Can Internet be allowed to spell death for the unborn girl child?
By Satish Agnihotri
The low and declining sex ratio in the country is no longer a subject matter of debate or doubt. The child (0-6 years) sex ratio has declined from 962 in 1981 to 945 in 1991, 927 in 2001 and to 918 in 2011. If we had the same sex ratio in 2011 as in 1981 we would have had 3.9 million more girls. This is the number of girl children that have been elimited. The danger is real and present and needs urgent response.
It is no longer a secret that medical merceries determine the sex of the foetus and disclose it to the parents. They do so for profit and in violation of the law. An estimated 500,000 to 600,000 girl children are elimited by sex-selective abortions every year through nearly twice the number of sonographies - making it a million rupee industry.
Lucrative profit margins have made MNCs actively aid and abet this “crime for profit” - whether it is the suppliers of ultrasound machines or those facilitating advertisements on the internet or through search engines. The problem continues ubated.
But today we are at the cusp of an opportunity. For the first time in so many decades, a prime minister has recognized the problem from the ramparts of the Red Fort and has asked the doctors not to fill their coffers by killing the unborn girl child. He went a step further in Panipat on January 22 and asked the people whether they would like to eat their bread with the very hands that were soiled with the blood of the unborn girl child. How much more forthright can a prime minister be?
And it has not just been rhetoric. On January 22 the prime minister himself launched the Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao (Save the Daughter, Educate her) as a flagship campaign from Panipat in Harya, challenging the problem at its very epicenter. It is both a bold gamble and an unprecedented opportunity.
But let us pause and see how Internet search engines are faring in this battle. Under the law, advertisements offering sex determition services are prohibited in India. While the advertisements in print and television have practically disappeared due to the intervention of courts, the internet has become a source of vigorous promotion of sex selection. Various search engines have become equal opportunity offenders by simultaneously targeting different segments of Indian society. For the elite, they target advertisements from clinics in Bangkok and Dubai as also Cyprus, Britain and the US. For the middle class, ordering of online kits has been made easier by providing easy access to various links from trillions of internet pages. For the astrologically inclined there is a vast treasure of mantras, suitable tithis (dates) and the like, not to speak of the Chinese gender charts and ovulation advice et al.
The Supreme Court of India, responding to a PIL filed in February 2000, took a number of pro-active measures and issued appropriate directions to the authorities concerned . But the issue of Internet advertisements had, until quite recently, remained intractable - mostly due to the complex and technical ture of the operation of the net.
Unlike print or electronic media where advertisements are viewed by the entire public, the Internet facilitates direct targeting of only interested persons. Thus there is no public outrage caused when individuals in their private space access information and services and commit the crime of sex selection.
While the response of the ministries concerned had earlier been less decisive on the technical and legal aspects of the issue, the IT and health ministries have in a couple of recent hearings taken a clear and firm stand against the Internet giants. To some extent, this was also facilitated by the recent developments in the US and Europe, where these search engine giants have complied with the directions of various courts to disallow certain contents violative of local laws.
The game becomes different when these companies face Indian courts. One of the companies had initially argued that the Indian courts have no jurisdiction since their servers were located in the US. Interestingly, some of the search engine companies have stated before the US Congress that they are bound by the local laws of the destition countries.
Yet, we find these giants dragging their feet in following the directions of the Supreme Court in India - for instance, its order of December 4, 2014. One finds some of the offending advertisements not being removed from the net. On January 28, a two-judge bench gave umbiguous directions to Google, Yahoo and Microsoft that they “shall not advertise or sponsor any advertisement” that violates the law.
What should we do next? Remain vigilant and check the violations on the net and then file contempt petitions before the Supreme Court with concrete evidence through printouts and details of the route followed on the net to reach the advertisements. The violations of Supreme Court orders amount to contempt - nothing more, nothing less. We must therefore bring each contempt to the notice of the court. Eterl vigilance is the price of liberty - in the present crisis, it is the price of survival itself!
But is that the only way to be explored? No. These Internet giants also understand the language of markets and profits. After all they abet violation of the law because of profits, However, the profits of these companies come from their subscriber base. So, they sure will understand the language of consumer boycott. Imagine what will happen if civil society, college and school going girls and boys and conscientious users start putting these search engines on notice that they will discontinue using their search engines if they do not stop aiding and abetting the foeticide service providers. The search engines will surely see reason. They must be told that they have enough avenues of making money. Abetting the elimition of millions of girl children is the least honourable among these.
The Fourth Battle of Panipat has begun. These net giants, and we, their consumers, have to decide whether they stand with the daughters of India or stand against them. Let us fire the first salvo. (Satish B Agnihotri is a retired senior civil servant. The views expressed are persol. He can be contacted at sbagnihotri@ gmail.com)