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In India's Mass Sterilisation Camps, Women Trade Fertility for Mobile Phones

A state-run mass sterilisation went horribly wrong in India this week, but it's just the tip of the iceberg.

af David Whelan
13 november 2014, 5:00pm

Image ​via Wikimedia Commons

In India, a woman's life is worth £2000. 

Or so says official state policy if one of their doctors botches a sterilisation, like what has happened in the past few days at Nemi Chand hospital in Chhattisgarh, where at least 12 women died and a further 60 became critically ill after ​one doctor attempted 80 operations in a day.

The very best anti-poverty benefits come only to couples that have been sterilised. Want more land? Get the snip. Want a loan? Let me tie your tubes. In a government driven project, poor, disenfranchised women are being paid roughly between £8 and £14 for their sterility. There's a touch of Emma Goldman's  ​Why and How the Poor Should Not Have Children pamphlet in India's family planning methods and its time it ended.

In February 2013, NDTV released footage of a large group of women passed out in an open space beside Manikchak hospital in West Bengal. This was the overspill of a mass sterilisation of 103 women across one single day.

It's the stuff of fucking nightmares and it all comes down to numbers, to pulling India's birth rate into the realm of respectability as fast as possible.  ​The golden number is 2.1. That is how many children women should be having, currently .3 less than the national average.

In 2000, India officially abandoned its national goal-orientated birth rates, but that didn't prevent internal states from  ​setting their own individual goals. This is sort of like saying you're done going to the gym but secretly doing butt crunches at your desk.

Long term climate goals are cited as reasons to cause short-term pain to living people, when spending a bit more on equality would get them there just as quickly and with much less of all the death stuff.

In India's pursuit of the dream birth rate, human beings are reduced to whole numbers, children to fractions and fallopian tubes to mobile phones. It's become a weird meta-game for states, where their total fertility rate (TFR) is  ​calculated, aggregated and ranked. Rajasthan declared it would it would ​sterilise 1 percent of its population during 2011, in exchange for mobile phones and lottery tickets for cars, like the monstrous Father Christmas of eugenics.

Rural living conditions in Uttar Pradesh. Image  ​via Flickr user pingnews.com

Basic human rights go out the window. In 2012, a single surgeon, Dr. Rajendra Prasad, conducted 53 sterilisations in Bihar without the aid of, oh,  ​such trifles as running water or sterilising equipment. One woman was apparently three months pregnant and miscarried 19 days later. In Uttar Pradesh ​you can trade the snip for guns, which is perhaps the most cynical population control ever conceived: prevent people from reproducing and assist them in killing each other. Give whoever came up with that one the fucking Nobel Peace Prize.

What's happening is a queer and loathsome policy of entrenched sexism and classism, passed off as a national objective. But the problem isn't just contained within India's borders. It's global. 

The UK is reported to have  ​provided £166 million in aid, raised ​by taxes, that was then used in India's family planning. Same ​with the US. In 2013 it is reported that, in India alone, 4.6 million people were sterilised, which is over 12,500 a day or basically every other person in London.

Assuming the Indian government pays 1,400 rupees (£14) to each woman willing to go through with the operation, the Indian government pumps £64.4 million a year on ensuring its country have sterile women at the very least, which is precisely the same amount they spent on constructing a gigantic " ​mega cow pen" to protect their beautiful bovine from harm.

Erm. Have they not heard that  ​cows are responsible for global warming?

Devika Biswas, the convener of the  ​Health Watch Forum in India, was present at the Bihar mass sterilisation and stressed to me that, if anyone wanted to help India, they should "promote to make facilities provide all comprehensive healthcare, including maternal health services to stop maternal deaths by effective management of anaesthetic and other high risk factors." India's medical facilities are simply not up to standard, she says, and women are, in particular, "at risk."

