ODISHA, India — India’s highly controversial sterilization policy is still conducted all around the country to combat the rapidly growing population. But the program has come under increased scrutiny due to an incident in Odisha state.
Health officials have begun an investigation in Odisha State after reports of bicycle pumps being used for sterilization on 56 women at a government-run community health center. The physician that carried out the procedures was Dr. Mahesh Chandra Rout, a retired surgeon who is sometimes called upon to work for the clinic.
The procedure typically requires a carbon dioxide insufflator to inflate the patient’s abdomen, allowing space for the use of surgical instruments. The insufflator allows the doctor to make adjustments regarding the amount of pressure safely. However, the insufflator was missing in the clinic and thus the bicycle pump was used. From the lack of pressure regulation to the possibility of bubbles forming in the veins, resulting in a sometimes-fatal outcome, the use of bicycle pumps in these medical procedures is enormously dangerous.
A health official reported that the use of bicycle pumps in sterilization procedures is widespread and not restricted to the state of Odisha.
Last month, 12 women died in Chhattisgarh, one of India’s most impoverished states, which borders Odisha. A team of medical professionals led by Dr. R.K. Gupta operated on 83 women in the span of six hours. Government guidelines limit the amount of operations doctors are able to conduct at 30 surgeries a day. Of those 83 women, over an eighth of them subsequently died from their operations. Gupta blamed drugs on their deaths.
While sterilization is not required in India, many people see it as a good option. Women are paid to get the operation and doctors are incentivized to perform it. Furthermore, in rural, poorer areas, there is a limited access to contraception, leading to many to choose sterilization. However, these mobile clinics, also known as sterilization camps, often have unsanitary and dangerous conditions for women.
Kerry McBroom, a New Delhi-based advocate with the Human Rights Law Network, called deaths from sterilization operations “almost inevitable, given the unsafe, unethical and unhygienic conditions that persist throughout India in these camps.” She states that many of the clinics are lacking electricity, running water, and enough staff to properly manage the facility.
Despite the voluntary nature of the program, many Indian women are coerced into undergoing sterilization, whether by social pressures or at their husbands’ urging. The government’s perspective on the issue also seems rather distorted, with targets set for the number of operations performed and little concern of the safety of women.
Dr. Puneet Bedi, a Delhi-based gynecologist and health activist, believes that the government should aim for population stabilization rather than population control.
Ideally, these tragedies compel the government to improve the conditions of these sterilization camps or alter their policies on population control. Nevertheless, sterilization currently remains a common- if uncertain and dangerous- procedure that disproportionately affects those in poverty in India.
Until something is done to change the situation, many more will die from the unsanitary conditions that these sterilization camps operate under. For now, many women remain at risk in India.
– William Ying