Indian authorities said Thursday that they had arrested the doctor who performed sterilization surgeries that resulted in the deaths of 13 women, as an outcry continued over the government-backed practice aimed at reducing population growth.
R.K. Gupta, a physician in the central state of Chhattisgarh, cited post-surgical medication in the deaths, which have cast a spotlight on India's harsh efforts to control fertility rates, mainly among rural women.
"I have been performing surgeries for a long time and there has never been any problem," Gupta told reporters in the town of Bilaspur at the time of his arrest. He said patients started complaining of dizziness and vomiting after they were given post-surgical medication.
The women had undergone sterilization surgeries at a clinic in Bilaspur over the weekend. This year, state Health Minister Amar Agrawal had rewarded Gupta for performing 50,000 sterilization surgeries in his career.
Indian health officials have said that Gupta performed more than 80 surgeries in six hours over the weekend at a government-sponsored clinic, in violation of regulations that prohibit surgeons from performing more than 30 sterilizations in a day.
But officials have also questioned the post-surgical drugs administered to patients, including Indian-made versions of the antibiotic ciprofloxacin and the painkiller ibuprofen. An official in Bilaspur said in an interview that tests on the drugs remained inconclusive.
"We are awaiting more reports," Bilaspur commissioner Sonmoni Borah said. "Drugs given to patients, human errors at the organizational level at the camp and doctor's mistakes are all possibilities at the moment."
India's central government has officially eliminated quotas for sterilizing women, but at the state level officials and doctors continue to be rewarded for performing the procedures.
Kiran Moghe, an activist with the All India Democratic Women's Assn., an advocacy group that has opposed the practice of sterilization, blamed state-level targets for the women's deaths.
"Even though technically the target-based approach has been done away with, practically targets are given to sterilize women," she said. "And the process has been so internalized that [state officials] want to achieve the targets by hook or by crook."
Even as news of the deaths in Bilaspur emerged this week, state officials conducted a similar sterilization camp elsewhere in the town that resulted in at least one death and 20 post-surgical complications. According to news reports, nearly 125 women underwent sterilization procedures at three area health clinics from Saturday to Monday.
A sister of a woman who died in Gaurela, where one such camp we set up, said she was unaware of the details of the sterilization procedure.
"I do not know anything about the operation," the woman, Lalli Bai, told the Indian Express newspaper. She said her sister had been persuaded to undergo the procedure by people she didn't name.
Borah, the official in Bilaspur, said that all the women who underwent the surgery in the last three days had been admitted to local hospitals. Four patients were on ventilators and eight were in intensive care, he said.
The chief minister in Chhattisgarh ordered a judicial inquiry on the deaths, and the drugs used in treating patients have been banned, Borah said. Police reportedly arrested one of the drug suppliers in the state capital, Raipur.