Government-backed sterilization surgeries apparently led to the deaths of eight women in central India, casting a grim spotlight on the country's campaign to control its rapid population growth.
Fifty other women were hospitalized after undergoing the surgeries, authorities said Tuesday.
Indian news media reported that the first woman to die was Janaki Bai, 30, who underwent the surgery in the town of Bilaspur, in impoverished Chattisgarh state, on Saturday and fell sick soon afterward. She died on Monday morning, hospital officials said.
State health official Kamalpreet Singh told the Indian Express newspaper, "Certainly there was some lapse somewhere. We are trying to find out its causes."
As part of the anti-population-growth campaign, India offers sterilization at no cost to both men and women, although far more women have the operation.
Women who underwent the surgery, described as poor residents of neighboring villages, were discharged after being sterilized but were later hospitalized for vomiting, low blood pressure, breathing problems and abdominal pain. Thirty of the 50 hospitalized patients are said to be in critical but stable condition.
As for those who died, "We are still awaiting the postmortem report," Ramanesh Murthy of CIMS Hospital in Bilaspur said in an interview. "As of now, the exact reason cannot be determined behind the deaths."
Four health officials, including the chief medical health officer of Bilaspur, have been suspended and a three-member panel has been appointed to probe the incident, officials said. Under government policy, the victims' families will receive about $3,300 each in compensation, officials said.
With its population at 1.3 billion and growing — and on pace to surpass China by next decade — the Indian government often conducts camps where free sterilization is offered to those who do not want a baby. According to government records, 4.6-million Indian women were sterilized in 2011-12.
Brinda Karat, an activist with the All India Democratic Women's Assn., an advocacy group, criticized the sterilizations. Although the central government has stopped setting national targets for sterilizing women, some state governments continue to observe sterilization quotas.
"This tragedy is a direct result" of the state targets, she said.
About 37% of Indian women have undergone sterilization procedures, the highest rate in the world, compared with 1% of Indian men. Karat said state and local governments opt for the surgeries instead of educating women — most of whom are uneducated — about other contraceptive measures.
"Merely the suspension of doctors is not enough," Karat said. "The policies need to be reversed and the health minister has to go."