Forty years ago, Khandu Genu Kamble, a sanitation worker, had to do something extraordinary to save his job. His bosses at the Jawahar government hospital in Barshi, a town of 3 lakh people that’s 220 km from Pune, told him to undergo a vasectomy or else quit his job. It was January 1976, and Sanjay Gandhi’s mass sterilisation programme was underway.
A 47-year-old with a son, he agreed to go under the knife. “All they wanted were men. Any man. We didn’t complain because the Barshi municipal council warned us that we’d lose our jobs if we did.”
Like thousands of men from Barshi, Kamble was put on a truck and taken straight to the operation table. Now a frail 87-year-old, Kamble, whose son also works as a sanitation worker in a government hospital, is still worried about the consequences of complaining about the sterilisation. “Why do you want to put me in trouble? At least let me die in peace,” he says.
It’s a dark chapter in the lives of at least a 1,000 men in Barshi — most of them now above 70 — that they would rather forget. The magazine Fulcrum, though, captured their ordeal. Maseeh Rahman, who was Fulcrum’s editor in 1976, recalled in a recent article for The Indian Express, “In January 1976, its (Barshi’s) municipal council was told to organise a 10-day campaign to sterilise 1,000 people for Sanjay Gandhi’s pet programme. Hardly anyone volunteered in the first two days. So, for the next eight days, two trucks prowled around town to achieve the target. A local photographer captured some of the dramatic street scenes on his camera. Hundreds of farmers visiting Barshi were dragged from the streets and forcibly sterilised. Some were unmarried, some had just one or two children, some were already sterilised, and some were very old. It made little difference. Many became septic, at least one died, all were badly traumatised.”
Some were too poor to protest. Like Bhagwan Sopan Gawli, who worked as a peon and had a family of five children to feed. Now 80, he did not protest the sterilisation as he “was paid Rs 500 for the procedure”. “We were all taken in motor cars and vans from the Barshi municipal council to Jawahar hospital and were given a blanket to cover ourselves up,” he says.
Dr B Y Yadav, one of the doctors who helped with complications during the surgeries, “still can’t believe the numbers”. “There was no space left in Barshi. Schools, panchayat samiti halls, even Rotary Club halls were not spared,” he says. On one particular day, he recalls, 93 vasectomies were conducted. “Some doctors performed the surgery in minutes, others took hours and struggled. It was medically unethical,” he says.
Dr Arvind Bhopalkar has “lost count” of the number of surgeries he performed. “We were not given any target. We were told to do the operation on as many men as possible,” he says, adding with a laugh that “a revenue department official, in his zeal for rounding up men, even brought a doctor’s father to us”.
Bhopalkar would discreetly let off unmarried men or married but childless men. “I would let them quietly slip out of the room. Doctors have hearts too.”
At Barshi’s municipal council, chief health officer Dr Vijay Godepure says there are no records of the number of vasectomies performed then. “We only maintain essential records like number of births, building permissions and like. There is no data about the number of sterilisations done in 1975-76 at Barshi,” he says.
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