persisting nutritional anaemia (74 per cent in that group) as a serious deficit, with lack of food security flagged as an underlying factor. Under-nutrition problems of the rest of the 3-5 group, lack of day-care supports and need for training are also cited. Poor provision for pre-school learning is another serious gap area. A good maternal and child health in every block and the importance of providing ICDS services near even small habitations are flagged for investment.

The Appraisal underlines the urgency of addressing violence against children, and refers to major problems of children’s security, emphasising the greater vulnerability of girls. Child trafficking, the spreading HIV-AIDS threat, high incidence of child marriage, adolescent pregnancies in and out of marital bondage, a rising graph of rape, increasing drop-outs from post-primary schooling, and “deep neglect of girls’ physical and cultural development,” and of their ignorance, are all underlined for preventive and remedial attention. A specific paragraph on girl child domestic labour urges the classification of such wage labour as a hazardous occupation, to guard against mental and physical harassment and sexual exploitation of girl children working as house-servants. The October 10 notification has indeed done this, but provides no magic bullet for detection, enforcement or rehabilitation, and there are no follow-up mechanisms for girls or any children ‘rescued’ from such occupations. The ground reality is that domestic employment is a burgeoning work ‘opportunity’ for children, with an assured demand market. How will the Mid-Term Appraisal alert guide the Eleventh Plan designers?

Noting the view that there is a link between the two-child norm and sex selective abortion, the Appraisal report emphasised that the norm is not part of the National Population Policy of 2000, and warns again that “imposition of the norm cannot be the route to population stabiliation, for it may lead to a disturbingly unbalanced population”. The report has asked the Centre to urge the State governments “immediately withdraw” any coercive population control programmes they are carrying out. Is there a case for ordering a pause to the so-called population planning push in order to address and arrest what has become of it? The health care infrastructure is judged on its family planning performance; how can it deliver on saving girls’ lives? We know to our cost, and to the girl child’s cost, that gender-blind promotion has become a major risk to the daughter conceived.

Does India want a balanced populace, or just less babies and less people? Can we afford unintended fallout of this kind? This is not a query to the Health and Family Welfare Ministry; it must be addressed to all of national leadership. The old prayer—“elsewhere give daughters; here, grant a son”—is unchallenged by the kind of family size education we currently carry out.

The evidence from the field confirms the mounting fallout of sex-selective disposal of born and un-born girl children. Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh have joined the red alert States of Haryana and Punjab in foeticide. Some Jharkhand districts report an adolescent girl deficit because their girl children are now being ‘exported’ to daughter-less Haryana. Trafficking from girl-rich to girl-poor areas in the guise of inter-state marriage is ongoing. What goals must India set for 2007-12 to stop this? What preventive development and protection measures for girl child can be instituted to safeguard them?

Education is an expressed commitment of the new Plan approach. Who is to be educated about what—apart from the talent pool getting educated to become more employable? Education is not necessarily a curb to girl-negative attitudes and actions. The social choice shifts from infanticide to foeticide in Tamil Nadu demonstrate that new knowledge may not lead to wisdom. The going rate for infanticide in rural and mofussil Bihar shows that midwives are servicing a popular and socially sanctioned demand, just as the doctors who perform sex detection tests and subsequent abortions are serving market demand.

Obviously sticking to its concerns about high fertility, the Approach Paper’s section on health assures us that “the Eleventh Plan will continue to advocate fertility regulation through voluntary and informed consent”. The National Rural Health Mission (NRHM) will ensure quality health care, and will extend into a ‘Sarva Swasthya Abhiyan’ in urban poor areas, the Paper says.

If the Eleventh Plan approach in its latest incarnation is to be believed, the new Plan’s preoccupations are different from most of what the Tenth Plan’s hits and misses have revealed, and what the Mid-Term Appraisal has suggested should be addressed. They seem to have more to do with a notion of prosperity, rather narrowly defined, and less to do with prospering. In the State’s emerging vision, people, and especially young people including children, appear to be some kind of commodity to be shaped for user markets which are seen to merit a supply of skilled energy. This departure from equity in favour of a chosen connotation of success is in itself a questionable way of defining national progress or its attendant objectives. That apart, it skirts any acknowledgement of human development and related equities in basic provisioning and enabling as worthy enough aims for a society and a nation. Perhaps it is too romantic for us to think that an Indian plan could perceive ‘gross national happiness’ as the key demand-side issue to be addressed.

There is danger lurking for India in failing to address questions of natural justice in the pursuit of development. The present propositions are reminiscent of the kind of reasoning that argues for services like primary health care to be cost-effective and ‘profitable,’ without making sure that the indicator for profit is public good. Commitment to public good would demand a rather different Plan than the one we see taking shape. Internal security trends should nudge us to be more mindful of such options.

The Plan Approach paper does in fact admit the spread of Naxalism and the “anger and despair” created by “visible failures” of the state. It then makes the peculiarly revealing remark that special efforts must be made to “remove discontent, dispense justice, instill a sense of fairness among the people, and give them dignity and hope”. But this is a deeper and wider point, beyond what is not happening to for the girl child. It is enough to note that she too looks out at a panorama where fairness, dignity and hope are presently not at all assured. The government can perhaps draw comfort from knowing that she is the least likely to revolt against her deprivations.

