Some good news for a change!

Finding a feel-good piece of news in the papers is nothing short of finding the proverbial needle in the haystack these days. Which is why I was pleasantly surprised to read this article in the Times of India – ‘Govt offers Rs 1L if girl turns 18‘.

Excerpts:

“In a serious bid to save the girl child, government has decided to launch a scheme which will provide upto Rs 1.4 lakh each to families of girl child in 10 poorest districts and worst gender ratio in 5 states, including Punjab and Haryana, where female infanticide is rampant.

… Under the scheme of “Conditional Cash Transfer”, government will provide cash transfers on conditions, such as Rs 5,000 at birth and registration of the girl; Rs 500 after every three months for immunization; Rs 2,500 at the time of enrolling in school; and Rs 1,000 every year till completion of primary school; … and cash transfer for remaining unmarried at the age of 18 years.”

Female infanticide is seldom a subject of discussion in my social circle in India, so I cannot speak from personal experience, but from all published accounts the dipping gender ratio is a growing concern in many parts of rural India today and I am glad our government has finally come up with a creative solution to fight this social menace. I remember watching a shocking movie called ‘Matrubhoomi’ on this subject sometime back and although I felt repelled by it’s brutal and hard-hitting approach at that time, the bitter truth might well be that it’s premise is not as far-fetched as we might want to believe.

Why are we even discussing this issue in this day and age? Why aren’t daughters equally valued in Indian society even today? Is it because in the land where characters in saas-bahu (in-law) dramas still spout clichés like ‘Hum beti ke ghar ka paani tak nahi peete!’ (We don’t drink even a drop of water from our daughter’s home!), parents of daughters worry about who will look after them in their old age? I would definitely beg to differ in that case.

My grandfather, who had three sons and one daughter, was happiest spending a majority of the last ten years of his life at his married daughter’s home. Yes, he argued often with his daughter, perhaps more than he ever argued with all three of his daughters-in-law put together, but he also felt most comfortable in her home. After all, who else but a daughter (and perhaps a mother) can both argue and lovingly admonish in the same breath?

(I am not demeaning the in-law relationship here, simply pointing out the closeness of the parent-daughter bond. And before someone points out that it’s the son’s home too, not just the daughter-in-law’s, I agree, but how involved are men in the nitty-gritty’s of running a home anyway? And how many sons are good at articulating their emotions with anyone? I am glad if you have had a different experience, my own experience definitely has been the more traditional one in that case.)

So is the preference for sons merely because daughters are considered ‘paraya dhan’? (This one is difficult to translate, but let’s call it ‘another’s property’, shocking though that may sound, shall we?) Someone who has to marry into a different family one day and therefore cannot carry on the family name and traditions? My guess, however, is that the reasons are more to do with simple economics than family pride.

If I am right, then the root cause of all this would be the shocking practice of giving and taking dowry that is common in many educated and so-called enlightened Indian families even today. Note that I mention both giving and taking – I firmly believe that people who meekly give in to dowry demands are as much to blame as the ones who shamelessly ask for it. Till a while ago, I was under the false impression that dowry as a common practice in urban middle-class India had been relegated to weepy social dramas from the 80’s and 90’s. I stand rudely corrected today.

An elderly lady from our hometown was in Mumbai during my India vacation last November to fix her grandson’s wedding. She was here for a formal meeting between the elders from both families to discuss the ‘wedding arrangements’ wherein the girl’s side offered to ‘give their girl’ x tolas of gold, I am told. Oh, anything is fine with us, but perhaps 2x tolas might make your girl happier, they were advised. (Note the subtle emphasis on ‘making your girl happy’ here!)

When I expressed my shock and disbelief after this incident, I was silenced with a glare and told – Your marriage was a ‘love-marriage’ and hence different, this is the normal script of most pre-wedding talks otherwise. The saddest part is that I had only the greatest love and respect for this lady until then, which makes it even more difficult for me to understand such behavior coming from her. And the guy whose marriage was being discussed is a bright and well-educated young man, perfectly capable of earning enough to support himself and his wife. (Assuming his wife chooses not to work, of course.)

Why, then, did he need to begin his married life leaning on the crutches of his in-laws’ money? Sure, if his in-laws want to gift him or his wife something out of the goodness of their hearts, he should accept their token of love with good grace. But what kind of a person asks for gifts? And what kind of respect can he expect to get from his wife and her family after such an incident?

I remember a colleague from my former workplace, one of the top software companies in India, boasting about his perceived ‘value’ in the marriage market back home. Software engineers are in great demand these days, we can get as much as a cool crore, he’d proudly tell us. Even more than IAS officers, he’d happily add! I never took him seriously then, but am now inclined to believe he must have meant it, after all. He sent me his marriage invitation card recently. Although I still wish him well as a friend, I felt absolutely no desire to congratulate him on his wedding. There are some situations that render us totally speechless, I guess.

As an aside, just as demands for dowry are cleverly couched in politically correct words like ‘gifting your daughter’ and explained away with a dismissive – this is the way things are always done, a lot of the slights against women in middle-class urban Indian society happen in ways so subtle and difficult to explain that anyone protesting against them is sure to end up being ridiculed as a paranoid feminist rabble-rouser.

To give you a simple example, I am told my father distributed pedhas when I was born. Some of his friends chided him for distributing pedhas when a girl child was born – you should distribute barfis instead, he was told. (Both pedhas and barfis are traditional Indian sweets.) Why this distinction, I wonder? Is there a hidden message in this so-called ‘tradition’? Are pedhas more expensive or more exclusive and therefore of higher perceived valued than barfis? Or am I being paranoid and reading too much into a simple social norm?

The trouble, as I was saying before, is that these distinctions are so subtle and cleverly cloaked under the guise of ‘tradition’, that it’s difficult to pick one and conclusively say this is a form of discrimination, not just a tradition. I have been through this rigmarole on so many occasions with my own family – starting with ‘Why should I change my surname?’ and ‘Why shouldn’t my children take my name?’ to ‘Why should I be the one to make rotis everyday?’ – that I’ve come to think of it as a pretty futile battle, at least in my own case.

Although to be fair to my parents and the husband, I’ve occasionally come up with such silly gems like ‘Why should I be the one who gets pregnant?’, so it’s not as if I’m trying to paint them as the villain of the piece here. I just feel thankful that I have never been (and am sure will never be) subjected to any of the more obvious and troublesome forms of distinction that so many of my countrywomen are subjected to daily, thus making my peace with the situation and learning to move on with my life.

Okay, enough of digression! Coming back to the original article, I am glad our government is finally taking some positive steps to tackle the disturbing problem of female infanticide. And I particularly like the idea of spacing out the cash awards – a reward for giving birth to a daughter, another for educating her and one more for not marrying her off as soon as possible – individually rewarding each sign of good parental behavior, so to speak. Ek teer aur bahut nishanen, wah wah! (One arrow and multiple targets, yippee!)

Now I just hope this policy will be as successful in implementation as I think it has been in formulation. I am inclined to believe it might actually work, assuming it is enforced, of course. One of my father’s very good friends, the son of poor migrant laborers in rural South India, is now a tenured professor at a distinguished Canadian university. The only reason he went to school in the first place, he claims, is because of the free food and milk he would get there. Going by the same logic, this sort of ‘carrot-based enforcement’ should have a pretty good chance at success, I think.

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