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."