Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao: Through the Trans-Himalayan Terrain

Saurabh Bisht

Introduction

The issues around, and about, women empowerment and the patriarchal nature of our country have been seeking solutions for a long time. The data from 2011 Census showed the declining Child Sex Ratio (CSR) as a continuous trend since 1961 and highlighted the inferior status, and missing preference, for a girl child in the Indian society. The worrying figures pushed the government to launch a nation-wide scheme that would sensitize families on the issue and empower the girl child of the nation. With good intentions, and great ambition, on January 22, 2015, Prime Minister Modi launched the Beti Bachao Beti Padhao campaign (save girl child, educate girl child). 

While the finance minister, Sitharaman, hailed the scheme for its ‘tremendous impact’, there are varying definitions of its impact, especially for the trans-Himalayan region, shrouded behind the mighty and lofty mountains. The aim of this research is to understand and analyse the impact of the campaign in the Indian trans Himalayan belt. The paper would further highlight how the scheme has worked on ground since its inception, the obstacles to its successful implementation and the impact it had on this culturally and geographically different population. 

Background

The trans Himalayan region of India comprises Jammu & Kashmir, Ladakh, Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh. The women of the region are known for their hard work, in the challenging and harsh life of the rugged terrain. Perhaps, being a woman holds a different meaning for them. This region, like the rest of the country, sadly follows a similar pattern of a lower CSR. 


The BBBP campaign has three major objectives: (i) Prevention of gender skewed sex selective abortion, (ii) Ensuring survival & protection of the girl child and (iii) Ensuring education and participation of the girl child. The scheme further has two major components of (i) Advocacy and Media Communication Campaign and (ii) Multi-sectoral interventions in the selected districts. Overall, the scheme aims to ensure the survival, empowerment and protection of the girl child (Diwakar & Ahmed, 2015). The scheme has been expanded to 640 districts in phases (Ministry of Women and Child Development, Government of India, 2019). To strengthen the BBBP campaign, the government has also launched Sukanya Samridhi Yojana. 

On Ground

The patriarchal nature of Indian society has always made the socio-economic position of women weak. Despite the Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act, 1994, the horrors of female foeticide still prevail. One of BBBP’s primary aim is to prevent the gender biased sex selective abortions. However, the situation on ground raises many questions on the claims of its successful implementation.

While the MoWCD claims that Uttarakhand is one of the five best performers in BBBP scheme, the stories state otherwise. As per a 2016 Civil Registration Report, the records show a decline in the Sex Ratio at Birth (SRB) for the Himalayan state, with it having the second last spot in the lowest SRB. This declining SRB, for a state that is already fighting a lower CSR, is detrimental to the very socio-economic fabric in the long run (Kaushal et al, 2019).

A 2019 Times of India report further highlighted the lack of reach of BBBP, which largely works via advocacy and media reach. It showed an alarming issue from Uttarkashi, where the months from April to June of 2019 saw not a single girl child being born in 132 villages of the district. This raised questions on the hidden malice of female foeticide in the mountains and how, and if, the campaign has made any progress in addressing the evils of sex-based abortion practices (Maini, 2019).

Although the overall socio-cultural setup of the trans Himalayan region shows positive signs of the position of women, the harsh geography has its own specific constraints. As per a 2020 report by the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), in Himachal Pradesh, some of the major obstacles identified in accessing education for girls, owing to its difficult geography, were procuring school uniforms, lack of toilet facilities, difficult commute due to lack of transport and the women’s burden of extra work of taking care of younger siblings.

Much like how Sassen (2000) talks about the transnational migration through mail-order brides, an analogous system with interstate movement of brides can be seen in the Sirmaur as well. The socio-economic stress has led to marriage migration of the women to Haryana for ‘some incentives’. The reports around these marriages often find these women in pathetic conditions (Kumar, 2018). However, instead of working on the menace, the district authorities have decided to stop the grant for BBBP for such districts. 

Perhaps the voices of the trans-Himalayan women are lost in the difficult terrains, or maybe it is the consistent slacked off attitude of the officials, and the governments, that is more difficult to level than these terrains.

