Take 193 random kids, aged below 6. How many would you guess are likely to be boys, how many girls? To answer that, you would probably divide that number in half and decide on 97 girls, 96 boys. Or vice versa. Right?

In India, wrong. In India, the most probable division of that number is not straight down the middle, but skewed to one side. The male side. What you should expect in that random gaggle of kids is to find not parity, but 100 boys and 93 girls. That's because our 2001 census shows that India's child sex ratio (CSR, defined as the number of girls for every 1000 boys) has subsided from 945 in 1991 -- not particularly commendable by itself -- to 927 today. 927 girls for every 100 boys, or just about 93 for every 100. Now you know why my random sample had 193 kids.

Think of it. The '90s were the decade of "reforms", when India opened up to the world. Through those years, we saw the planet's biggest brand names come to our doorstep, eager to sell to what promised to turn into the world's largest middle-class. It has all worked so well, we think, that "Brand India" is now taking business away from rich and powerful countries. Our techies are proving themselves the equal and better of anyone. We have produced a slew of beauty contest winners and call centres; Bollywood is now globally known; banks vie to fling credit cards at you and me.

Just over a decade of all this by 2003, and apparently we have a resurgent new India. Patrick Harker, Dean of the Wharton Business School recently in India, spoke to the Bombay Times of the "incredible sense of optimism and self-confidence" he senses here, the "feel-good" factor in our economy.

"Feel-good", that's right. And through all this -- through the beauty pageants, Pepsi Cups and just generally feeling good -- we have steadily weaned girls from our midst. That word "weaned" being rather appropriate.

And there's an even greater tragedy that lies hidden in those numbers 945 and 927. Where would you say the steepest declines in CSR have been? Among illiterate tribals lost in the wilds of a backward state like Bihar? Wrong again. The more backward states have seen relatively mild falls in their CSR. No, the steepest declines have happened in some of the most prosperous corners of this great country: Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Delhi and Bombay. Some areas of our richest states now have a CSR lower than 800. Kurukshetra in Haryana (770, drop of 98 since 1991), Fatehgarh Sahib in Punjab (754, drop of 120) and Mahesana in Gujarat (798, drop of 101) are typical.

Apparently, the wealthier (and maybe more educated) you are in India, the more likely it is ... but I'll leave that for you to complete.

And if you look at more local pictures, the news is worse still. A village elder near Rajkot told the Times of India (November 20 2003) that in his Kadva Patel community, "there are just about 65 girls for every 100 boys."

The feel-good crowd will either shut its eyes to all this, or rattle off all manner of smooth explanations. The perennially over-sensitive pseudo-nationalist crowd will denounce it as a conspiracy to malign India - a now resurgent India -- in the eyes of the world.

But ignore them as they deserve. There's a simple reason for the slide, and it's one that's dismayingly familiar: the strong Indian preference for sons, and what that preference makes too many Indians do. Our Minister of Health and Family Welfare, Sushma Swaraj, recently released a UN Population Fund (UNFPA) booklet, "Missing", which has this comment: "[O]ne of the significant contributors to the adverse child sex ratio in India is the practice of elimination of female foetuses."

It also quotes Ranu, a mother -- a mother! -- in Rajasthan saying: "The girl child is killed by putting a sand bag on her face or by throttling her. It is not a rare phenomenon." Indeed it is not. Ranu killed her first two children, both girls, and is determined to kill any other girls she has; she and her family consider girls "trouble makers." The Times report I mentioned above tells of the "doodh-piti" tradition in Gujarat's Saurashtra region, in which infant girls are drowned in milk; it also tells us that Mahesana (CSR 798, remember) is "notorious for female foeticide."

You wonder what kind of human would kill a child. You are so outraged by Ranu that you want people like her to be swiftly and heavily punished. But perhaps you, and all of us, must also wonder at the societal pressures such humans feel, pressures that make slaughtering a daughter a reasonable course to take.

