Ten million girls have been killed by their parents in India in the past 20 years, either before they were born or immediately after, a government minister said on Thursday, describing it as a "national crisis".
A UNICEF report released this week said 7,000 fewer girls are born in the country every day than the global average would suggest, largely because female foetuses are aborted after sex determination tests but also through murder of new borns.
"It's shocking figures and we are in a national crisis if you ask me," Minister for Women and Child Development Renuka Chowdhury told Reuters.
Girls are seen as liabilities by many Indians, especially because of the banned but rampant practice of dowry, where the bride's parents pay cash and goods to the groom's family.
Men are also seen as bread-winners while social prejudices deny women opportunities for education and jobs.
"Today, we have the odd distinction of having lost 10 million girl children in the past 20 years," Chowdhury told a seminar in Delhi University.
"Who has killed these girl children? Their own parents." In some states, the minister said, newborn girls have been killed by pouring sand or tobacco juice into their nostrils.
"The minute the child is born and she opens her mouth to cry, they put sand into her mouth and her nostrils so she chokes and dies," Chowdhury said, referring to cases in the western desert state of Rajasthan.
"They bury infants into pots alive and bury the pots. They put tobacco into her mouth. They hang them upside down like a bunch of flowers to dry," she said.
"We have more passion for tigers of this country. We have people fighting for stray dogs on the road. But you have a whole society that ruthlessly hunts down girl children."
According to the 2001 census, the national sex ratio was 933 girls to 1,000 boys, while in the worst-affected northern state of Punjab, it was 798 girls to 1,000 boys.
The ratio has fallen since 1991, due to the availability of ultrasound sex-determination tests.
Although these are illegal they are still widely available and often lead to abortion of girl foetuses.
Chowdhury said the fall in the number of females had cost one percent of India's GDP and created shortages of girls in some states like Haryana, where in one case four brothers had to marry one woman.
Economic empowerment of women was key to change, she said. "Even today when you go to a temple, you are blessed with 'May you have many sons'," she said.
"The minute you empower them to earn more or equal (to men), social prejudices vanish."
The practice of killing the girl child is more prevalent among the educated, including in upmarket districts of New Delhi, making it more challenging for the government, the minister said.
"How do we tell educated people that you must not do it? And these are people who would visit all the female deities and pray for strength but don't hesitate to kill a girl child," she said.