The Families Left Behind After India's Botched Sterilizations

Womens Groups Protest in New Delhi against sterilization camps.
Womens Groups Protest in New Delhi against sterilization camps.
Bismillah Geelani

NEW DELHI — Archana, who is just 15, is desperately trying to put her 3-month-old brother to sleep. He's crying out for his mother, who died last week after going to a government-run sterilization camp.

At least 15 others suffered the same fate, and scores of others are seriously ill after undergoing tubectomies at two Indian sterilization "camps."

Ongoing investigations point to contaminated drugs given to the women as a possible cause of death. But a dirty operating room and surgeries performed in a matter of minutes with unsanitized instruments have raised serious questions about India's approach to population control and public health care.

As the eldest child in her family, Archana is now charged with taking care of her three siblings, as her father is disabled.

"I miss my mother a lot," she says. "My brothers and sisters are waiting for her. They think she has gone somewhere. They refuse to eat, but I somehow manage to make them have something. I'm particularly worried about the youngest one. He doesn't take the bottle and keeps crying all day and night."

Archana's mother didn't want to get pregnant again. So when she heard the government had set up a free sterilization camp in the area, she went. Soon after the surgery, she complained of severe abdominal pain and vomiting. She was rushed to a hospital, where she later died.

Fifteen other women who had the same operation suffered the same fate. They were all in their early thirties and leave behind breastfeeding babies. The deaths sparked massive protests in several cities. Under pressure, the local government says they are investigating several officials.

"We now have the report that confirms that the drugs were not up to standard and had poisonous elements," says Amar Agarwal, health minister for the Chhattisgarh state government in central India, where the botched sterilizations took place. "We have given the report to the police. They will thoroughly investigate it, and the culprits will be severely punished."

Another form of female oppression

The doctors performing the surgeries have also been arrested. They say they were under pressure to achieve a target number of surgeries set by the local government — performing up to 80 operations in just six hours in the town of Bilaspur.

Victims of botched sterilizations at Bilaspur's CIMS hospital — Photo: Ritesh Shukla/Pacific Press/ZUMA

Punit Bedi, a New Delhi gynecologist, says that was highly irresponsible. "The time needed just to wash hands between two procedures is three to five minutes," Bedi says. "Then you have to change and sterilize the equipment, and that takes a minimum of two hours, so obviously they used contaminated equipment for multiple surgeries, which is completely wrong and unacceptable medically, legally and ethically."

Nearly five million people are sterilized in India every year, more than 70% of them women, says Deepa Sinha, who works on health issues for the New Delhi-based research and advocacy institution Centre for Equity Studies.

"Among the various methods of contraception, female sterilization is the one with the most side effects and involves many risks, and yet this remains our main focus," Sinha says. "We are just obsessed with this. It has become another way of systemic oppression of women. The government campaign plays on existing gender inequality in the society and stresses female sterilization as if there is no other choice."

She says in many cases operations are performed without the full consent of the women, who are pushed to do it through incentives.

"So the couples will be told that if you sterilize after two children you will get this much money and such and such other benefits," Sinha says. "But if you don't, then you will be deprived of such and such development scheme running in your area and you won't be able to stand for a local body election, etc. This is internationally known to be a flawed approach."

The government rejects that point of view and says the sterilization program is completely voluntary. But the deaths in Chhattisgarh have lead to calls for the government to abandon the program.

Pradeep Pandey's daughter is one of the women who died after being sterilized, and he was the one who encouraged her to have the operation.

"I thought she had a complete family and now it was time to focus on their education and upbringing," he says. "I thought she would have a happy life with a small family, but I didn't know I was actually pushing her to death."

The local government has announced that he and each of the grieving families will receive just $700 in compensation. Pandey says his concern is about seeing those responsible brought to justice.

"The government must immediately punish the doctors involved and the manufacturers of the drugs," he says. "They should lose their jobs and be punished so that tragedies like this never ever happen again."

