That number game

Published: Nov 16, 2014, 08:07 IST | Paromita Vohra |

What is a human being in the world except a body? Given to us with birth, its senses help us make sense of the world; once it is done with, we are no longer in the world

What is a human being in the world except a body? Given to us with birth, its senses help us make sense of the world; once it is done with, we are no longer in the world. Much human conflict is at heart a battle for control over the body, a self-hood we strive to define. To be free is in some sense to have control over one’s own body, how it is interpreted and valued.

Illustration /Amit Bandre
Illustration /Amit Bandre

Seen through this lens, equality quickly shows its true gradations. For instance, the fact that sex-workers and actors both work with the body, but one is legal, or acceptable and well-paid, while the other isn’t, reveals the set of values current in our society. So it is about which bodies are kept safe, for whom security is present and for whom it is not; who is subject to curfew and who is not; who gets stopped at airport security and who doesn’t; whose body is cared for and whose is dispensable.

In Deepa Dhanraj’s landmark documentary from 1991, Something Like A War, we see women’s bodies racked up in rows, in a filthy room while a doctor sterlises and dispenses with them in speedy achievement of a target number set by the administration. A new meaning of clinical.

What has changed since this film, or since the forced sterilises during the Emergency of 1975-77? Not much as the terrible deaths and critical condition of women in sterilisation camps in Chhatisgarh last week show us.

In the grip of numerical thinking, we attribute every problem in the country to its too-many bodies; too-many for progress, but not too-many for cheap labour. Sterilise women’s bodies, they make less babies, India becomes a sterilised super-power. No one party has the copyright on this thinking, each creating just a remix of the same, old song.

Reasons for these particular deaths are being attributed to contaminated, sub-standard medicines, rusty or unsterilised implements and unauthorised camps. But those are merely the symptoms of the administrations’ attitudinal disease.

Numbers don’t exactly lie. But they do help keep out the ifs and buts of some truths. Sterilisation is the easiest way to count numbers. After all, how can we count condom or contraceptive use? It is also easiest to fill those numbers with those who have least control over their bodies — poor women, usually rural and tribal. So, easy to dump these women in a room without prior testing or post-op care and perform laproscopic tubectomies, even hysterectomies where the body seems externally the same no matter what happens inside it — just like a number sheet.

Four million such surgeries happen as part of this target hunting every year despite repeated ‘scandals’. Between 2003-2012, 1434 deaths have occurred.

When these numbers are so easy, why re-evaluate a programme leave alone the public health system as activists have asked for decades? It’s for poor people, na.

In the case of this camp, Dr Gupta, who is now suspended, conducted 83 operations in five hours as opposed the Supreme Court ordered ceiling of less than 10 surgeries a day per doctor. And why shouldn’t he? The Chief Minister awarded him just this Republic Day for having completed 50,000 laparoscopic tubectomies, a mega golden jubilee of sterilisations.

Suspending someone like this is just a theatre, where a body is briefly removed from view, while the script remains unchanged. What is the real correlation between sterilisations and population growth slowing? Why consider that? Eventually it’s how we look at only certain bodies as troublesome numbers that decides how they become a target.

Paromita Vohra is an award-winning Mumbai-based filmmaker, writer and curator working with fiction and non-fiction. Reach her at The views expressed in this column are the individual’s and don’t represent those of the paper.

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