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The ground zero of India's 'gendercide'

Sex-selective abortions are on the increase, despite having been banned 20 years ago

At the nursery school established by Usha Gehlot in the Indian town of Jhajjar, there are toys, books, brightly-painted walls, and very few little girls. "In last year's intake, of a total of 59 pupils, 43 were boys," said the headteacher, running a pen down a column in the handwritten register book. "We feel in our classes that we have more boys than girls. We feel sad about it. It's part of the culture."

Jhajjar is the frontline of what some have termed India's "gendercide", a preference for sons and an attendant offensive against daughters that has led to a sharply skewed gender imbalance. Preliminary results from a new census have found that for every 1,000 young boys in India, there are just 914 young girls. In Jhajjar – which has the worst record – the number is just 774.

The reasons for the gender imbalance in India and elsewhere in south Asia are complex and historic. Many patriarchal communities traditionally prefer sons because they will inherit a family's wealth without it being "married" into another family, because it is believed they will better care for elderly parents and because a family will earn a dowry upon a son's marriage, rather than having to pay one out for a daughter's. This has led to widespread sex-selective abortion – officially banned two decades ago – which has increased as ultrasound machines have become cheaper and more ubiquitous. Nowadays a test can be had for less than £150.

What is particularly disturbing for campaigners is that the gender imbalance appears to be worst in some of India's most prosperous states, undermining claims that education and economic prosperity are determining factors. Worse still, the census suggests the situation has got worse rather than better in the past 10 years. "It's extremely alarming and everybody should be worried," said Girija Vyas, head of India's National Commission for Women.

Jhajjar, which serves as a dusty hub for surrounding farms and villages, is situated barely 40 miles from Delhi and its satellite Gurgaon, the so-called Millennium City that has become known for its call centres and international companies housed in tall, glass-fronted offices. On the way, broken roads pass through recently harvested wheat fields and the smoking chimneys of rudimentary brick factories. It was here that Mrs Gehlot set up her Kidz nursery school several years ago, inspired by the fact that she could find nowhere suitable for her son. She quickly came face-to-face with the area's sharp gender imbalance. "In that first batch I had four boys and one girl. The boys would try to push her and she complained to her parents that she did not want to come," she said. "I think such a situation makes the girls more aggressive."

Activists say India's skewed population is storing up a series of social problems for the future. Sexual assaults, crime and the role of women in society will all be issues that have to be addressed. But for the people of Jhajjar and other communities where men outnumber women, there is already a pressing practical problem – a shortage of brides.

At a tea shop on the edge of town, locals told how many young men were unable to marry or else had to pay for brides illegally trafficked from other states. Many come from the south of India or else the eastern state of Bihar. Among the customers was Kishore Saini, a councillor who happened to send his two children – both boys – to Mrs Gehlot's school.

Asked to list the main problems confronting Jhajjar, the councillor, a member of India's ruling Congress Party, quickly reeled off sewage, potable water and employment. Asked if the gender imbalance was an issue, he replied: "I don't think it's a big social problem... Before, people were having four or five children. Now they have just one or two and they want to make sure it's a boy."

The state police say they are doing what they can to confront those who break a 1994 law that prohibits the use of ultrasound machines to determine a foetus's gender. Inspector Ajmer Singh said the gender imbalance was a "really worrisome issue". Every week he dispatches female constables undercover to maternity clinics to try and discover if any are offering sex determination tests or abortion. In a society with fewer women, men would behave "worse than animals", he added.

However, during the past 12 months no evidence has been found and no charges filed. Inspector Singh was unable to provide the names of clinics that had been investigated and said he believed any ultrasound tests or abortions were being performed outside of his district. "I don't think that it's happening here," he added.

Such a claim appears questionable. Almost everyone in Jhajjar says they know about the use of ultrasound testing and selective abortion, and some say relatives have aborted female foetuses. In a few minutes, locals offered up the names of several clinics said to offer such services.

At the first, The Independent's female translator, posing as a pregnant woman seeking an abortion, was directed to a second clinic where she was told she would be dealt with. There, her mobile phone was examined in case it was recording the conversation, and she was told by a doctor's assistant: "Why have you come here? You will get us both in jail."

Later, the assistant, Hema Lata, shook with nerves as she insisted that no abortions were performed there. "The situation is really strict now. I am so scared about all of this," she said. Local officials say they are trying to address the issue. The education department puts on plays and street theatre to try to highlight the benefits of healthy, well-educated daughters. Bharat Singh, the district's chief medical officer, said he had recommended several initiatives to counter the use of ultrasound machines for sex determination, including a ban on mobile clinics. Yet one of Mr Singh's claims about a purported local genetic disposition for baby boys would raise the eyebrows of most experts.

"In the south of the state where there are Jats and Rajput [caste communities]. people are martial and the possibility for male children is stronger," he claimed.

The Indian government says the census that shows worst gender gap since independence in 1947 is of pressing concern and the Home Secretary, Gopal Pillai, has called for a "complete review" of the current policies designed to deal with the imbalance. Yet many campaigners question the willingness of politicians to address the issue.

Just this week, a federal minister, Farooq Abdullah, attempted to make light of the matter when he told a forum: "The day is not far when there will be no girls to marry and we'll all become gays. That might happen."

Mrs Gehlot, who said she pushes her girl pupils to be the best in her classes, is not the only person in Jhajjar who is standing up for the rights of young women.

At a junction close to the entrance of town, Parmood Dhankhad had just seen his daughter off to school. His grandfather had owned 20 acres but that land had been split when it was divided, first to his sons and then his grandsons. Mr Dhankhad, 42, said he expected to end up with just 1.5 acres – "not enough".

His 11-year-old daughter was his only child, he said, and he had brought her up alone after his wife's death. Each month he spent around a quarter of his income sending her to a private school, albeit not Mrs Gehlot's. "Every parent wants to give the best to their child," he said. "We never discussed the gender, it was whatever God sent."