New Delhi: Women’s health activists cheered a ruling by the Supreme Court ordering the government to shut down sterilisation camps within three years on Friday. The decision was taken following the deaths of hundreds of rural women across the country.
In a recent judgment, the Supreme Court said that 363 women died between 2010 and 2013 during or after surgery in sterilisation camps due poor management by the local authorities. This included doctors using dirty equipment and expired drugs.
The apex court called on the state governments to ensure the country’s 29 states and seven union territories halt the camps, provide adequate compensation for victims and their families and hold negligent doctors accountable.
Activists have long campaigned for better regulation of sterilisation camps where women gathered for mass surgeries to sever or seal their fallopian tubes. They have stressed on more investment in alternative forms of contraception.
“We welcome the Supreme Court judgment which we consider a landmark one. Providing quality services to and upholding the dignity of women will now be placed strongly on the national agenda,” said Poonam Muttreja, executive director of the Population Foundation of India.
“This judgment has the potential to shape India’s family planning program into a program of national significance,” she added.
Birth rates in India have fallen in recent decades, but the population growth is still among the world’s fastest.
According to a study by the Population Foundation of India, 85 per cent of the country’s family planning budget for 2013-14 was spent on promoting and conducting sterilisations on women. Only 1.5 percent was spent on other forms of contraception.
India came under global scrutiny for its sterilisation drive in November 2014 when 15 women died and scores of others were hospitalised after surgery at a sterilisation camp in Chhattisgarh.
Investigations found the deaths in Bilaspur district were due to unhygienic conditions, dirty medical instruments and equipment and an overall lack of care for the patients who were poor tribal and low-caste women.
Authorities have put in place guidelines and are training health workers on conducting safe and sanitary surgeries, but incentivised, target-driven sterilisation continue.
Doctors, nurses and health workers receive cash incentives for promoting and carrying out sterilisations.
Patients are also given compensation – ranging from Rs 600 for tubectomies and Rs 1,100 for vasectomies.
The Supreme Court ruling was in response to a civil petition filed by women’s health activist Devika Biswas which alleged widespread mismanagement at camps in various states.
The ruling mentioned how a doctor sterilised 53 women over a period of two hours in an unprofessional and unethical manner in a village school in Bihar in January 2012.
The sterilisations were conducted under torch light with the women lying on school desks, the surgeon did not have any gloves and there was no running water available, it said.
The patients, it added, were also not given any pre-operative tests, counseling and were not aware of the potential dangers and outcomes of sterilisation.
“A sterilisation surgery does not appear to be complicated and yet several deaths have taken place across the country over the years,” said Justice Madan B Lokur in his order.
“Undoubtedly, this needs looking into by the government and the state governments and remedial and corrective steps need to be taken,” he added.