"Don't kill your daughter. The government will raise her," says Union Minister for Women and Child Development, Renuka Chowdhury. "It's a matter of international and national shame for us that India, with a growth of nine per cent, still kills its daughters," she adds.

Few will dispute the minister's sentiments or the concern that has prompted her to suggest the 'cradle scheme' to correct the skewed sex ratio in this country. She has appealed to women contemplating aborting female foetuses to instead bring them to full term and then hand them over.

Her concern about India's image is also not misplaced. At a time when the Indian media is full of stories of India's success in business, and prayers for its success in sports, the world media seems to have discovered precisely what Ms. Chowdhury speaks of — the fact that we also specialise in killing girls, or rather preventing them from being born. In the last month, leading newspapers in Britain and the U.S. have carried stories on this issue.

The 'cradle' idea has already been tried in Tamilnadu. The 'cradle baby scheme' was launched in 1992 to deal with the high incidence of female infanticide in some districts, namely Madurai, Salem and Dharmapuri. Women were encouraged to surrender their daughters rather than killing them. Over time, 188 reception centres for such babies were set up in primary heath centres and government hospitals across the state.

Mixed success

The scheme met with mixed success. While there appeared to be a drop in the incidence of female infanticide, it also became evident that women who had earlier killed their daughters now had the option of sex selective abortion. They managed to avoid giving birth to daughters altogether. So the need to kill them after birth did not arise. The scheme was unable to address the societal attitudes towards women that encourage and justify female infanticide.

Expecting women to go through multiple pregnancies and abandon their girl children seems unrealistic and impossible.

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This illustrates the problem that the current scheme is likely to face. It will not deal with the strong son-preference that lies at the root of the incidence of female infanticide or sex selective abortions. In fact, it changes little in terms of mindsets.

Also, while initially the plan might have worked in districts where female infanticide was prevalent, it will be far more difficult to implement in the hundreds of districts around India where sex selective abortions have skewed the sex ratio to such an extent that there are less than 800 girls to every 1,000 boys under the age of six in some of these districts. To persuade women to go through nine months of their pregnancy with a child they do not want, and then to abandon it, is expecting a lot. After all, so long as the pressure to produce sons remains, these women will have to continue trying. Does this mean, they have to go through multiple pregnancies to full term? Or does the minister hope that doing this once will cure the families of the urge to have a son? Women have always paid the price through their bodies for dominant social norms — such as the belief that only a son can be the rightful heir of property. This norm is so deeply ingrained that even a liberal education does not seem to alter it.

Expecting women to go through multiple pregnancies and abandon their girl children seems not just unrealistic but impossible. After all, even surrogate motherhood has faced innumerable problems as in the end, the women who conceive and give birth cannot bear to part with the infant after birth. Even the most calculating and hard-hearted of women will find it tough to go through the process of pregnancy and then be indifferent to what happens to the child she has birthed.

This is the reason that female infanticide remains a phenomenon restricted to only a few areas while sex selective abortions are rampant. Even though abortions also take a toll of women's health, they are rendered more impersonal because they happen within a few weeks of the pregnancy. Whereas killing or abandoning an infant after giving birth takes much greater physical and emotional toll on the mother.

Renuka Chowdhury must be commended for keeping the issue on the front burner. But she must be well aware that this kind of scheme, and the investment it will require, will not deal with the problem. Instead, the resources can be used to set up a machinery to ensure that the existing law, which prohibits sex selective abortion, is strictly implemented. Checking if all sonography machines have been registered could be one obvious way to start. In some places, where a vigilant bureaucrat has done this, there have been noticeable results.

Changing the mindset

But in the end, even the most strictly implemented law will not change the mindset, specially of the propertied classes who want sons to 'carry on' the family. This belief that the family is somehow not 'complete' unless there is a son has to somehow change. In the decade leading up to the 2001 census, it certainly did not change, as was evident from the Census statistics. We will now have to wait until the 2011 census to see if the multiple campaigns to promote the "girl child", to encourage parents to educate their daughters, to condemn the giving and taking of dowry and to expose those in the medical fraternity who knowingly transgress the law to facilitate sex selective abortions will have made a difference. These are social processes that cannot be assessed within a short period.

What is absolutely clear is that India cannot shine, or be poised to take off, if millions of girls are prevented from being born. This hateful reality must change if we are ever to consider ourselves a modern, democratic and just nation.