11 Nov 2014

Mass sterilisation kills 10 – but it’s happened before

Ten are dead in India and dozens in hospital after a mass sterilisation. But in a country where people are paid to be sterilised, deaths from this sort of surgery are nothing new.

Photo: a woman is rushed to hospital after a sterilisation procedure in Bilaspur, Chhattisgarh

‘Serious matter of negligence’

In the central Indian state of Chhattisgarh, women who had been operated on on Saturday began to fall ill on Monday. They were soon rushed to hospitals in Bilaspur city, where 10 died and at least 14 more are still in a serious condition.

The cause of death is being investigated, but the chief minister of the state, Raman Singh, admitted that “it was a serious matter of negligence”, adding that the incident was “unfortunate”.

Four officials have been suspended. The privately run Indian TV channel, NDTV, reported that all of the sterilisation surgeries were carried out in five hours.

Population control

A government mass sterilisation camp sounds like something straight out of a dystopian sci-fi classic. But in India, which has the highest rate of sterilisation among women in the world, these kind of “family planning” camps, as the government calls them, are common and are an attempt to control the country’s 1.21 billion population.

The payment is a form of coercion, especially when you are dealing with marginalised communities. Kerry McBroom

On top of that, deaths or injury following surgery have also happened before: the government paid compensation for 568 deaths resulting from sterilisation between 2009 and 2012, according to the health ministry.

£14 for your fertility

A reported 83 women had laparoscopic tubectomy surgery at the camp on Saturday received payments of 1,400 rupees (£14.33), said RK Bhange, chief medical officer for the town of Bilaspur, according to Reuters.

Health workers were also incentivised, and received 200 rupees (£2.05) for each woman they brought to the camp, Reuters reported.

In the last year, 4 million people have been sterilised, and the UN says 37 per cent of the country’s women have had the procedure as the government tries to control its booming population. This compares with 29 per cent of women in China.

However critics and health experts have previously condemned rushed procedures and the unhygienic environments in which operations can be carried out.

“The payment is a form of coercion, especially when you are dealing with marginalised communities,” said Kerry McBroom, director of the Reproductive Rights Initiative at the Human Rights Law Network in New Delhi.

She added that care at the family planning camps was often inadequate.

Despite multiple reports about payments, Pratap Singh, commissioner of Chhattisgarh’s department of health and family welfare, told Reuters that the state’s sterilisation program was entirely voluntary.

Government under pressure

This latest incident will be an embarrassment for Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who has vowed to reform India’s health system. Mr Modi, whose Bharatiya Janata Party rules in Chhattisgarh, expressed concern over the tragedy on Tuesday.

But the main opposition party in the state, Workers of the Congress, demanded the resignation of the state’s health minister and chief minister.

The United Nations has also expressed concern.

“If the facts are confirmed, then a grave human tragedy has occurred,” said Kate Gilmore, deputy executive director of the UN Population Fund. “Where there is deviation from clinical standards, there must be consequences.”