Over 15k Deaths In 4 Years: How India’s Population Control Measures Are Killing Its Women

By Debarati Ghosh:

The Story of Chaiti Bai

Unlike every other ordinary day in the Bilaspur district of Chattisgarh, 22 year old Chaiti Bai could not go about her daily chores. She was unwell and weak, suffering from jaundice. At the proposal of the Community Health Centre’s messenger, she agreed to get herself treated from their health officer. However, Chaiti Bai and her husband were given a blank paper to sign on, before she could avail the treatment. Without thinking much of it at the time, her husband, Budh Singh signed it, and got her admitted.

Chattisgarh woman with child. Image source: Wikimedia Commons
Chattisgarh woman with child. Image source: Wikimedia Commons

What followed soon revealed the sham that the government’s family policy is. Without any prior information about the nature of the surgery, Chaiti Bai was operated upon, and sterilized. While her husband did not receive a single piece of official documentation from the health workers, Chaiti Bai’s condition worsened. She died the next day on her way to the district hospital, leaving her husband with their two children, and a cheque of Rs. 200,000 from the government.

Chaiti Bai was not the only victim of the sterilization camps that plague India. According to reports, 14 of the 83 women sterilized that day in November 2014 died, while the others had to be hospitalized. The Gaurella Community Health Centre has a target of sterilizing at least 800 women per year. Even as Prime Minister Narendra Modi urged for an investigation on this “unfortunate tragedy”; the state award winner for his work on sterilization, who was arrested for the deaths, Surgeon R. K. Gupta blamed the government for the deaths, stated that it was his “moral responsibility” to have performed the sterilizations.

More than 4 million sterilizations were conducted between 2013 and 2014, according to Government figures. The then Health Minister of India, Harsh Vardhan officially stated that the government has recorded 15,264 sterilization related deaths or failed surgeries between April 2009 and March 2013. It’s only with the rise in death tolls at sterilization camps, visibly declining sex ratio and the usage of outdated drugs and procedures like the cycle pumps to inflate their abdomens during the surgeries on hapless women, along with outrage over fowl plays such as the sterilization of the unsuspecting men in return for gun license, that the government’s family planning policies have come under a critical lens of Women Rights organizations and the mainstream media.

The Glitch in the Story

Growing up hearing the slogans of “HUM DO HUMARE DO”, we never quite questioned it, due to its appeal to common sense. The economically and geographically marginalized sections are the primary targets for the state-approved sterilization campaigns that offer a variety of incentives or disincentives for the participants and often employ coercive measures to attain their targets.

While this sounds all too obvious and the government may be applauded for its population control initiatives, something doesn’t quite add up. Questions arise such as:

  • Why are countries like China and Vietnam, with notoriously stringent one-child norm and reproductive restrictions, now removing these rules from their population control policies?
  • What is the role of the western funding agencies like the USAID, World Bank, Rockefeller Foundation or Ford Foundation in this entire picture?
  • And what lies ahead for the Indian economy given the rise in averted births and decline in population, which corresponds to an inevitable dearth of work forces and income generating populace?

These points get us questioning the goal that our government is seeking to attain and bring in the need for a more nuanced approach to the Indian population control policy.

Setting the Record Straight

The attitude to levy sanctions on the reproductive rights of the general population (especially the marginalized sections) goes way back to the times of Darwin and Reverend Malthus, echoed by agencies like the International Planned Parenthood Federation in the 1920s. The contemporary policies on population control can be best described in Amartya Sen’s words as being a “revival of Malthusian thinking in the recent years”. Simply put – letting the poor perish unattended since they are unworthy of life, and focus more on the development of the better race/class/caste.

In a collaborative study conducted on the impact of the Two-Child norm in India, Claire B. Cole notes the impact of India’s receipt of monetary sanctions from western agencies, which range from the targets issued by the Word Bank to avert 40 million births in a span of 10 years or target based economic funding from agencies like the USAID, World Bank, the Ford and Rockefeller Foundation. There are several intermediate agents like the Accredited Social Health Activists or ASHA workers, who receive bonuses for every person they motivate to undergo sterilization. What is bothersome about mushrooming internationally funded NGOs and agencies, is their affiliation which lies with the foreign funders and are thereby, not accountable to India. According to the Human Rights Watch’s report in 2012, these approaches have made the sterilization campaigns an exceedingly coercive process.

While the Population Growth Rate in India has fallen to 1.25% in 2014, due to the population momentum, it will continue to grow for at least the next sixty years. In such a situation, we can only expect to see a severe dwindling in the sex ratio and a decrease in the number of girl child in the Indian society. So much for the noise about developmental policies and progress!

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