Born to Die
by S. H. Venkatramani, published in India Today vol 31, 15 (June 1986) 26-33
The infanticide described in this article still continues. Population censuses in India show that the number of girls has been falling steadily for the past 20 years relative to the number of boys. For every 1,000 boys up to the age of six the number of girls dropped from 962 in 1981 to 945 in 1991 to 927 in 2001. The only difference is that now girls are often aborted.The availability of ultrasound allows parents to discover the gender of their child before birth and has been widespread in India for most of the past two decades. Shirish Sheth of Breach Candy hospital, Mumbai, The Lancet, January 2006.
A woman should be a lump of clay.
The luckless man loses a horse;
the lucky man loses a wife.
These proverbs- from Bengal, Punjab, Maharashtra-are still a part of the living folklore which infuses the social customs that dictate the livers of millions of Indians in towns and villages across the country. They are a grim reminder that even in the 20th century an age in which most of the modern world is awakening to the call of enlightened feminism - India still wallows in the primordial slime of misogyny: mans inhumanity to woman.
In most parts of the country, a woman is still considered a burdensome appendage. She is an economic drain. She must be exploited or dispensed with as a non-person. Because she crushes her family with marriage and dowry expenses she must be raised-from childhood-in financial and physical neglect. Her birth, in many parts of the country is greeted with silence, even sorrow. A boy arrives to the sound of joyous conch shells. Discrimination begins at birth.
Comprehensive studies conducted by UNICEF as well as Indian social scientists reveal an organised pattern of discrimination against young girls and older women in India. Their revelations are startling.
India is the only country in the world where the ratio of women to men has been declining over the years. The sex ratio declined from 972 females per 1,000 males in 1901 to 935 in 1981. And India is one of a handful of countries where female infant mortality exceeds that of the male-notwithstanding the fact that the female child is biologically stronger at birth.
Girl babies are breast-fed less frequently, and for a shorter duration than boy babies. When they grow up, they are provided less nutrition than their brothers. A recent survey of infants, toddlers and pre-schoolers showed that within their combined age groups, 71 per cent of females suffered from severe malnutrition, as against 28 per cent of the males. A related statistic reveals that boys are taken to hospital for treatment of common diseases in twice the number as girls. Boys do not fall ill more frequently than girls, they are merely provided more health care by parents who value sons more than daughters.
In the widening gender gap in India the female literacy rate -24.88 per cent- is barely half that of males - 46.74 per cent. And the gap continues to widen. In the 6-14 age group, nearly 84 per cent of boys are enrolled in schools, as against 54 per cent in the case of girls.
It is not a pretty picture. The plight of Indias girls aged 15 and under - about 140 million of them cries out desperately for caring and sensitive attention. They form 20 per cent of the nations population but are denied adequate food and care because their parents are themselves the victims and prisoners of brutal tradition and economic circumstance in which the female shoulders a horrifying responsibility. For her sins, she is burned as an adult bride over dowry demands or, if she is a child bride, condemned to a lifetime of penurious widowhood upon the death of a husband even before her marriage is consummated.
If young girls and older women are denied a living in most parts of India, it is only the next step of this cruel logic that they should be denied life itself. Female infanticide - snuffing out the lives of newborn babes - is ultimately, the catharsis in the tragic drama of female life in this country. The cover story which follows is a graphic and chilling account of the trials and tribulations of families that kill their female infants. It focuses on the Kallars community of landless labourers in Tamil Nadus Madurai district. It may be happening in one state, in one community, but it is a mirror in which all Indians must look and come fact to fact with the ugliness that surround them.
The challenge of developing India into a land of social and economic justice, as Nehru put it, is not just the creation of factories, and machinery and grandiose schemes. Ultimately, he said, it is the human being that counts, and if the human being counts, well, he counts more as a child than a grown-up.
Better for her to die now
Chinnammal with her first daughter who was allowed to live
NORMALLY, the day should have been one of great rejoicing for 35-year-old Kuppusamy and his 26-year-old wife Chinnammal, both agricultural workers in Chulive-chanpatti village in the Usilampatti taluk of Madurai district. It was a May morning of sparkling sunshine and Chinnammal, attractive and slim despite her pregnancy, was in labour inside her mud-and-thatch hut. In a few minutes her second child would be born. Her first, daughter Chellammal, 3, played outside.
