Sting Operators

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Handheld by an NGO, they are out to expose doctors who aid sex selection
With Diwali barely a few days away, her chores seem to multiply by the hour. As she deftly plonks her two-month-old boy on the corner of a bed only to stop the other two—her two-year-old son and three-and-a-half-year-old daughter—from dropping crumbs of Parle-G biscuits all around the room she shares with her husband and five children, Sanju comes across as a harried wife who grumbles about cleaning the house in time for the festival, smearing the mud floor with cowdung lipai, and frets about her husband’s state of unemployment in the same breath. “He has a double MA, but his elder brother refused to shell out the money needed to pay the agent for a government job,” she says unhappily, “He occasionally works as a daily wage labourer now.”

Sanju’s complaints veer towards the elder brother’s wife, who she alleges is too lazy to help with housework. “This is despite the fact that I had a vasectomy done barely a month back and the doctor clearly asked me to avoid heavy household work,” Sanju says, her voice lowered, as she picks up the newborn for a feed.

The ‘lazy’ wife of the elder brother walks in with a toothy smile as Sanju begins telling me her story of the sting operation conducted by a doctor and his hospital in Jaipur. “I was five months pregnant then, but I had a lot of fun doing it,” says Sanju, recounting her role as an undercover operative. She had to make several trips, travelling three hours back and forth between Jaipur and her sleepy village in Jhunjhunu district of Rajasthan, in the scorching heat of May this summer.

She was among several pregnant women of her village and others nearby who were asked to volunteer for a sting operation after a surprise visit by officials of Rajasthan’s health department charged with putting an end to the practice of sex-selective abortions in a state notorious for female foeticide. In the 2011 Census, Rajasthan recorded the lowest child sex ratio in the 0-6 age-group, of only 883 girls for every 1,000 boys, of all states in the country.

The state health unit’s Pre Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PNDT) cell was working in collaboration with a local NGO called Shikshit Rozgar Kendriya Prabhandhak Samiti (SRKPS), which is funded by Plan India, a larger NGO based in Delhi. To expose criminal malpractice, SRKPS activists have been enlisting pregnant women—usually in their first trimester—from villages and slums, and then training them to play decoys to trap sex-determination and abortion clinics that have no qualms carrying out the deed to make a buck. The incentive for the pregnant women is a free sonography, medical care and a safe delivery assured at local government hospital. For women like Sanju, it is also a means of stepping out of the house and doing the world a good turn.

Once ready for the decoy act, the women and activists work together on fixing an appointment with a diagnostic doctor for a sonography meant for sex selection. The pregnant volunteer shows up at the diagnostic clinic, asks for a sonogram, demands to know her foetus’ gender, and, if female, pretends to want a safai—an abortion. If the clinician reveals the sex and/or agrees, both of which are illegal, the NGO’s activist serves as a witness for a case against those guilty, who are charged with violation of India’s Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act of 1994. Spycam footage and audio recordings are gathered as evidence to be presented in court.

Sanju’s role in the sting operation led the government to nab one doctor and two touts involved in a racket of conducting tests on pregnant women to ascertain the sex of the foetus. She was accompanied by Pooja Kumavat, 24, an NGO activist who pretended to be her sister-in-law and did all the talking with agents and doctors. After a failed sting on a doctor who chased them away, Sanju realised that she had to appear more confident. “I was nervous the first time and fumbled in answering questions about my case,” she says. The next time round, she began by changing her attire. “I dressed up in a sari [as opposed to a ghagra-choli to look like a woman from Jaipur and not a village,” she says. “I partly grew up in the city, so I knew what Jaipur women look like.” But the task at hand was still not easy, as the second doctor was operating via a network of agents, one of whom was a midwife at a government hospital. “She was hard to convince,” says Sanju, “She took me to her house a couple of times without Pooja, and would grill me over every [falsely written] detail on the form. She took us to the second agent in line only after she was convinced herself.”

