Sterilisation in India

Article excerpt

THE Chief Minister, Digvijay Singh, calls it consciousness-raising. His executive secretary, R. Gopalakrishnan, says it's a gimmick. Firebrand feminist Member of Parliament Shabana Azmi declares it unconstitutional. New population-control legislation passed by the huge central Indian province of Madhya Pradesh, banning those candidates having their third or subsequent child after January 2001 from standing for village council polls, is arousing strong passions.

Singh's administration claims its population control plan will empower women by offering them contraceptive choices and childcare facilities. Azmi disagrees. 'How can women help population control when they have no say in the number of children they have?'

India established the world's first national family planning programme over 50 years ago, and the country's overall total fertility rate has declined in the last twenty years. But Madhya Pradesh's growth rate is 40 per cent higher than the national average. The law follows a federal population policy introduced in February 2000. Its long-term objective is to stabilise the country's population by 2045 by reducing the total fertility rate -- the number of children a woman will bear during her reproductive years -- from 3.13 in 1999 to 2.1 by 2010.

While the national policy includes some progressive measures such as promoting primary education for girls, addressing the need for contraception and granting state incentives to reduce infant mortality, there are disincentives for those who do not toe the two-child line. Health insurance will only be provided to the poor if they undergo sterilisation after two children. Although targets for contraceptive use were officially dropped in 1996, quotas for government health workers were never eliminated. Instead, they have been renamed with euphemisms like 'Expected Levels of Achievement'.

Abuses of women's reproductive health and rights are rife. Oral contraceptive pills are distributed by health workers without mention of possible side effects. Until a recent Supreme Court decision banning its use, the drug quinacrine had been used to sterilise women despite a World Health Organization warning about side effects. All this has led activists to charge the Indian government with violating its promise to honour international pledges rejecting the use of family planning quotas and coercion to achieve lower fertility rates.

Madhya Pradesh -- part of the northern tier of poverty-stricken and populous states -- is not alone in punishing large families. A bill before the Delhi assembly proposes that families with more than two children be denied ration cards that allow cheap food, bank loans and enrolment in government housing schemes.

For human rights activitsts -- and ordinary citizens -- the new population control moves invoke the spectre of state-sponsored rights abuses in pursuit of contraceptive targets. Seared into public memory are the forcible mass sterilisation camps for women and men set up in the mid-1970s by then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi.

Protests over these camps are believed to have helped bring down Gandhi's government in 1977. But the fear was so great, recalls Dr Thelma Narayan, member of India's Population Commission, that villagers would run away from health workers long after the Gandhi government fell. The family planning programme virtually collapsed, before recovering several years later.

Mindful of the legacy, India's current prime minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, among politicians who opposed the Gandhi government excesses, recently warned health officials in another northern state, Uttar Pradesh, that achieving family planning goals 'shouldn't be done the way it was in the late 1970s don't force people. Spread awareness, instead'. But Brinda Karat, a prominent left-wing activist belonging to the All India Democratic Women's Association (AIDWA), believes the government has not shed its fondness for bloated budgets -- swollen by foreign donors with their own population agendas -- in pursuit of slashing birth rates. …