The new-born cried lustily as it came into this world. It was a bonny child, fair of complexion, its eyes, squinting at the sunlight that filtered in. But when the mother laid eyes on her baby, tears welled up in her eyes. They were not tears of joy. Chinnammal had .seen the sex of the child: a girl. What crossed her mind was not the anticipation of the joys of motherhood but the trials that lay ahead. How could a family of daily-wage agricultural workers belonging to the Kallar group of the Thevar community afford to bring up and marry off two daughters? How could they, when thedowry demanded by bridegrooms was always astronomical? The couple had decided to have a second child only in the desperate hope that it would be a boy. But on this sunny day, the dream lay shattered.
Poisonous oleander berries used to kill baby girls
There was only one way out of a lifetime burden of bringing up two daughters. And Kuppusamy decided on what they had to do. That evening he trudged somewhat unsteadily into a nearby field, plucked a handful of oleander berries that are known for their lethal poison, and returned home. Chinnammal mashed them into a milky paste and fed her crying infant with the substance. The parents then shut the small door of their hut, sat outside, and waited for the poison to do its work. Within an hour the baby began to twitch and tremble fitfully. Slowly she started spouting blood through her mouth and nose. The parents heard her whining. A few more minutes, and all was quiet. Chinnammal knew that everything was over. She quietly walked over to her mother's hut close by, dug up a little patch of ground inside, brought and buried the dead baby.
I killed my child to save it from the lifelong ignominy of being the daughter of a poor family that cannot afford to pay a decent dowry, Chinnammal said, as she sipped water to keep her voice from breaking. But all the same, it was extremely difficult to steel myself for the act. A mother who has borne a child cannot bear to see it suffer even for a little while, let alone bring herself to kill it. But I had to do it, because my husband and I concluded that it was better to let our child suffer an hour or two and die than suffer throughout life. Kuppusamy, at first reluctant to talk, admitted later during an interview: I get Rs 13 a day as agricultural wages, on the days that I manage to find work. My wife gets Rs 6 a day. I cannot dream of decently marrying off two daughters. Killing girl babies due to fear of the dowry problem is very common in our Kallar community.
INDIA TODAYS investigations reveal that over the last 10 to 15 years, female infanticide has come to be increasingly accepted among Madurai districts Kallars (a 2-lakh strong martial sub-caste) as the only way out of the dowry problem. Said S. Muthuramalingam, who has a small farm in Paraipatti village: "The practice has grown among the Kallars during the last 10 years, and has become very widespread after 1980." The Kallar group of Madurai district is concentrated in Usilampatti taluk and its 300 villages, and accounts for nearly 80 per cent of the taluks 2.65 lakh population. In a damning confession, Muniamma of Ayodhyapatti village, an agricultural worker, said after some prodding: "There is hardly a poor Kallar family in which a female baby has not been murdered some time or the other during the last 10 years."
Chinnammal was not the only Kallar mother who administered poison to her baby daughter last month, Twenty-five-year-old Chinnakkal of Echampatti village, the wife of a counter clerk, Gopal, in the village cinema theatre, delivered her second baby daughter in the wee hours of May 10 in the Usilampatti government hospital. The mother escaped from the hospital with the new-born baby an hour after childbirth, flouting normal medical advice that a mother should rest a few days in hospital after delivery before getting discharged. Chinnakkal wanted to escape and kill the baby. The entries in the hospital records showed that the mother and daughter had absconded.
But Chinnakkal reported back to the hospital after a week, not with the baby but with her own mother. She came to consult the gynaecologist, Dr Suthanthiradevi, because her breast milk had clotted. The clotting occurred because there was no baby to breast-feed. When asked by the doctors what had happened to her baby, Chinnakkal explained: "The little one died within four days of birth due to fits and fever." Why hadnt she rushed the baby to the hospital? The answer was barely audible: "I couldnt afford to do that."
Later, under persistent questioning, Chinnakkal gradually revealed the tragic truth: "How can I afford to bring up two daughters in these difficult days?" she asked. "We are a very poor family. Even to bring up my first daughter is going to be an unbearable burden. My husband has not come to see me after I gave birth to my second female child. He must have hated me after knowing it is another daughter. I should let him know that I have done away with the baby."
