New Internationalist

The Fate of Rukmini Prasad

Issue 088

During India’s ‘Emergency rule’, Rukmini Prasad was sterilised. She had just had a baby boy. If she had not had the operation, her husband would have lost his government job and they would have been destitute. Forty days later, her son died. Rukmini found it difficult to face her neighbours and relatives. Now, four years later, Rukmini is in hospital again. Doctors attempted to reverse the sterilisation. In the recovery ward a few days after the operation, Rukmini Prasad gave this interview to the New Internationalist.

Photo: Peter Stalker
Rukmini Prasad in the recovery ward 'it was just fate that i had the operation... adn it was fate it went wrong so that I could have it changed back again.' Photo: Peter Stalker

‘I don’t know what came over my husband,’ says Rukmini. ‘He just came home one day saying that I would have to be sterilised.’

It is five days since the operation to reverse the sterilisation by rejoining her fallopian tubes. A tiny figure, she sits up in the middle of her hospital bed trying to eat from a small bowl of ‘dal’. But there is no salt. So she puts it down listlessly and tries to concentrate.

‘He was going mad. He said if I did not get sterilised then he would have to have the operation himself.’ But there was, she had heard, a chance of infection. And if that were so there could be no question of risking the bread-winner. ‘If he had gone sick, she asks, ‘what would I have done? What would we have eaten?’

Her husband Dewaki Prasad earns $40 a month as a cleaner in a government office in Delhi. Rukmini is proud of her husband’s job and explains how he got it almost as soon as they were married. She was 14 years old and had come to him from one of the poorest parts of Bihar. The marriage was arranged.

‘He was working as a temporary labourer. But when I arrived he had a letter about an interview for this permanent job.’ She has had no education, is illiterate and is speaking Hindi. But the two words of English that she does know and use are ‘temporary’ and ‘permanent’ She is well aware of the critical difference between the two.

So is her husband. In the Emergency back in 1976 it was the people on the bottom rungs of the government employment ladder who were most vulnerable to Sanjay Gandhi’s enthusiasm for sterilisation. For them cajolement and threat came to the same thing. Losing your job today, or on some other pretext tomorrow, was a chance that could not betaken.

Rukmini is hazy about times and places. For the last twelve hours or so she has been unwell and vomiting and her mind is wandering slightly. At first she says that her tubectomy took place last year. But then no, she remembers that it was at the time that all those poor people had their houses knocked down.

‘There were some on a hill near us,’ she says, ‘They were such nice houses and all those poor people who had spent all their money on them lost everything.’ It was the government’s attempt to clean up Delhi, to remove those who, as they put it, ‘mock the aspirations of all those who yearn to make cities sophisticated and modern.’ To get a good plot of land in one of the distant resettlement colonies one member of each of the slum families had to be sterilised.

Rukmini was at least clear that Sanjay had been behind that. ‘But they’re back in power again,’warns the lady in the next bed, ‘her and Sanjay.’

‘Oh, I don’t care,’ says Rukmini, ‘I didn’t vote for anyone this time.’ She was, she explained, menstruating at the time of the election and so could not come out of the house.

The Congress (Indira) Party has however changed its mind about sterilisation. Even when it came into office, it was making accusations of ‘forced sterilisation’ against some of the non-Congress (I) ruled State governments. This was part of a process of destabilising them. A process that was completed when they were dissolved by Presidential decree.

And Sanjay has said that it is no longer a part of his ‘four-part programme’ because, as he put it, ‘the people do not seem to want it.’ But by now the damage has been done, and a legitimate method of family planning now has oppressive overtones for many people. There were 8.2 million sterilisations in 1976/77. The following year after the fall of the government there were only 900,000. The number will probably be about 1.5 million for 1979/80.

Rukmini’s regrets about her operation were to come quickly. Her family and friends were shocked when they found out. With her new baby son she now had two boys and two girls but what concerned them was that she could not have any more children if she wanted to or needed to. They made her life very difficult - but it was going to get more difficult still.

Forty days after his birth, her son died. ‘He had a rash on his arms and his nose was always running,’ she says ‘But the doctor said that he was going to be alright.’ He was a ‘good doctor’, she is careful to point out, because he looked after many healthy children. ‘Then one day a neighbour came round. 1 was cooking so she took the baby. But when I took him back again his head fell back and his eyes rolled upwards.’

She looks at Dr Sharma who carried out the ‘recanalisation’ operation on her. ‘It was. probably pneumonia,’ he says, ‘though difficult to say for sure.’

Now she found it difficult to face her neighbours and found herself trapped between their views and those of her husband. It was only a complication from the caesarian birth that enabled her to reconcile them.

She had developed a hernia. Her intestines started to push out through the scar until finally she could bear the pain no longer. ‘Last winter I persuaded my husband that I should have another operation and because he could see that it was hurting me he agreed.’ While having the hernia fixed she would also have the tubectomy reversed.

Slowly she manouevres herself off the bed, puts a towel on her head and looks around for her slippers. Leaning on a nurse’s arm she makes her way along to the examination room and sits on the table.

‘She was lucky,’ explains Dr Sharma. ‘Whoever did the operation cut the tubes at just the right point - perhaps he thought she might want to have it reversed.’ He thinks that she has about a 40 per cent chance of having another child, though most of the cases he would give no more than 10 per cent. ‘We can join the tubes together alright. What we can’t do is reconstruct the nerve system that makes the ovaries move along properly.’

For Rukmini having more children is in any case a secondary consideration. What she was after was her own self-respect and that of the people around her. But although she was unhappy at having been sterilised there is no resentment.

We move back to the ward. The nurse has brought some salt for her dal and she sits up and eats it, now much more wide-awake and alert though it is nine o’clock at night. ‘It wasjust fate that I had the operation,’ And then she adds smiling as an explanation of everything: ‘it was fate that it went wrong so that I could have it changed back again.’

The Sanjay Effect

In 1976 Indira Gandhi's 'Emergency' government set a target of 4.3 million sterilisations in the year. Largely through the zeal of her son Sanjay, the final tally was 8.2 million. According to one post-emergency study, the result was acheived by a combination of 'coercion, cruelty, corruption and cooking the books' - known collectively as the 'Sanjay Effect'. Sterilisation is now voluntary again and the numbers have fallen to about 1.5 million - the vast majority of them women.

Sanjay and his mother are now back in the driving seat but he has dropped compulsory sterilisation from his political repertoire because, as he puts it, 'the people do not seem to want it'.

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