Challenges

  • Administrative Challenges

Administrative challenges have been commonly identified as a major obstacle to BBBP’s effective implementation in the trans Himalayan states. In the young Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir, despite an increase in the sex ratio, from 936 in 2015 to 942 in 2019, the UT had still performed poorly in BBBP’s implementation. While many challenges unique to the UT are quoted to justify the failure of the scheme, administrative hitches are commonly identified as the root cause (Hassan, 2020). 

The uncoordinated administrative implementation, and a poor dialogue between the officials and beneficiaries, renders the campaign as a mere publicity stunt (Kapoor, 2017). BBBP in Chamoli has lost its impetus in the tussle between the local residents and the government officials. While the locals blame the slacked nature of the government officials, the officials blame the dearth of budget allocation. The missing awareness, political tussle, knowledge gaps and need of multiple documents to avail the benefits, working with slacked off administrations, hampers the flow of the scheme to the intended beneficiaries.

  • Fund (under)Utilisation

The utilisation, and underutilisation, of the funds has further clamped down the implementation capacity of the campaign. Though it has advocacy and multimedia as two of its major components, from its inception till the year 2020, 72.6% of the funds of the scheme were used for publicity only (Pavithra, 2020). In Jammu & Kashmir, until the year 2019, the administration had only implemented 50% of the allocated funds under the scheme (Hassan, 2020). Furthermore, for 2015-20, only 5 states were able to utilise 80% of their funds, none of them were from the trans-Himalayan belt (Pavithra, 2020).

The idea of empowerment is dependent upon resource and power sharing and, hence, is not absolute (Kumar, 2019). However, when the community in consideration lacks the former, if not both, there is little left to share and be empowered from. The trans-Himalayan belt has a dearth of resources and the socio-cultural pattern is vividly different from those of the plains. The scarcity of financial resources, lack of infrastructure and institutions of empowerment, like schools and hospitals, setup in a very patriarchal society renders the idea of empowerment futile.

  • Low Online Engagement

There is an undeniable importance of digital and infrastructural connectivity as the prerequisites for the BBBP campaign since it largely depends on publicity-based awareness. Though various government departments have marked their entry in social media, the low rate of engagement in the Himalayan spaces makes the dissemination of information an ordeal (Rawat, 2018). The officials are a major source of communicating information in these regions since the rate of digital engagement is low for most of the region’s rural areas.

As an added burden to poor digital awareness in rural Himalayas, the 2020 NCAER report found that none of the interviewed officials in Himachal Pradesh could answer the aims of the BBBP campaign, which raises grave questions on the success of a scheme that revolves around awareness through information dissemination.

The poor penetration of the campaign results in sustenance of social beliefs and religious taboos which restrict the social position of women (Kumari, 2017). The unaddressed irrational taboos often develop as brakes to the momentum of the scheme, as can be seen in Sel, a village in Pithoragarh district of Uttarakhand. In an attempt to not let the menstruating girls pollute a temple, which was on their way to school, the girls in the village were not allowed to attend school in their periods. This amounted to them missing classes for 60 to 80 days in a year, depriving the girls of social and educational empowerment, the two major aims of BBBP. 

  • Absent Media

Owing to the difficult geography, the social evils in the trans Himalayan states seldom find space in media and are often overshadowed by the limited media attention to defense and tourism. Hence, most of the stories that entail gender-based challenges do not find their way outside of this belt. While the issues and failures of the campaign in Haryana and Punjab are much talked about, the lack of equal media coverage, to similar issues in different geographies, simply widens the difference between the social status of genders and alienates the Himalayan women even more.

The effect of a largely absent media, and connectivity, allows the authorities to shape solutions based on their personal sense of justice to such grave issues. When the issue was presented to the village authorities of Sel, they, instead of addressing a regressive mentality, developed an alternative path for these girls to reach school. Similar stories echo from Pancheshwar Valley and from many other remote Himalayan villages (Shekhawat, 2019). The questions of the ‘tremendous success’ of BBBP get even more serious here, with all these reports from the same year of 2019, when ironically, Uttarakhand was named as one of the best performing states for the campaign.

  • Disadvantaged Communities

The women, from the economically weaker communities and scheduled tribes, of the trans Himalayan region suffer from a gender-based discrimination even in food distribution. Preference is given in nourishing a male child over a female child in the households. The trans Himalayan states are also home to many such tribes and communities. The women of the Gaddi tribe of Himachal Pradesh are few of the many victims of this skewed food distribution, resulting in their poor health status (Saini, 2020). Malnutrition affects more than 50% of the population of the Hindu Kush Himalayas and its weight is heavier on women (Saboor et al, 2019).