Female babies are routinely killed
Dr Suthanthiradevi said that Chinnakkal and Chinnammal are not exceptions but very much the rule in the Kallar community. She has been practising in Usilampatti for over five years and disclosed that, on an average, 1,200 delivery cases come to the hospital every year. Of these, nearly half deliver female babies. Said Suthanthiradevi: "Over 95 per cent of the women who give birth to daughters abscond immediately after the babies are born, and. we have recorded this in our registers. We can come to our own conclusions about the motive for absconding."
The statistics are shocking. Nearly 600 female births in the Kallar group are recorded in the Usilampatti government hospital every year, and out of these an estimated 570 babies vanish with their mothers no sooner than they can open their eyes to the world. Hospital sources estimate that nearly 80 per cent of these vanishing babies more than 450 become victims of infanticide.
Besides this, deliveries also occur in primary health centres and in the private nursing homes and maternity hospitals that have mushroomed in the taluk, for which no comprehensive records are available, not to speak of the child birthsin the village households. Some 20-odd private nursing homes, which admit maternity cases also, have come up in Usilampatti town alone. Said Dr Sugandhi Natarajan, who runs one of these private nursing homes: "We get about 12 to 15 delivery cases a year even in our small nursing home, and roughly seven of them deliver female children. Almost all of them run away immediately after childbirth, and come to consult us again after a week or 10 days because they invariably have this problem of breast-milk clotting, which has to be corrected with hormone tablets. The female babies inevitably die, and we know how they die. It is very sad but it keeps happening. I have been practising here for five to six years and what happens to female babies is common knowledge in these parts."
In each of the more than 300 Kallar villages in Usilampatti taluk, with populations ranging from 500 to 1,500, 20 to 50 girl babies have been killed in the last five years in the face of the excruciatingly cruel dowry problem. In Chulivechanpatti, which has a population of 300, at least three girl babies have been killed during the last six months. And the parents freely admit to their crime. Apart from Kuppuswamy, two other families involved are those of Sivaraj and Oothappa Thevar. And in Paraipatti with a population of 400, a farmer S. Mithuramalingam said in the presence of all the villagers: "Over 50 female babies would havebeen killed in our village during the last five to seven years."
We have no money to keep our daughters alive
Going by a rough calculation, nearly 6,000 female babies must have been poisoned to death in Usilampatti taluk in the last decade. Few such deaths are recorded. And births are registered only if the deliveries take place in the hospitals. According to the law, the deaths of these babies under suspicious circumstances should be reported to the village administrative officers and the panchayats or other local bodies. But in most cases, the households keep the information to themselves, although what is happening is common knowledge. As a matter of practice the first child is not killed, even if it is a daughter, but with the second female child there begins a series of killings. Family planning is yet to catch up with the Kallars. It is not that they dont want children. They wish keenly for boys because they can then get dowry. N. Nallasamy, who teaches at the elementary school in Chulivechanpatti, observes: "There is also this widespread belief among the Kallars that if you kill a daughter, your next child will be a son."
The widespread practice of female infanticide is now getting reflected in the changing male-female ratio among the Kallars. Revealed a Madurai district official who did not want to be identified: "Men arenow 52 per cent of theKallar population. Ten years ago it was women who were 52 per cent."
Annamal, 35, now a mother of five killed her first three daughters. "I had to kill," she says. "We believed if we killed a female the next child would be a male."
Many Kallar families realise that they are committing a crime, but they are convinced that, given their difficult circumstances, they are taking the only course open to them. A 26-year-old woman agricultural worker of Mayampatti village, Kanthammal, who killed her second baby daughter immediately after childbirth last year, made no bones about the murder she committed: "How can we poor people rear so many daughters in this painful dowry situation? The village panchayat and the village administrative officer have no right to investigate or interfere in our personal affairs. If I and my husband have the right to have a child, we also have the right to kill it if it happens to be a daughter, and we decide we cannot afford it. Outsiders and the Government have no right to poke their noses into this." Her husband, Andi, concurred: "It is impossible to marry off daughters with our uncertain wages."