The UNFPA booklet asks: "How do communities uphold and honour a value system which is based on son preference and discrimination against the girl?"

One phenomenon could drive changes in attitude; a phenomenon that itself represents major social change. Just by virtue of being scarce, girls will be desired again and boys may be forced to pay dowry.
 •  Also see : A cultural deficit, Aug '03

How will this slide -- and now I mean more than just the declining CSR -- end? People suggest education, or strict and strictly enforced laws, or a crackdown on the use of sonography machines for sex-determination, or other laudable measures. Fine. May all these things happen, as they must. Yet my feeling is that the slaughter of daughters will continue despite all this. (After all, we already have a law that prohibits sex selection).

It will continue until there's a great, generational change in societal attitudes. As a Mahesana social activist, Amar Vyas, says in that same Times report: "it is society itself that should realise the problem and bring about a difference."

The interesting thing is that to me, that very report in the Times of India - dismal though it is -- is really about hope for just such a difference. Unwitting, perhaps, but the hope is there. That, because it carries news of the one phenomenon that I think will drive changes in attitude; a phenomenon that itself represents major social change.

The title of the report gives it away: "Gujarati boys forced to pay dowry." By now, there are so few girls in some areas and communities in Gujarat that their boys just cannot find brides. They must look far afield, and in a trickle of cases so far, have actually had to pay for a bride. Mitesh Patel of Moti Marad village in Rajkot had to travel to Baroda to find a bride. Look at a map of Gujarat and you'll know how long that journey was. He eventually "had to settle for a tribal girl." This cost him: he paid her family Rs 21,000 as dowry. What's more, there are five other men in the village who have "had to settle for" tribal girls like Mitesh did. What's still more, Mitesh was 31 when this happened -- years beyond what's considered "marriageable age." At least 500 more boys in the village, that village elder says, "are way above the marriageable age and still waiting."

How has such social change, how have such once-inconceivable things, come about?

The truth is, this has happened because of the centuries during which we have allowed other inconceivable things to carry on. Girls having "to settle" for a husband. Girls "way above the marriageable age and still waiting." Girls paying, ruining their families financially, to be married. And arising out of all that, the pressures that lead to horrors like female foeticide and drowning baby girls in milk.

Now it is starting to happen to boys, and as the inevitable fallout of what girls have had to face all along. As a result of a steeply falling CSR.

Farzana Cooper There's a note of tragedy in that Times report. Yet the news is also almost deliciously ironic, and it is in that irony that I see hope. No exhortations about the worth of the girl child, no appeals to values or greater humanity, no shutdowns of sex-selection clinics -- none of these have managed to turn around the societal preference for boys. But now boys will find out just how that preference feels, but from the short end of the stick. Willy-nilly, for no fault of theirs, they will be the ones to pay hefty dowries. Just by virtue of being scarce, girls will be desired again.

And because it is no exhortation from above, because it directly affects people who want to get their children married, this change will put an end to the horrors. This is the only thing that can put an end to them. Naturally, I hope it won't also turn the horrors around, setting off an epidemic of male foeticide. If discrimination against girls ends, if women like Ranu stop feeling pressure to kill their daughters, that will do. That will be enough for the CSR to start righting itself.

That is the hope I am talking about.

But perhaps you think this is all overblown. Perhaps you don't see a great deal of difference between 945 and 927; or between the pairs 97/96 and 100/93. Do the arithmetic, then. You will find that the fall in the CSR through the 1990s means that we have many less little Indian girls today than we would have had if the CSR had remained steady at 945.

How many less? Nearly one million.

Female foetuses aborted. Infant girls killed. Not rare phenomena, but widespread slaughter. In these ten years, it's left us with one million fewer girls. Enough euphemism: in these ten years, we killed one million girls.

In Rwanda in 1994, Hutus slaughtered 800,000 Tutsis. We called it genocide.