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Air Next: How A Crypto Scam Collapsed On A Single Spelling Mistake

It is today a proven fraud, nailed by the French stock market watchdog: Air Next resorted to a full range of dubious practices to raise money for a blockchain-powered e-commerce app. But the simplest of errors exposed the scam and limited the damage to investors. A cautionary tale for the crypto economy.

Sky is the crypto limit

Laurence Boisseau

PARIS — Air Next promised to use blockchain technology to revolutionize passenger transport. Should we have read something into its name? In fact, the company was talking a lot of hot air from the start. Air Next turned out to be a scam, with a fake website, false identities, fake criminal records, counterfeited bank certificates, aggressive marketing … real crooks. Thirty-five employees recruited over the summer ranked among its victims, not to mention the few investors who put money in the business.

Maud (not her real name) had always dreamed of working in a start-up. In July, she spotted an ad on Linkedin and was interviewed by videoconference — hardly unusual in the era of COVID and teleworking. She was hired very quickly and signed a permanent work contract. She resigned from her old job, happy to get started on a new adventure.

Others like Maud fell for the bait. At least ten senior managers, coming from major airlines, airports, large French and American corporations, a former police officer … all firmly believed in this project. Some quit their jobs to join; some French expats even made their way back to France.

Share capital of one billion 

The story began last February, when Air Next registered with the Paris Commercial Court. The new company stated it was developing an application that would allow the purchase of airline tickets by using cryptocurrency, at unbeatable prices and with an automatic guarantee in case of cancellation or delay, via a "smart contract" system (a computer protocol that facilitates, verifies and oversees the handling of a contract).

The firm declared a share capital of one billion euros, with offices under construction at 50, Avenue des Champs Elysées, and a president, Philippe Vincent ... which was probably a usurped identity.

Last summer, Air Next started recruiting. The company also wanted to raise money to have the assets on hand to allow passenger compensation. It organized a fundraiser using an ICO, or "Initial Coin Offering", via the issuance of digital tokens, transacted in cryptocurrencies through the blockchain.

While nothing obliged him to do so, the company owner went as far as setting up a file with the AMF, France's stock market regulator which oversees this type of transaction. Seeking the market regulator stamp is optional, but when issued, it gives guarantees to those buying tokens.

screenshot of the typo that revealed the Air Next scam

The infamous typo that brought the Air Next scam down

compta online

Raising Initial Coin Offering 

Then, on Sept. 30, the AMF issued an alert, by way of a press release, on the risks of fraud associated with the ICO, as it suspected some documents to be forgeries. A few hours before that, Air Next had just brought forward by several days the date of its tokens pre-sale.

For employees of the new company, it was a brutal wake-up call. They quickly understood that they had been duped, that they'd bet on the proverbial house of cards. On the investor side, the CEO didn't get beyond an initial fundraising of 150,000 euros. He was hoping to raise millions, but despite his failure, he didn't lose confidence. Challenged by one of his employees on Telegram, he admitted that "many documents provided were false", that "an error cost the life of this project."

What was the "error" he was referring to? A typo in the name of the would-be bank backing the startup. A very small one, at the bottom of the page of the false bank certificate, where the name "Edmond de Rothschild" is misspelled "Edemond".

Finding culprits 

Before the AMF's public alert, websites specializing in crypto-assets had already noted certain inconsistencies. The company had declared a share capital of 1 billion euros, which is an enormous amount. Air Next's CEO also boasted about having discovered bitcoin at a time when only a few geeks knew about cryptocurrency.

Employees and investors filed a complaint. Failing to find the general manager, Julien Leclerc — which might also be a fake name — they started looking for other culprits. They believe that if the Paris Commercial Court hadn't registered the company, no one would have been defrauded.

Beyond the handful of victims, this case is a plea for the implementation of more secure procedures, in an increasingly digital world, particularly following the pandemic. The much touted ICO market is itself a victim, and may find it hard to recover.

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