The KALLARS and their Savage Traditions
THE TAMIL NADU Government and the Madurai district administration appear to be either unaware or heedless of the widespread practice of female infanticide among the Kallars of Usilampatti taluk. State Health Minister Dr H. V. Hande told india today that the Government hadnt received "any specific complaints" on this matter. When informed of some of the details, he promised to appoint a committee of doctors to examine the issue of mothers who have delivered girls at the government hospital and then absconded with their infants.
K. Varadarajulu, the Madurai district collector, echoed the physicians response and added: "After all, who will complain about any particular family killing a female child? It is one of those matters in which it is very difficult to prosecute and convict anybody. People may generally say that the practice is there,but it will be very difficult to legally prove anyone guilty." He noted that "there had been talk" of female infanticide in the Gounder community in Salem district some time ago. but that it was extremely difficult to lodge a complaint against any single Gounder family. "But now the Gounders are taking to education and birth control,,and the barbaric practice is slowly disappearing." The Gounders, however, are richer than the Kallars because they own land.
Most of the Kallars of Usilampatti 40 per cent of them are landless labourers. The rest eke out an existence as marginal farmers. Most of them do not regard female infanticideor even the dowry system which is largely responsible for itas social evils. As Mookiah of Mayampatti village put it: "You can write a lot of things about dowry but you cant stop it amongst us." Even those who have been victimised by the dowry system refuse to join campaigns against the practice. They point out, rather, that it is only because they were cursed with female children that they fell prey to the system.
The statistics indicate that there is a much higher rate of female infanticide among the Kallars than in communities like the Gounders. During the last decade, the official birth rate among the Gounders was 2.5 per cent, whereas the corresponding figure for the Kallars of Usilampatti was only 1 per cent. Males now constitute 52 per cent of the Kallar population whereas 10 years ago they accounted for only 48 percent. And 70 per cent of Kallar children below the age of l0 are now boys. Ten years ago that figure was 50 per cent.
These statistics should have aroused official suspicion. But they have not. Even social workers and missionaries in the area seem mostly ignorant of the female infanticide problem. "The dowry problems and female infanticides among the Kallars havent come to our notice at all," said W. Isaac Judson, regional secretary of the Young Mens Christian Association in Madurai, a leading force within the districts Anti-Dowry Association.
The only voluntary organisation which appears to have made some inroads into the Kallar community is the Society for Integrated Rural Development. M. Vasudevan, its senior coordinator, who has helped settle 25 dowry cases in the taluk, says that his group has only recently begun gaining the confidence of the Kallars. The society has begun to organise regular debateson socio-economic evils andpeople are encouraged to voice their opinions. This programme has met with some success. S. Ramalingam, a farmer from Paraipatti notes: "These village debates have helped ease some of the financial burdens of parents who have girls. For instance, if your daughter died, you had to buy clothes, towels, and saris for all the relatives of your son-in-law. But after a few of these debates some of us have realised the folly of some of these customs."
Vasudevan believes firmly that female infanticide cannot be treated as only a law and order problem in which Kallar women are arrested for homicide: "We have to slowly change the mental habits and outlook of these people." But that is no easy task. Dr Suthanthiradevi, medical officer of the Usilampatti government hospital, herself a Kallar, said that she has spoken at length to Kallar families about these problems. "But I am thoroughly disillusioned and want to go away from here. They do not want to change and want to continue with their practices." But she is only one among a handful of educated Kallars trying to change things. Most stay away. P.N. Vallarasu, deputy general secretary of the TamilNaduForward Block and a member of the community, refuses even to admit that the Kallars have a problem. "I dont think the habit of killing female infants is prevalent in our community," he says.
Thus insulated from the scrutiny of government officials, politicians and social workers, the Kallars of Usilampatti remain the prisoners of their burdensome, savage traditions.
The underlying disease
It is the cruel dowry problem that is the cause of the sad lot of the Kallar women who have to unwillingly poison their own babies and watch them writhe and die. As M. Jeeva, senior coordinator of the privately-run Society for Integrated Rural Development (smn) observed: "Female infanticide is only the symptom; it is the dowry problem that is the underlying disease." The dowry demands that parents of marriageable Kallar boys make, bears out what Jeeva said. Said V. Gopal, a small farmer of Chulivechanpatti: "Even if you want to marry your daughter to a poor agricultural worker who does not own even a square inch of agricultural land and who has to lead a hand to mouth existence, you have to give Rs 2,000 cash to the bridegroom and make jewellery worth five sovereigns of gold for your daughter. If the potential bridegroom happens, by chance, to own some land, however meagre the holding, the automatic demand is Rs 10,000 and 10 sovereigns of gold. If a Kallar family wants to celebrate a daughters marriage in a fairly decent manner, the minimum cost will be something like Rs 30,000 to Rs 40,000, including all the cash and jewellery and marriage expenses. And if your would-be son-in-law has the high socio-economic status of an engineer, lawyer, doctor, or member of Parliament, you have to spend a lakh of rupees and in addition give a kilo of gold."