Such a bypass in visioning for the Plan suggests that we are seeking to concentrate on producing a good supply of saleable worker-ants. It also implies the focusing of resources and inputs on those most likely to yield quick dividends. A pragmatic question arises: would girl children give quick returns? Proposed empowerment of the Indian workforce into a twentyfirst century resource of market-worthy talent and capacity may or may not reach out to empower girls along with boys. Already indicating that the demand sector could prove impatient, India will tend to tap those young people who are already in the front rows of learners, already getting equipped. Five years of implementation time may not suffice to bring forward the potential talent pool comprised by those lower down on the skill-acquisition ladder. Girl children are on those lower rungs. Does such an approach qualify as equitable and people-centred? Is this human development?

The November 2006 version of the Approach Paper—still titled ‘Towards Faster and More Inclusive Growth’—declares commitment to manpower generation targets and deadlines to ensure India does not miss out on tapping foreseen opportunities of employment and gain from the world market, and also develops needed competencies to improve output in the country’s own work settings. Unfortunately, its projections reflect a wish to tap into newer, ‘modern’ occupations and jobs, all of which hinge on being better-educated. The Paper deplores the emerging “talent supply shortages” and warns that “the unsuitability of a large proportion of the country’s talent pool could lead to significant lost opportunities”. Apparently this must be addressed between 2007 and 2012, or new job prospects and incomes will be hit. It is not clear whether this is because we are racing against China, or just giving one more sign of being a global power for the heck of it. Whatever the compulsion, the Approach Paper of November 2006 hints that there may not be time to wait for girls to catch up and compete before 2012. Maybe they should wait for the Twelfth Plan, or the one after. Maybe they should not seek to concern themselves with joining the knowledge economy.

Should anyone worry? What would be lost if they get left behind? There are two issues here: one, is it sufficient for girls to not die, not be aborted, to attend school and attain an elementary or secondary certificate, and then go on to live more informed lives but not necessarily become full-fledged citizens or actors in the processes of change and national development ? Two, in envisioning core national goals and assigning emphasis and priority in national development investment, is this servicing of a selective competence-employment-income objective a good enough goal for the Five-Year Plan for an entire nation? Would that be all we would need to attain a better quality of life? In its own right, does the girl child’s well-being stand as an accepted, or at least acceptable, measure of Plan success and developmental progress? Is anyone even asking these questions as the Plan takes final shape ?

In speaking of providing essential public services to the poor, the Approach Paper says a major institutional challenges exists in that
even where service providers exists, the quality of delivery is poor, and those responsible for delivering the services cannot be held accountable.

It does not disclose why they cannot be. Looking at human resource development, It calls for “cutting edge service providers” to be trained. It points to a shortfall in scope, standards and diversity of training and skill development to “keep pace with the changing needs of the economy”. It expresses concern at “the emerging signs that rapid growth can result in a shortage of the high-quality skills needed in knowledge-intensive industries”. Talking about disparities and divides, it identifies gender as one “which compels immediate attention”. It cites the heavy bias against women in educational status and economic empowerment., and speaks of efforts to “ensure that society as a whole recognises women’s economic and social worth”. The text does not readily reveal whether all these thoughts connect anywhere. There is also no clear indication that the measures targeting the girl child will bring her to the capability of demonstrating economic or social worth - or of who will judge whether she has in fact demonstrated it.

The government’s avowed gender perspective and the planners’ gender lens still miss the girl child. Over the past two Plan periods, ‘gender budgeting’ has been debated and designed, and a gender component has been flagged for incorporation in sectoral planning. The push for these moves, emanating mostly from the women’s rights effort, has not significantly changed the prospects for girl children in the population. More ominous, it has not arrested the rising threat to their being born at all. The Mid-Term Appraisal found that “most of the Ministries and Departments designated as ‘women-related’ have not provided the women’s component and hence cannot be evaluated”on how they applied the principle.The Planning Commission also pointed out that “all Ministries and Departments are women-related”, and all should clearly identify intended beneficiaries or users in terms of gender. One could hope that they might do so in the Eleventh Plan implementation.

In 1997, the South Asia Report on Human Development, authored by Pakistan’s Mahbub ul-Haq, condemned the status and condition of the region’s girl children as the worst in the world. Can we say that we were moved to action? We cannot. Today, a decade past that report, we are putting the seal on an investment mandate and a bunch of action directives which demonstrate that India is not so moved even now. The 2011 Census will reveal whether the juvenile sex ratios will improve or get worse. By then, the responsible Ministry might have decided about whether to have a national day for girl children. Will it be observed as a memorial date? Sometimes it is important to set out the questions in order to even see where the answers might lie. The Eleventh Plan at any rate does not seem to hold out much promise of providing the ones we need. Where does this leave the girl child? Equally, where does it leave India ? We may well ask. The Planning Commission and the ministries are careful at this point not to publish the proposals they are finalising. One question, being asked since 1975, remains : how can India progress when half its children are left in chains or sentenced to be nothing more than ‘safe’ mothers? That is the poser for every Plan we make.

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