Disclaimer- No content of this article is to be construed as medical advice.
The draft population control bill published by the U.P government on 11th July 2020 has raised eyeballs among various experts and activists. Draft section 4 of the act mandates sterilization as a birth control method to receive benefits from the government. This has rung bells about horrors of forced sterilizations suffered in the past during the period of emergency (1975-1977). This piece takes one through the history of family planning in India and how the emergency left us with scars and how our patriarchal system leads to women bearing the brunt of family planning.
Sterilization is a medium of birth control. Birth control falls under 2 categories: permanent and non-permanent. Sterilization falls under the former, it is a process by which means of reproduction are cordoned off.
Due to the wonders of technology, sterilization is available for both men and women.
For Men – Vasectomy is a process by which an incision is made in the scrotum and the two tubes which carry sperm to the semen are cut and then tied off. A male individual having gone through this process does not lose his sex drive, but would not be able to This process is considered to be safest and most effective if performed under expert supervision and informed consent.
For Women – Tubal ligation is a process in which fallopian tubes are clipped or tied preventing the sperms to reach the egg and prevent fertilization.
The population control program was started in the 1950s and the population at that time was approximately 3.61 million and was expected to grow at 1.26%. The leader in demographics, Gopal Swamy presented a report that India would add 5,00,000 people per year in India. This rang a bell in the government’s ears and they launched national family planning and, in the process, became the first country in the world to launch such a large campaign for family planning.
Mr. Gopal Swamy also recommended mass sterilization as a means to achieve birth control but in a country like ours, it was not a cakewalk to convince people for sterilization as there were rumors that it made men lose their sexual prowess, and many Indian politicians then were of the view that with population growth, India would achieve economic growth as well.
Therefore, keeping the complexities in mind, clinics for family planning were being built with a focus on disseminating information about non-permanent contraception and promoting sterilization as well. This policy of the government culminated through five-year plans, the Five-Year Plan focused on disseminating information regarding family planning and promoting existing methods such as condoms to control population explosion. 147 new clinics were established to promote birth control to prevent a population explosion. The second Five-Year Plan focused on setting up the infrastructure required for providing quality birth control methods.
4000 new clinics were added to provide better birth control services as was enumerated in the second five-year plan. According to sources, the western powers were not satisfied with the effort of the Indian government. About birth control, Such was the pressure that in 1965, President Lyndon. Johnson refused to grant food to our country, which was plagued by famine until and unless it incentivized sterilizations. From that point in time, population control took the center stage, and intrauterine devices (IUD) and sterilizations were pushed to control the population explosion.
Many women adopted IUD as a means of birth control, but they were hit by adverse effects such as infections and irritations that eventually led to a reduction in their popularity. As a response, the focus of the government reduced on women and increased on men so the first vasectomy camp was held in Kerala which embarked a positive response from the public and the same was the case with Tamil Nadu as efforts were done by the administration to educate the masses about the project but then came the infamous Emergency.
In 1975, India was plagued with a complex set of problems such as low rainfall, low agricultural produce, prices of oil were raging and inflation was on the all-time rise, but most importantly then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi was facing political turmoil, with the court invalidating her election due to corrupt practices enlisted under the Representation of People Act,1955. With this came the golden arrow, i.e., the declaration of internal emergency that suspended civil liberties in the country.
At the same time Mr. Sanjay Gandhi, the younger son of the Prime Minister was looking to launch himself in the world of politics, and a successful sterilization campaign would have increased his stature in the congress party and would further aid in garnering the attention of the western powers. To further his aim, what was unleashed can be described as no less than terror.
An Indian Express story dated 8th march,1977 described the ordeal of Uttawar, a Muslim area nearing Haryana in the following words “The whole village (Uttawar) was surrounded by the police. With the menfolk on the road, the police went into the village to see if anyone was .. the men on the road were sorted into eligible cases… and they were taken from there to clinics to be sterilized“.
Arvind Bhopalkar in an interview with Indian Express remembered “We were told to do the operation on as many men as possible…a revenue department official, in his zeal for rounding up men, even brought a doctor’s father to us.““Sweepers, rickshaw pullers, laborers—mostly immigrants—were rounded off and forced to get sterilized,” is recalled by Abdus Sattar, a 73-year-old Delhi resident.
“Population control during the Emergency was not just about compulsion. It was an experiment in ‘integration,’ in which every branch of government would take part.” remarks Mohan Rao. Delhi Lieutenant Governor Kishan Chand 1976 issued a circular that stated the government teachers and servants would receive salaries only if they get people in for sterilization.
