The Ernakulam Experiment.
As preparations are geared towards the celebration of ‘World Vasectomy Day’ it’s time to revisit the infamous Ernakulam Experiment which is the prototype of mass sterilization program. While Kerala holds the pride of possessing the overall highest literacy rate in India this particular event will be remembered as a disgrace to the state government of Kerala for orchestrating the most deceptive family planning campaign in the history of India.
What happened in Ernakulam?
Ernakulam is the coastal district in the state of Kerala. A sudden burst of festive spirit fills the air during the month of July 1971. Colorful Banners dance in the air, wall posters all around, dancing, singing and similar cultural performances, bit-notices (handouts), street corner meetings, constant mike announcements, radio programs and even banquets was prepared. All for the people of Ernakulam. A usual colorful carnival typical of the land but with an unusual twist of Vasectomy being the reason for the celebration. It was a festival to promote Vasectomy.
The Massive Vasectomy camp was organized by the aggressive efforts of district collector Krishna Kumar in the Ernakulam Town Hall under the leadership of then Chief Minister Achutha Menon as a part of population control effort. The Vasectomy camp of 1970 (November to December) and the Vasectomy Gala of July, 1971 in Ernakulam district alone sterilized a total of 78,423 men in just two months. Since then Ernakulam has been the archetype for the concerned family planning crusaders.
The Ernakulam Experiment holds the world record for the largest number of men sterilized at a given length of time. So why is it called an experiment and what’s the unsettling eeriness around it?
Exploitation of Poverty
What was tried in Ernakulam was the preliminary for incentive based mass sterilization. Since the attempts of Government of India to control the population did not impress the international benefactors (UNFPA, USAID,World Bank, Swedish Development Agency) who were the major financial contributors to the population control activities in India, a shift in methodology was adopted. Those who accept to be sterilized shall receive a cash incentive. Families in Ernakulam were offered a cash incentive of Rs. 31 (less than a dollar) with a week’s worth of food for the family and 8 kilograms of food grain. The family planning workers were given targets to be achieved. Even transportation arrangements were made to ferry men to the campsite. As a result of this insidious method the poor were driven to take this opportunity to feed their families. The same year (1970) the Govt. of India sterilized 8 million people throughout the country mostly poor and uneducated. And for those who did not give consent were forced to undergo vasectomy at gunpoint. What initiated as a ‘welfare program’ became ‘something like war’ as it’s usually described in interviews by the villagers.
The exploitation of the poor man’s circumstance and the attack on their dignity is the kind of abuse which was overlooked by several human rights groups because just like the others (population control proponents and eugenicists) they thought the poor man was poor not because of the corrupt systems but because he had more children. Therefore, rather than changing the system and building sustainable food production they went on a mission to attack their fertility and Reproductive Rights. This notion of associating poverty and misery with more children and prosperity and development with less children was the same tactic used by Eugenicist in the West. If not for the men who died of botched surgery and tetanus infection in some these camps this insane treatment of poor would’ve continued for next few decades. Nevertheless a complete shift of focus on women sterilization was adopted.
The mere convenience to use ‘vasectomy’ as a weapon in the name of ‘family planning’ and population control has dismissed the numerous health problems caused by this procedure. Like the abortion -breast cancer link, the side effects caused by vasectomy is downplayed by the medical community on the accounts of potential ‘benefits supersede risk’ argument.
Why remember Ernakulam ?
‘Never Again’ is the phrase often used to remember what happened during the Holocaust. Since history repeats itself it is very important to ‘remember’ so we never commit those same mistakes again. The very fact that our history books do not mention about the gruesome violence inflicted upon our people in the name of “Family Planning” shows that this is an organized state sponsored effort. However it gives us no excuse to shy away from our responsibility. We have to remember our men who were coerced into sterilization, we must remember how they were ensnared to accept vasectomy for food, we must remember those sterilized at gunpoint, we must remember how we were looted as a nation during colonial rule and were thrown at us vasectomies when we struggled for food after gaining Independence. Most of all we must remember so that never again our people shall be deceived with vasectomies.
The problem of overpopulation (if it really was) can never justify coerced sterilization of poor. What happened in Ernakulam was the subhuman treatment of our men and an irrational solution to a problem. After Ernakulam in 1988 a target of 14 million sterilization was given in Fourth five year plan, and 18 million sterilizations to be conducted in fifth five year plan. Yet what remains mysterious is how these voices have been silenced and how we were made to accept this as a part and parcel of our economic condition. It’s time to change the narrative. Every human being no matter rich or poor has basic human right, his life is precious, his dignity is inviolable. Any development program that does not take into account the dignity of the human being is much worse than a failed attempt. It becomes an attack.
Remember the vasectomy camp was organized as a carnival, not as a health camp. After 60 years if this was to happen again it shall be the same. Except that they would ask you to accept vasectomy for the sake of the planet, or to enjoy unlimited sexual pleasure without the fear of responsibility or even simply because they think you’re unfit to procreate. This World Vasectomy Day let’s remember the lives lost in forced sterilization camps across India and most of all the men who were abused of their poverty to accept vasectomy as the only solution.