Law to curb female foeticide turns into farce
Lawyers and activists have unanimously demanded deterrent punishment for the guilty while also fixing the accountability of the competent authorities handling the cases of sex detection.
Blame it on unaccountability of authorities, the PNDT Act – which was enacted to curb female foeticide and arrest the declining gender ratio in India – has turned into a farce.
In nearly two decades since the law came into force, not a single convict has been imprisoned in the Capital. Various trial courts in Delhi have shied away from awarding the maximum punishment to offenders and instead let off the convicts with a nominal fine of Rs 1,000. The PNDT Act provides for a maximum punishment of three-year jail term and a penalty of up to Rs 50,000.
Despite rulings by the Supreme Court and various high courts to make the existing law a deterrent, the courts have shown their reluctance in sending the offenders to jail. In many cases, the convicts have been let off with a mere warning by the judge, prompting reaction from the legal fraternity as well as social and academic activists. Lawyers and activists have unanimously demanded deterrent punishment for the guilty while also fixing the accountability of the competent authorities handling the cases of sex detection.
Information provided by Delhi government’s health department in response to an RTI application suggests that 31 out of 52 cases under PNDT Act are pending in various Delhi courts. However, in the remaining 21 cases disposed of by courts, no convict has been awarded jail term since 1996, when the Act was enforced. RTI applicant and activist Dr Mitu Khurana said the police and state government were equally responsible for making the law a “toothless tiger”. “It is apparent that the prosecuting agencies are not taking these cases seriously and the fact is well known to offenders. There is no fear of law as it has failed to be a deterrent,” Khurana said. In a majority of the cases disposed of by the trial courts, the prosecuting agencies chose not to appeal before the higher courts and thus adding to the plight of victims.
To mention a few cases, a magisterial court at Rohini in the national Capital disposed of four cases under PNDT Act in May this year. In three of these cases, convicts were imposed a meagre fine of `1,000 while in another case the offender walked free with just a warning. According to the RTI response, three cases in Rohini and Tis Hazari courts were disposed of after the prosecuting agencies withdrew from the case citing inability to establish the charge. Similarly, the Dwarka district court discharged the accused owing to failure of the prosecution.
The data shows that 20 cases under PNDT Act are pending for over a decade even as the Supreme Court has directed the lower courts to decide such cases within six months. The RTI response reveals that a number of cases dealt with non-maintenance of record of ultrasound done on pregnant women, mandatory under the Act. The Gujarat High Court has ruled that non-maintenance of record by genetic clinics or diagnostic centres amounted to pre-birth sex detections.
Delhi University professor and an academic-activist, Bijayalaxmi Nanda, said the competent authorities should be made accountable for lapses. “Female foeticide and girl child neglect must be treated as a national emergency. The rulebook does not allow minor penalties for sex detection. The authorities must be made accountable,” she said. Nanda, a former member of Delhi state supervisory board on PNDT matters, rued that the suggestions and recommendations of the board were hardly heeded to.
Legal experts too pointed out that the maximum punishment under the law needed to be enhanced through amendment to instill a fear in the offenders. Senior criminal lawyer and Delhi Bar Council chairman KK Manan said that in order to make the law a deterrent, courts must award maximum punishment.
“Courts must ensure a strict penalty to offenders. This can be done by amending the existing provisions. The Bar Council of Delhi will take up the matter with the Delhi High Court to issue necessary directions to the lower courts and expedite trial in such cases,” Manan said.