The dowry system took root among the Kallars after the dam on the Vaigai river brought irrigation water into Usilampatti 25 father had already given five sovereigns and Rs 5,000 at the time of our marriage, and now I am back with my parents because I have been booted out by my husband."
These are the stray instances of Kallar wives refusing to bow to their husbands wishes. And they suffer for it. The 40-year-old Muthukkaruppan of Paraipatti village drove his 35-year-old wife Nagammal out of their house after she bore him his second daughter because she refused to kill the female children. She stayed away for six months before the family was reunited. And the reunion came about because of the efforts of Muthukkarup-pans father, who gave his son the benefit of his experience in having brought up five daughters. After that Nagammal gave birth to another daughter and two sons. Muthukkaruppan stiil grumbles about having to look after three daughters with his uncertain daily wage as a stone-cutter, and asks: "Why cant I kill my daughters if I cannot look after them? Why should anybody prevent it?" But that loud questioning withers in the face of Nagammals maternal dedication.
For all that, the culture of looking down on the woman and the daughter runs very deep in the Kallar blood. In fact, a Kallar husband will not come to the hospital to see his new-born child if it is a daughter. A round of the maternity ward of the Usilampatti hospital last fortnight was revealing in this respect. Rani of Arogyapatti village who had just got a male child, was ecstatic. And she was talking of spending a week in hospital to make sure there were no problems with her new-born son. She said: "My husband Jayaraman works in a textile mill in Dindigul, and he is rushing to see the child."
The agony of having a baby daughter
On the other hand, 33-year-old Chinnakaruppan of Kattathevanpatti was standing gloomily by his wife Kondaiammal, unable to smile. She had just borne him their seventh child, the sixth daughter. Kondaiammal complained: "I wish the doctor would at least allow us to take the baby away immediately, so that we can kill it. What crime have I committed to be saddled with six daughters?" Santosham of the same village, and Ramakkal of Ayodhyapatti looked equally lost, having just delivered their first baby daughters. And Yellakkal of Doraisamypudur near Kalloothu, who was expecting her third baby (the first was a daughter and the second a son) was very anxious about whether it was going to be a son or a daughter. She gave vent to her fears: "If it is a daughter, my husband Chinniah will surely ask me to kill it, or send me out of the house."
If a Kallar father doesnt force his wife to kill their second daughter, it usually means that the first daughter must have died a natural death. For instance, Rosammal of Chokkadevanpatti delivered her fourth child, a daughter, early in the morning of May 17 and surprisingly the baby is still alive. Her husband Raman. however, explained the mystery: "Our two other daughters died, and we are left only with our son and this baby." If the practice of female infanticide is uniformly prevalent among the Kallars, the gruesome methods used vary. One method of killing a baby is by stuffing a few grains of coarse paddy into its mouth. The infant breathes the grain into its windpipe and chokes to death. But in some cases paddy doesnt work. Annammals (Paraipatti} is a case in point. She said she had to take recourse to a juicy extract from the madar (calotropis gigantea) plant. In some families the husband grows a madar plant from the time his wife conceives so he can minister the poison if a daughter is born.
This whole culture of female infanticide is succinctly summed up by a middle-aged woman, Annamayakkal of Singarasapuram: "In our community, if a male child unfortunately dies for some reason, we dont take gruel for a year. It is a great financial loss. And if we fail to kill a daughter, again we skip a meal a day in sorrow, and thus also save some money for her marriage." This basic view of woman as a born liability because of the dowry evil has taken deep root among the Kallars and the Thevars. This, in a state ruled by a chief minister who swears by the greatness of womanhood, in a country that had a woman prime minister for close to two decades, in the age of womens liberation.