Family planning deaths must not go unpunished

Sun 26 Feb 2017

Last week, the criminal trial of the surgeon who conducted laparoscopic tubectomies which resulted in the deaths of 13 women in Chhattisgarh was quashed by the Chhattisgarh High Court. After telling the Supreme Court in Devika Biswas’ case — a PIL filed by a social activist — that the prosecution would be conducted properly once the case ended, the State government assisted the doctor by refusing to grant sanction for prosecution. As a result, the prosecution was quashed.

On November 8, 2014, the surgeon and an assistant performed over 80 surgeries within 90 minutes at a State-run family planning camp, in an abandoned building near Bilaspur. Within 24 hours, many of the women began complaining of abdominal pain. Thirteen women died while 65 others were injured.

The State government responded petulantly to the Supreme Court’s decision of 2016 in Devika Biswas’ case — where the court had criticised governments for the manner in which sterilisation camps were run — by threatening to stop all such sterilisation operations in the rural areas. Women are now being forced to approach the prohibitively expensive private sector.

Turning point

In one of the first decisions on reproductive rights, the Supreme Court, in 2005, was shocked by a Uttar Pradesh and Bihar Health Watch report which showed photographs of women after laparoscopy tubectomies. They were lying on straw on the floor with blood-stained sarees. The photographs prompted the filing of the landmark Ramakant Rai case in the Supreme Court. The court set out directions such as the qualification of empanelled doctors, physical examination of women prior to the operation, informed consent, quality assurance committees to be set up, an insurance policy, compensation and an inquiry after every death. These directions were ignored.

In 2012, the case of a government doctor operating on 61 women at an abandoned school at night in Bihar shocked the world. Biswas then filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2012 highlighting similar horror stories from Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, West Bengal, Punjab, Odisha, Himachal Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. The response of the Union of India was typical. It resulted in a series of publications in English setting out new standards and procedures. While the case was going on, the Chhattisgarh incident took place in 2014.

Focus on female sterilisation

In September 2016, the Supreme Court decision in Devika Biswas’s case recorded the statement of the Union that such camps would be phased out. The Court also recorded the submission of Devika Biswas that 97% of all sterilisation procedures were conducted on women and 85% of the family planning budget exclusively went towards female sterilisation. Virtually no attention is paid to male sterilisation. Biswas also pointed out that between 2010-13, 363 people died due to sterilisation. She also said that unrealistic targets have been set resulting in non-consensual and forced sterilisations including on the physically and mentally challenged and young persons.

Once the camps are stopped, the operations are to be performed in government institutions. The reported reduction in sterilisation operations in the State has forced poor women to approach the private sector.

It looks as if gruesome crimes against women in this country will always go unpunished. Perhaps the only way forward is to have civil society monitoring integrated in court orders. Otherwise it will be business as usual, court orders notwithstanding.

Colin Gonsalves is the founder of the Human Rights Law Network


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