India's sterilization camps: where young mothers are taken to be sterilized—and sometimes to die
Reports that 14 women had died following surgery at a government-run sterilization “camp” in central India last month sent shock waves around the world. But such butchery is not unusual in populous India. Urged on (and quietly funded) by the dying West, the subcontinent has long relied upon mass sterilizations carried out in assembly-line fashion in temporary camps set up for just this purpose.
Now, thanks to a new investigation by the New Delhi-based Human Rights Law Network (HRLN), we know more details surrounding this particular tragedy, which occurred in the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh at an abandoned rural hospital. We know that a single doctor, R.K. Gupta, over the course of just a few hours, carried out some 83 (eighty-three!) surgical sterilizations in rapid succession. We know that he was in such a hurry that he didn’t bother to wash his hands beforehand, or even, as he began cutting into woman after woman, bother to once change his bloody latex gloves. We know also that he was paid per operation, and so was eager to cram as many 100-rupee procedures into an afternoon’s work as possible.
As far as the women themselves are concerned, they were led like lambs to the slaughter. They were not informed in advance about the risks of the procedure. Some were bribed with a promise of 500 rupees – about $8 – if they agreed to sterilization. Others were simply told to report to the camp. There they were told to lie down on a makeshift operating table, had their wombs inflated with bicycle pumps, and were injected with a small amount of anesthetic. Only one needle was used for all the women. As the doctor began to cut, some could see – and feel – Gupta pull shreds of their organs from their abdomens.
The cause of death of the fourteen victims is still unknown. Some of the women many have died because they were infected during the course of these too-hasty surgeries. The rusty surgical equipment used by Surgeon Gupta was reportedly not sterilized between procedures. The authorities themselves have blamed tainted drugs, and went on to arrest the head of a local drug factory for selling antibiotics and painkillers tainted with rat poison. Rat poison.
The victims were all young mothers with anywhere from one to three children. Chaiti Bai, for instance, was 22 years old and the mother of a six year old and 7 month old baby. She had never used contraception between her pregnancies but she had been feeling unwell this past fall and was suffering from jaundice. So when the community health worker—called a mitanin in Hindi–came to her door and told her she could receive free medical treatment at the Community Health Center in Bilaspur, she agreed. Unbeknownst to her, the health center was under extreme pressure to meet its government-mandated quota of sterilizing 800 women per year. But the mitanin never mentioned sterilization, or family planning, or anything of the kind to Chaiti. She just offered her “free” health care.
Upon arrival at the so-called center, Chaiti found herself at an abandoned rural hospital. There her husband, Budh Singh, was given a blank piece of paper to sign for her medical treatment. Both he and Chaiti could read and write, unlike many of those who had been brought to the center, but there was no text on the paper. Thinking that she was going to receive a medical examination and treatment for jaundice, he signed anyway. No one had mentioned family planning or sterilization to him or to his wife. Budh was told to go outside and wait.
A few hours later, when he was allowed into the recovery room, Budh found it crowded with women lying side-by-side on a filthy floor. His wife, Chaiti, was lying among them, barely conscious. A health worker handed him some medicines, but there were no instructions to go with them, and no paperwork describing what had been done to his wife.