This agent promised her medicines that she claimed would turn the foetus male even if it happened to be female. “I stood my ground, kept calm and also taped all conversations on the recorder hidden in my blouse,” she says excitedly. It took about three weeks to have a diagnostic doctor conduct an ultrasound test, but this doctor walked out without saying a word. “The agent came back to me and asked me to buy him sweets as the news was good—I was expecting a boy,” she says, putting her baby aside on the bed.

While the whole exercise was recorded and videographed with a spycam hidden in a keychain, Sanju and Pooja had to shell out an additional Rs 2,000 for the ‘good’ news. They had already paid the agents and doctor a total of Rs 15,000 (a typical session of sonography costs between Rs 1,000 and Rs 1,200). The money was later recovered from the three who are currently facing charges under the PCPNDT Act.

The Act was amended in 2003 to turn it more stringent. Its provisions now allow for tabs to be kept on unregistered ultrasound machines, for example. While the amended act insists that ultrasound test records be kept for seven years (including the essential Form ‘F’ that carries data on 19 parameters about every female patient that the doctor receives), activists say that such documents only amount to circumstantial evidence in prosecuting the guilty. After all, the papers make no mention of gender.

“These are white collar crimes and the best way to catch a perpetrator is to catch him or her red-handed,” says Delhi-based gynaecologist Puneet Bedi, who has been an activist against sex selection for nearly three decades now, “The onus of proving innocence then lies on the doctor.”

Sting operations are a reliable way to establish guilt. The first known operation against sex selection was conducted by journalist Seema Paul for The Telegraph in 1994. It was done in Delhi. There have been a series of stings conducted since. Of the 21 stings conducted in Rajasthan in collaboration with the state government, 18 were done by SRKPS and the rest by other NGOs and activists.

“There is a provision in the Act that allows for sting operations, wherein government officials of the PNDT cell can book a doctor,” says Bedi, “This has helped make things easier.” According to him, the records to be kept under the Act are restricted to ultrasound tests. “They do not keep track of OPD patients and that’s where most of the dealings happen. Sting operations are handy then.”

The modus operandi was also used to dramatic effect by TV journalists Shripal Shaktawat and Meena Sharma, who filmed doctor after doctor brazenly flouting the Act by doing sex tests in Rajasthan, Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh. Captured on tape in 2005 and 2006, the errant doctors escaped the law at the time, but once their cases got a burst of publicity through Aamir Khan’s TV show Satyamev Jayate, 21 of them were finally booked in Rajasthan. Prompted by a visit by the actor himself, the government swung into action, setting up a police station and fast-track court in Jaipur to deal specifically with these cases.

In an effort to encourage such exposés, the state government offers an incentive of Rs 1 lakh to anyone who brings the crime to light. “We are now planning to increase it to Rs 2 lakh,” says Kishanaram Easharwal, who heads the state unit of the PNDT cell. Of that sum, 20 per cent would be set aside for government officials participating in the raids, “as it takes a lot of effort to fight political pressure”.

The rest would be for the pregnant woman who volunteers as a decoy. “It will be given out in phases,” he adds, “to ensure that the witness stays with us till all court proceedings are completed.”

Yet, much more needs be done to generate awareness against female foeticide, says Rajan Choudhary, a journalist who started SRKPS. “We live in a biased society,” he says, “Jaipur has the lowest sex ratio [among Rajasthan’s cities] at 852 according to the 2011 Census. It is the medical fraternity that has to take responsibility. But doctors openly flout norms and exert political clout when we conduct such operations.” He recalls an incident in Navalgarh district where villagers and local politicians had gheraoed the team of officials who had come to arrest the guilty doctor after a sting operation. “We had to make sure that the pregnant volunteer was safe because such situations of stress can also lead to a miscarriage,” he says.

Of the 562 cases registered against doctors under the Act in Rajasthan since 2003, Easharwal admits that barring one doctor who was jailed for two months in March, most cases still await justice as they grind their way through the judicial process. “It is a bailable offence,” he says. Plus, “there is political clout to deal with, because we are going against the basic mentality of this society that places [enormous] importance on having a male child.”