The trans Himalayan region has different dynamics of the kinship structure, characterised with a higher women labor participation and education for women compared to the rest of the country (Miller, 1990). But despite the better labour participation and/or education of women, they too are not safe from the disease of gender-based discrimination. The socio-cultural nuances sprouting from a different geography need to be explored before making implementation plans for these unique communities.

Way Forward

One of the best ways to assess the impact of BBBP is to have an independent monitoring and evaluation committee/agency, which continuously evaluates the program’s outcomes and impact. A comprehensive evaluation would not just allow a deeper understanding about the impact of the campaign, but would also allow the program to be tailored in context of the unique geographies and culture of the trans-Himalayan states. This would also allow the program design to comprehensively look at the above-mentioned challenges, and how they can be addressed in a manner that is efficient, effective and acceptable.

There is also a need to sensitize the implementors as well as the targeted communities, while also working on ways to lessen the differences between the two, to pave the way for an easier dialogue between the administration and public.

Further, there is a much deeper need for the program to create a platform for more women, and communities, to come forward and participate. Here, the local communities and groups along with non-government organizations and civil society organizations have a potentially expansive role to play. Furthermore, BBBP needs to be streamlined and incorporated with other parallel programs of skill development, education, employment and social empowerment, for it to make an impact, beyond its instruments of advocacy and media reach.

Conclusion

The Himalayan women, too, are a victim of gender-based discrimination which can be seen in the prevailing ill practices like the unequal food distribution at home, religious tabboos and the low CSR. While some of the girls do not even find the opportunity of being born, those who find it, do not always get to enjoy it. Though the BBBP campaign aims to empower the Indian women, it misses on addressing the unique social and cultural challenges native to the trans Himalayan belt. Despite the better status of the Himalayan women, their challenges and fight for gender equality is no different. 

The impediments, owing to the rugged geography and a less explored culture, limits the BBBP campaign’s capacity. The lack of personnel, infrastructure, and the inadequate & underreported, if not negligible, research on the critical impact of the campaign, and other gender-based issues, highlight how the region is seldom looked beyond the aspects of military and tourism. While the trans-Himalayan women share the extra burden of a rugged terrain, an effective implementation of the campaign can potentially help these mountain communities to be more aware, involved and equitable. 

Footnotes

  1.  Child Sex Ratio (CSR) is defined as the number of females per thousand males for the age group of 0 to 6.
  2. The CSR of India was 976 in 1961, 927 in 2001 and 918 in 2011.
  3. Beti Bachao Beti Padhao will be henceforth referred to as BBBP
  4. The scheme is jointly run by the Ministry of Women and Child Development, Ministry of Health & Family Welfare and Ministry of Education.
  5.  Among the three trans Himalayan states, only Himachal Pradesh showed a positive CSR from 2001 to 2011.
  6. The Ministry of Women and Child Development will be henceforth referred to as MoWCD.
  7. Sukanya Samridhi Yojana is a small deposit scheme intended for the girl child. It fetches the depositor a yearly interest rate of 9.10%, also providing the depositor an income tax rebate.
  8. The Pre-Conception and Pre-Natal Diagnostic Techniques (PCPNDT) Act of 1994 has banned prenatal sex determination to stop female foeticides and arrest the declining sex ratio in India. 
  9. Uttarkashi is a district of Uttarakhand.
  10. The National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) is a non-profit think tank of economics based in New Delhi.
  11.  Sirmaur is a district of Himachal Pradesh.
  12.  Union Territory will be henceforth referred to as UT.
  13. Chamoli is a district in Uttarakhand’s Kumaon region.
  14. Gaddi is a Scheduled Tribe of Himachal Pradesh and is primarily found in its Chamba district.
  15. The trans Himalayan region is also a part of the Hindu Kush Himalayas which stretch over 3500 kilometers across eight countries.

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Saurabh Bisht is a final year student of M.A. in Public Policy at Jindal School of Government and Public Policy, O. P. Jindal Global University. 

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