In India's latest National Family Health Survey, conducted between 2005 and 2006, the tubal ligation/vasectomy ratio  ​sits around the 37.3 to 1 mark, even though the male operation is safer, easier and less invasive. Men simply won't let people mess with their junk, but they're quite happy signing up ​on behalf of their wives, who are then drugged and operated on for ​roughly a week or two's wages. In Chhattisgarh in 2003, a government health worker encountered the same refrain from almost every household she visited: "Take my wife."

Only 8.3 percent of India's population use condoms or the contraceptive pill as a means of family planning, despite initiatives to make them free across the country. "The sex education is poor," says Biswas. "It is only for high school children. In most rural schools, girls hardly attend classes and appear only for examinations. Many members of the castes and tribal communities leave primary schools by age of 11, so don't get any sex education whatsoever."

The spread of information and services are key to solving this issue, but it seems like the government is happier spinning propaganda. Women with more than two children, for example, are barred from some states from standing for  panchayati, despite not having true control over their own bodies. Catchy phrases like "One is Fun!" or "We two, Our Two!" are everywhere. According to Biswas, it's common for women to go for sterilisation "unwillingly and under pressure."

India's policy social security doesn't help, either. There are few pensions around, which forces poor families to have larger families to assist them when they're old. This is the conundrum: men will not get the snip, women are culturally and economically inferior. Men have sex, women give birth.

Women who have too many kids cannot stand for office. Thus, nobody is fighting within the establishment politically for their side.  It's a dangerous, self-fulfilling circle of bleakness. 

In July 2012, the Indian Government announced at the London Summit for Family Planning that it had undergone a "paradigm shift" towards a buffet-style selection of contraceptive options. They had employed 860,000 community health workers to spread the word. This seems progressive. It isn't.

Evidence has surfaced that Accredited Social Health Activists – those who go from family to family promoting surgery as a family planning tool – work on a bonus per every person they convince to get sterilised. It's vaguely similar to how some random Virgin Media bloke calls you up every so often to nag you to swap broadband provider and sounds so sweet and concerned about your shit connection, but, really, just wants to get in your wallet.  

Normal people have ended up coercing the poorest and most disenfranchised members of the country into sterilising themselves for the price of a Mars Bar.

One doctor  ​admitted to being paid an extra $2 every time he performed an operation using a weaker, cheaper anaesthetic. The same doctor spoke at length about how the government judged him on how many operations he had performed before the end of each fiscal year, in March. Jobs were on the line. Money was on the line.

But that's not the case for the victims.

"Poor and illiterate women are coaxed and forced to undergo sterilisation operations," says Biswas. And it's not, primarily, for money. "But as they end up depending on the health activists for any health services and become very close to them, so they go for sterilisation to please them."

Normal people have ended up coercing the poorest and most disenfranchised members of the country into sterilising themselves for the price of a Mars Bar.

Kerala is often cited as an example of a place with an aspirational  ​low birth-rate. But this probably has little to do with sterilisation and more to with the fact that ​87.7 percent of Keralan women can read – the highest in the whole country. "The contraceptive pills are free in all the government health facilities – even in rural areas. But none promote them properly," says Biswas. "Intake and precautionary measure are not told clearly to each individual woman." Presumably, if you can't read packaging or an information leaflet, you might need to be told about what the pill does. 

The New York Times ​published an article in 2001 describing how politician Chandrababu Naidu stood before a village and convinced them to sterilise themselves. "Nobody is supporting you," he said to one of the crowd. "Immediately go for the operation."

Put yourself in these women's position. The husbands won't do it. The state won't educate you on alternatives. Consumer goods outside of the realm of realistic purchase are offered - blenders, fridges, mobile phones. All for the price of a little operation. You can make money. Support your family. Help the country you love hit its birth rate goals. Please your friends.

During the compulsory sterilisation period in India, which ran for 21 months between 1975 and 1977, 8 million people were sterilised. In 2013, 4.6 million were sterilised.

There is, it seems, no other option.

​@MrDavidWhelan

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