There is some good news, though. “The fast-track court will soon get a magistrate to deal with the cases,” says Easharwal, “Once that is done, the judicial process should be faster.”

Sitting in her rather sparse one-room apartment that she recently moved into, Pooja Kumavat has a bundle of stories to tell of sting operations. Of how she once had to change her look by wearing glasses and heavy make-up, for example, and how she was spooked by the sonography room at a tout’s residence. She has pulled off four successful traps since she joined SRKPS last year in a bid to escape marriage and lead a single’s life in the city.

Her last operation was her toughest—and most thrilling. “I nearly got caught because the officials were stuck in traffic and we had to make sure that the clinician was caught red-handed in the act,” she says. “I kept texting and messaging them, hiding in the bathroom or balcony, apart from comforting the pregnant volunteer whose blood sugar was plummeting with stress mounting.”

Luckily, the officials reached in the nick of time and the sting worked out well at the end. “Now I know that I am capable of pulling off the toughest decoys well,” she says.

Pooja earns about Rs 24,000 a month and recently used her salary to have a Lasik surgery done and get rid of her glasses. Her job responsibilities include hunting for information and identifying suspects among hospitals and clinicians. “It takes months to find a clinic and establish a connect with them,” she says, “I often pose as an agent, promising to get clients on board for a commission.”

Each assignment means a new set of stories to fabricate, a new look and a new volunteer. She keeps an ear out and stays in touch with a network of friends and relatives to spot candidates. Of course, the family’s consent is a must.

Both the volunteer and her husband have to sign an affidavit promising not to abort the foetus in case it is not of the desired sex. Pooja then counsels and prepares them for the game. “We go through information down to the last detail, right from name to number of children, etcetera, so that [doctors and agents] don’t get suspicious,” she says. “Often, both volunteers have to ensure that the doctor reveals the sex of the child coherently for it to [be heard] on record. We need to think on our feet.”

Munni didi, as she is widely known in Jhunjhunu, is a community volunteer who scouts for pregnant women willing to act as decoys. A community worker with government projects for several years, Munni keeps abreast of pregnancies in her network of about 10 villages in the area. “I keep tabs on young girls getting married, having babies or in need of gynaecological help.” While her relatives keep her updated on their neighbourhoods, she spends a lot of time chattering with women of all ages. She says it helps to keep mothers-in-law in good humour just so that they let the daughters-in-law sign up as decoys.

While Munni Didi ensures that all women volunteers file proper affidavits promising not to undergo abortions, she admits that she often has to turn counsellor in case a woman who finds she is carrying a girl child is tempted to do exactly what the battle is against. Such things happen. She cites the odd case in Jaipur of a woman who wanted a male foetus aborted because she already had a son and was upset about having to find two daughters-in-law for her sons once they grew up. “The skewed sex ratio has placed a huge premium on brides in Rajasthan,” explains Munni, “Often, it is very expensive to source a bride for a son. She was hoping to have a daughter and exchange her for a bride for a son later, when getting them married. We had to threaten her with a police arrest to prevent her from getting the baby aborted.”

Not just that, she says that they keep decoys under watch after the sting operation is over to make sure that they comply with court proceedings, as planned, and do not sneakily opt for a safai, as the local euphemism goes.

Most pregnant volunteers claim that they have joined the struggle for a good cause, with the incentives as fringe benefits, though they also admit they like the privilege of knowing their babies’ gender before they are born. Priyanka, 23, a first-time mother, says that knowing the sex of the child gives her “tasalli” (reassurance) of the future. “When the doctor told me that my result was ‘negative’, meaning a girl, I knew that I had to try again for a child,” she says. It was no accident that Sanju underwent a tubectomy right after the birth of her second son. She has three daughters, the eldest being eight years old. “It helped me make a choice,” she says.

Note: A correction was made to the article after it was published