Toronto Globe and Mail
(April 17, 2008)
SHIVPURI, India — Shivraj Singh already had three sons and a daughter, but what he really wanted next was a gun, so he got a vasectomy.
The 45-year-old Indian farmer is one of several men who recently took advantage of a creative population control program started in the gun-loving state of Madhya Pradesh. Under the scheme, men with vasectomy certificates can jump to the front of the waiting list for gun licences - so coveted around here that around 10,000 people apply every year even though fewer than 500 are awarded.
India, which has seen its population triple to 1.1 billion people since the 1940s, has long been striving to reduce the birth rate from the present five children per couple to 2.1. According to the Family Planning Association of India, sterilization is the country's most common form of birth control, but because of masculine pride, vasectomies are far less popular than female tubal ligations, even though the latter procedure is more fraught with complications.
"Among the uneducated, ladies think that if their husband gets the operation, then he might have trouble working," says Vimal Dwivedi, medical adviser to the FPA branch in Gwalior, the nearest large city. "And the men think that they might have problems with impotence."
Go under the knife, get a gun. Family planning officials in a remote part of India where everyone wants a gun have come up with novel way to promote vasectomies: You can't get a permit to fire bullets unless you get an operation to make sure you're shooting blanks. Photo by:
Go under the knife, get a gun. Family planning officials in a remote part of India where everyone wants a gun have come up with novel way to promote vasectomies: You can't get a permit to fire bullets unless you get an operation to make sure you're shooting blanks. Photo by: Jason Overdorf (Jason Overdorf/The Globe and Mail)
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Guns are helping to fight that ignorance. "Over the last eight years, the number of vasectomy operations has never crossed double digits," says Manish Srivastav, the 50-year-old district magistrate who came up with the guns for sterilization scheme. "Last year we had only eight, and the year before that just one." This year there were 174.
In rural, male-dominated societies such as Shivpuri, India's population has spiralled out of control because every family wants a son, and couples keep trying until they get one, sometimes resorting to selective abortions, which have brought the ratio of men to women down to 750 women for every 1,000 men in Shivpuri, well below the normal level of about 1,000 women for every 1050 men.
But the gun culture in this arid, rocky country, which adjoins a mazelike network of deep ravines called the Chambal River Valley, may be strong enough to overcome that. Gangs of bandits, known locally as dacoits, have preyed on the Chambal for centuries, robbing, killing and kidnapping villagers and townspeople, then disappearing into canyon hideouts.
Most are like Rambabu Gadaria, who was gunned down by police last year after a long reign of terror in Shivpuri. A ruthless kidnapper and extortionist whose unkempt beard fell past the third button of his shirt, he massacred 13 villagers who dared to oppose him in 2004.
In that atmosphere, self-defence is a strong motivator. "My village is near the forest, in an area that's infested with bandits," says Mr. Singh, who plans to buy a 12-gauge shotgun now that he's infertile.
Last year, a gang of bandits tramped out of the jungle while Mr. Singh was working in his field and stuck their homemade pistols and ancient shotguns in his face. He didn't have much cash, but they took the submersible pump he relied on to irrigate his crops and the motorized tiller he used to plow his fields.
Once they hear through the grapevine he has a gun, he says, they won't return.
But protection is only part of the reason firearms are popular here. Perhaps because of the romance associated with dacoits - sometimes viewed as proletariat rebels - or simply because a man's sense of his masculinity here is deeply tied to his ability to stand up for himself, owning a gun has also become a potent symbol of virility, power and izzat - or honour.
That is helping to encourage younger men to seek vasectomies, and to have the procedure before they have too many children.
"I'll march with my gun on my shoulder when I go to weddings and fire into the air to celebrate," says Devanand Sharma, who had the operation at just 26 after he'd had a son and a daughter. "People will look at me and think that I'm a big man. My honour will increase and I'll feel more important."
Special to The Globe and Mail