The government in India's Punjab state is investigating the possible involvement of state officials in setting up illegal clinics and ultrasound centres accused of female foeticide.
Last week, a surprise raid by police and health officials in the town of Patran in Patiala district unearthed a 10-metre (30-foot) well - located behind a private clinic - which contained the remains of at least 50 female foetuses. The discovery provoked the largest ever campaign against female foeticide across the state's 23 districts. Punjab has the lowest sex ratio in the country and there are 776 girls for every 1,000 boys in the state up to the age of six years.
All district and local officials have been instructed by the government to carry out regular surprise checks on clinics and centres offering ultrasound testing, Dr Harinder Rana, the state's director of health services and family welfare, said. "We are very serious about sorting out this problem," she said. The owners of Sahib Hospital in Patran were arrested last Wednesday. They have been charged on various counts under laws prohibiting pre-natal sex-determination tests and termination of pregnancy, where the unborn child is known to be a girl.
Galvanised into action by the horrifying spectacle of decomposing foetuses and subsequent reports in local newspapers and television channels, squads of police and health officials conducted simultaneous raids on dozens of private hospitals and ultrasound centres.
The raids are specifically targeting smaller clinics, many located in nondescript, small townships and settlements, like Sahib Hospital. "I have directed my men to seal all unauthorised hospitals and diagnostic centres," the civil surgeon responsible for health services in the district, Virender Singh Mohi, said.
"Regular, monthly raids are being made mandatory so that we can remain on top of things."
And even though the raids - conducted across Punjab and a few locations in the neighbouring state of Haryana - have so far failed to yield any results, officials are firm on carrying the campaign forward.
Acting on information given by a midwife, Puja, who first blew the whistle on the allegedly illegal activities at Sahib Hospital, police and health officials excavated a second deep well on the premises of Sahib Hospital last Friday.
After digging for six hours, workers recovered what appeared to be numerous skeletal remains of babies and several pieces of blood-soaked cloth. These have been collected and sent for analysis at a government medical college.
Meanwhile, some officials associated with this drive have received death threats. Mr Mohi told the police he received several phone calls in which people threatened to kill him if he continued the raids on private hospitals. "There are very strong and influential vested interests in keeping this illegal practice going in Punjab," he said. Darshan Kumar Singla, a local journalist in Patran, says "although everyone is aware this is illegal, most people do not think anything about aborting a female child and trying again for a boy. "Female foeticide is rampant in all the small towns here. Most nursing homes do such work at night and everybody - the police, the health authorities and the civil administration - knows this is happening.
"Everyone is now sitting up and taking note only because the foetuses in the well became too public to ignore," he said. Pritam Singh, the owner of Sahib Hospital who is under arrest, also agrees that people prefer boys and would do anything to ensure the birth of a son. "The primary cause is the popular mindset. Ultrasound centres and nursing homes only respond to the people's need out of greed. "The only thing that could really end this problem is a firm end to the system of dowry," Mr Singh said from his cell at the local police station.
People in Punjab have traditionally shown a preference for sons, which experts say is driven by both an intensely patriarchal mindset and the system of dowry. Adult men here substantially outnumber women.
Experts say this sharply skewed trend is highly dangerous. Pramod Kumar, who heads the Institute for Development and Communication in the capital, Chandigarh, says although the recovery of foetuses at Patran and subsequent raids across the state are significant, this cannot be a sustaining solution to the age-old problem. "Enforcement without accompanying cultural and social interventions will merely serve to push the problem below the ground. "The single-focus approach of widespread police action will only make sex determination tests and illegal abortions more surreptitious and expensive. This will not end the problem," he said.
The police raids are nevertheless continuing and Mr Mohi says he has declared a "war" on female foeticide.