Mass Sterilisation: India’s Dark Past
Avni Gupta writes about the practice of mass sterilisation that prevails in the country even today.
It all began in the 1970s, when the Indian government announced Emergency due to internal disturbances. India embarked on an ambitious programme of population control under the rule of Mr. Sanjay Gandhi, calling it his “pet programme”. The campaign aimed to sterilise men and women in order to control the expanding population growth. The initiative commenced in the states of Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Haryana, Punjab, and Himachal Pradesh – also called the “vasectomy belt.”
The horrific initiative
Male sterilisation was kept in focus and people were lured to the service with the aid of monetary incentives. Targets were set and announced to the municipal councils, who were in charge of carrying out the programme. Vasectomy camps were established in small towns all across the country, targeting especially the poor and helpless. States hired “motivators” – government workers, health officials, policemen, and those who had already been operated upon – to persuade men to attend camps and undergo the operation. Public officials mobilised en masse and trucks prowled around the area to achieve the set target. Hundreds of men – unmarried, some with one or two children, and old – were dragged from the streets and forcibly sterilised. If families or even entire villages failed to succumb to the practice, food rations and water were withheld from them. School teachers lost their salaries until they underwent the procedure. Those who dared to protest were drugged into surgery.
People have claimed that it was “men they wanted – any man”. They chose to not protest against the practice as they were paid Rs. 500 each for the procedure. Others received clocks, buckets, butter, and other household goods as incentives.
Population boom results in an increase in demand for goods and resources. With the ever-growing population of India, it was estimated that import of millions of tons of grain would be required to meet the demand. Karan Singh, the then Minister of Health and Family Planning, wrote “Government is of the view that group incentives should now be introduced in a bold and imaginative manner so as to make family planning a mass movement with greater community involvement.” Gopalaswami came to the rescue, suggesting a practice “Sterilise anyone with three or more children”. To break the wheel, numerous doctors were assigned duties to meet the high stipulations of sterilisation quotas mandated by local authorities. Dr. R. Gupta set a record by performing 83 surgeries in six hours. He admitted being under pressure to complete 15,000 sterilisations to meet the target and was applauded for performing 50,000 tubectomies.
Gujarat set a world record of performing more than 0.2 million vasectomies in a span of two months. The programme successfully sniped 6.2 million men in a single year – which is 15 times the sterilisation by the Nazis during Hitler’s reign in Germany. Over 2,000 men died due to mismanaged or careless operations. Some became septic and all were traumatised.
The campaign was highlighted in the famous novel, Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie.
And it prevails
Allow me to paint a picture for you –
In a small town of India, a hundred women line up in an otherwise abandoned hospital. As each woman enters and lies on the surgery desk, a surgeon braces to operate. Without discarding the pair of gloves worn during a previous operation, he cuts the woman with a single instrument. All women lie on the hospital floor until recovery. No follow-up care is offered. Some experience vomiting, nausea, headaches, and intense pain. Some die within days.
In 1975, men underwent sterilisation, but today, the burden of family planning rests on the shoulders of women of India, who have succumbed to such gruesome situations. India embraces a whooping proportion of 39% female sterilisation – almost twice of what happens worldwide. More than 75% of sterilised women in India are known to have not used any other method of birth control before the operation.
Female sterilisations accounted for 46% of total surgeries in 1975-76, dwindling to 25% in 76-77, and eventually rising to 91.8% in 1989-90. During 2013-14, official bodies claim to have carried out about 4 million sterilisations across the country. Of the 4 million, more than 3.9 million were performed on women. According to HMIS, between 2017 and 2018, 93.1% of the sterilisation surgeries were performed on women.
During an investigation, PFI found that State governments spend almost 20 times the amount incentivising women to get the procedure as they spend on the procedure itself. The cost of the operation costs Rs. 600 – 1400 for each woman. Local governments are even known to offer other attractive incentives such as cars and electrical goods to couples who volunteer for sterilisation.
Between the years 2009 and 2012, more than 700 people have died as a result of botched surgeries. In 2014, 13 women faced death at a sterilisation camp in Chhattisgarh, bringing back the horrific memories of the 1970s.
A video captures the state of an Indian sterilisation camp: https://youtu.be/TlkkfsN1KcY
Was it the need of the hour then? Is it the need of the hour now?
1921, the Year of Great Divide, experienced a dramatic bulging in population. Child marriage, birth at early age, and short gaps between two births were amongst the many factors contributing to the escalating growth rate.
Thirty years later, India became the first nation to implement a National Family Planning program to adopt population control measures. Soon, after twenty more years, during the 1975 Emergency, human’s most basic human right was taken away from them – the right to one’s body. Regarded as one of the most draconian practices to be implemented in independent India, it violates human rights. The sterilisations followed the concept of “compul-suasion”, a combination of compulsion and persuasion, with great emphasis on the former.
At this hour, India inhabits 1,380,004,385 people – about 17.7% of the Earth’s total human population. Population control is a necessary measure that we must adhere to – for the betterment of individuals as well as the entire nation. However, mass and forceful sterilisation is not the solution to the problem. Instead, India must strive to achieve premium health care facilities . Additionally, education and awareness about population boom is crucial – especially amongst the poor.
Featured Image Credits: The Boston Globe