New Delhi — Social scientist Zarina Bhatty, born into the harsh, male- dominated world of Uttar Pradesh, now lives in an upper-class neighborhood in New Delhi. She has three daughters, no sons. When she returned home after her last delivery, educated women in the neighborhood, clearly embarrassed, expressed their regrets.
''It was,'' she said in an interview, ''as though I had bred a rat.''
Along with some other Indian women, she is part of a fledgling, yet growing movement to reverse a long tradition, and perhaps an increasing trend: a preference for boys that results in neglect of girls.
Although first recorded in India's 1981 population census, the problem has not been unknown, and India is not unusual among many nations. In almost all societies, tradition prefers a son. But, particularly in the northern states of this vast country, a pattern has emerged of selective feeding practices and selective health care that has led to female rates of mortality far in excess of the male rates.
''It is not national, it's cultural,'' an American demographer says. ''It's Indo-Gangetic [that belt between the Indus and Ganges rivers where the Indus civilization thrived]. Just draw a straight line from Islamabad across all of northern South Asia, right on to Nepal. It's in this belt that female infanticide was once practiced. Today, female negligence is [the] far more correct [term].''
The roots are complex and cultural, tied to tradition, religion, role models, and class, but they are often nurtured by a harsh battle of economics in a nation where 48 percent of the people exist below the poverty line.
In India, a boy is an economic asset. By the age of six he can work in the fields. Tradition requires that he support his parents after they retire. There are no social security programs, no old-age pensions for those who work the land.
A son also has no dowry requirements; indeed, as a bridegroom, he will bring profit to the house. He will receive his rightful place in a male-dominated society. A girl must simply be passed along, as an economic burden, to her husband's household. Before that happens, a husband must be found.
The feeding pattern within rural families is such that an often-meager meal is served first to the men and boys of the household, then to the mother-in-law, then, whatever is left over is given to female children and the mother herself.
In the Indian states of Uttar Pradesh and the Punjab, boys are breast-fed for two years and three months; girls, for one year and nine months at most.
India has produced a number of statistics that have alarmed scientists from all fields:
* It is one of only three countries - the others are Bangladesh and Iran - where female mortality is decidedly higher than male, particularly between the ages of 1 and 5 years, when the mortality rate for girls is 40 to 60 percent higher than that of little boys.
* India's maternal mortality rate is one of the highest in the world: 573 per 100,000 births, as opposed to 20 in developed countries.
* It is thus one of the few countries where women are outnumbered by men. Between 1901 and 1971 the sex ratio decreased from 972 down to 930 women for every 1,000 men.
''It defies simplistic policy prescriptions such as increased female education,'' said the Ford Foundation's Dr. Lincoln Chen. ''It is a problem reinforced by what is perceived as economic reality and strong sociocultural tradition and ties. It thus seems likely that fundamental structural changes in the role, status, and economic value of women in sociey will be required, in addition to alleviating economic poverty.''
The problem is compounded in this culturally diverse nation of 700 million, whose population increases by 13 million per year, by the fact that India's male preference is not, as conventional wisdom would have it, a phenomenon restricted to the poor. In fact, in many areas, it is a decidedly middle-income phenomenon.
At a number of private urban clinics that cater to middle and lower middle income groups, amniocentesis - a medical procedure normally used to determine normality of the fetus - is being offered instead to pregnant women as a test to determine the sex of their baby.
Nearly all those women who sought it had abortions if the fetus was female, according to Dr. Kiran Kucheria, an associate professor at the All-India Institute of Medical Sciences, who was in the forefront of a 1982 movement to ban such abuse of the test.
The complexity of the problem is most apparent in the country's agriculturally rich Punjab state. Here, less than 11 percent of the population lives below the poverty line, but the Punjab has India's highest female mortality rate.