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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 births across the 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.
But it never crossed my mind that they did not exist at all. 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.
They are in hand-in-glove with each other. Although it has been illegal nationwide for doctors to disclose the sex of a fetus since the 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 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. It is safe to assume that a large number of the abortions that happen in India are performed because the fetus is female. And this problem does not just stem from sex-selective abortion. In the wake of his discovery, Chauhan has embarked on an extensive investigation, monitoring health workers, doing block-by-block surveys, and carefully assessing data from hospitals and clinics.