A 75-year-old Delhi Resident Saleem remembers announcements being made that “if you get a certain number of people sterilized, you will get ₹ 50-100.”
“In Madhya Pradesh, irrigation water was withheld from village fields until sterilization quotas were met. In Uttar Pradesh, teachers were told that they must submit to sterilization or lose a month’s salary. Health department officials in Uttar Pradesh had their pay withheld until they met their quotas for sterilization. In Bihar, food rations were denied to families with more than two children.” This is according to an article published by Population Research Institute, a U.S based non-profit group.
“The district commissioner collected people from the Narkadih village of Sultanpur district to get sterilized. In opposition, people attacked the police, who opened fire in an attempt to save themselves. Thirteen people were killed, and many sustained bullet injuries. 12 similar cases of police rounding up villagers to force them into sterilization were noted in several villages. To avoid compulsory sterilization, villagers hid in their fields for several days and nights. Instead of feeling a sense of protection, during the Emergency, people associated the police with terror.”
“In Muzaffarnagar, for instance, people resisted by pelting the police with stones. Again, the police opened fire, killing 25 people. After this incident, a curfew was imposed, and law enforcement officers killed violators. However, police brutality did not stop people from resisting sterilization”.
According to Marika Vacanzy’s book Coercion In A Soft State: Family Planning In India, it is observed that “between 25 June 1975, and March 1977, about 11 million men and women were sterilized and 1 million women had intrauterine devices (IUDs)“. Many people lost their lives while undergoing sterilization due to faulty and botched-up surgeries, lack of adequate care, and apathy of the government. The estimates are that around 2,000 people lost their lives in forced sterilizations.
Indira Gandhi called for election and was ousted from office. Soli Sorabjee, former Attorney General commented that “The skinny, ill-fed, semi-clothed, so-called illiterate villager of India refused to be seduced by promises of food and fuel in exchange for their basic human rights.”
After the harrowing experience of the emergency, the onus of sterilization fell on the so-called weaker sex, i.e., the women, with a bias that it would be easier to subdue women into sterilization due to the patriarchal setup we live in as a society. A post by Huffington claimed that up to 93 % of women are the contributors to the sterilization process. Deepa Dhanraj, a documentary filmmaker, records the ordeal of women in her documentary, Something Like a War.
In one of the interviews, she remarked that “With Something Like a War, we wanted to stop the government of India’s coercive targeting of poor women to achieve state sterilization targets, but we also wanted to address the structural consensual belief that the poor were responsible for their poverty because of excessive bleeding. So, in the film we also talked about why poor women made the reproductive choices that they did – they were not foolish, but various social factors influenced their decisions. So, we not only had to address
the state agenda but also this political consensus that made it acceptable to have a eugenics notion about the poor”.
According to data, India performed 4 million sterilizations in the year 2013-2014 and less than 1,00,000 were men. In an interview with the Live mint, Poonam Mutreja, Executive Director of Population Foundation of India, remarked, “As per National Family Health Survey 4, three in eight men believe that contraception is women’s business and that men should not have to worry about it. The emphasis has largely been on methods for women historically, and there has been little effort to involve men. The low levels of male involvement are reflected, to an extent.”
In 2014, in Chhattisgarh, 15 women died during the sterilization process, there were reports from the state-run hospital that the doctors performed 150 surgeries in 6 hours to meet set targets. Drukpa, a doctor who was arrested remarked that “This is not my fault, there was pressure from the administration“. BBC reporter Yogita Limaye reported “it was a hospital built by a charity, but local people say it has been closed for a while and is only used for government health camps. Inside, cobwebs are hanging from the ceiling and walls, there is dust all over the floor”. Now imagine women going through sterilization in such a hospital.
With the horrors of the sterilization emergency still lurking over our democracy, a harrowing incident in Chhattisgarh in 2014 was a wake-up call regarding faulty medical services available to women in respect of family planning. Marginalized women are still bearing the brunt of faulty, botched-up sterilizations to satisfy the ego of successive governments. We are living in the 21st century but unfortunately, we cannot even provide women safe sterilization and encourage men to be equal partners in birth control measures.
The bill again will expose the gender divide and women would have to bear the brunt of sterilizations. I will leave with a quote to ponder upon – “Significant numbers of the world’s population are routinely subjected to torture, starvation, terrorism, humiliation, mutilation, and even murder simply because they are women”.