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From Notebandi to Nasbandi

Mass sterilisation as the way to curb population growth is dangerous talk.

Giriraj Singh, union minister of state for micro, small and medium enterprises, has a tendency to shoot his mouth off. In the past, this member of Parliament from Bihar has asked critics of the Modi government to move to Pakistan. He also suggested that nine out of 10 beef eaters studied at an Indian Institute of Technology. His latest diatribe, however, goes beyond these nonsensical comments because it hints darkly at a possible future strategy that his government could adopt. On 5 December, the minister said in Patna that notebandi, as the withdrawal of high denomination notes is being called, should be followed by nasbandi, or sterilisation. The latter term was first used in 1976 when Sanjay Gandhi launched his mass sterilisation campaign during the Emergency especially targeting poor men. This campaign, ruthlessly executed in states like Uttar Pradesh, was considered to be one of the main reasons for Indira Gandhi’s defeat in the 1977 elections.

Singh is not the first to hint at this. A few weeks before him, Sanjay Paswan, a Bharatiya Janata Party leader from Bihar expressed similar sentiments as also the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh chief Mohan Bhagwat. Although the expressed concern of all these men is population growth that they argue holds back deve­lopment, they have made it abundantly clear that they are concerned only about the increase in the population of Muslims in India. In fact, both Singh and Bhagwat are on record asking Hindus to have more children and increase their numbers. Singh has demanded a law on population control and even suggested that the voting rights of those with more than two children should be revoked.

Should we be alarmed at such statements? Or can they be dismissed as the rantings of a fringe of the ruling party and its allies? Unfortunately, there is enough evidence to prove that the apparent extreme fringe is in fact the very centre of the ideology that rules India today. Thus, Singh, Bhagwat and Paswan’s fulminations could be an ominous precursor to future policies. And just as waiting in line to withdraw one’s own money is being projected as a patriotic act to “save” the nation from the evils of corruption and black money, in future, Indians, and especially women, could be asked to sacrifice their reproductive rights in the interests of saving the “motherland.”

It is evident that the men making these pronouncements are unaware of the growing evidence from India and around the world that central to any discussion on checking population growth must be women’s reproductive health and rights. In the past, “population control” strategies ignored these rights with the focus on using any means to check population growth. To remind us that this continues even today is the 14 September 2016 Supreme Court judgment in the Devika Biswas public interest case following the death of 13 tribal women in Chhattisgarh due to botched tubectomies. That tragedy highlighted the dangerous consequences of the state setting targets without considering the fallout on people, especially women.

While every such instance highlights the callousness that is the operational principle on which these population control policies are implemented, another glaring aspect is often overlooked. The term nasbandi usually refers to male sterilisation, an easier and reversible procedure. Yet, the overwhelming majority of sterilisations in India are conducted on women. In 2013–14, out of 42,14,950 sterilisations, only 2.2% were on men. When men were the targets, as in the 1976 mass sterilisation campaign, the political repercussions were immediate. The Congress party lost the elections. Yet, between 2010 and 2013, 363 women died due to botched sterilisations—and these are only the reported cases—yet politicians are not worried.

While Singh and company can only think of mass sterilisation as a way to curb population growth, there is solid evidence that shows that fertility rates drop when women’s health and their rights are addressed. According to the 2013 Sample Registration System (SRS), India’s total fertility rate (TFR) has dropped to 2.3 and is just 0.2 points away from reaching replacement levels. In fact in eight Indian states, the TFR is already below replacement levels. This is the result of policies that have addressed women’s overall health needs. What is worrying, however, is that even as this is being done, women’s right to contraceptive choice has been largely ignored. Studies show that 65% of all contraceptive methods used by Indian women is sterilisation. If you combine this statistic with the fact that the system of setting sterilisation targets for health workers continues despite the Indian government’s commitment at the 1994 United Nations Conference on Population and Development to drop this strategy, tragedies like the one in Chhattisgarh are inevitable. Poor people have suffered enough by the nasbandi of the Indian economy done by this
government by cutting off its cash lifeline. After this, India certainly does not need this other nasbandi that Singh and company recommend. This is dangerous talk that must be challenged.

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