Saturday, March 29, 2008

NEW DELHI — Government officials in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh have begun offering fast-track gun licenses to men who agree to undergo sterilization, so they will not feel less manly.

The region is part of Chambal Valley, notorious for its rampaging gangs of robbers and bandits, and many villagers desperately want to possess firearms.

Vasectomy camps — regularly set up in many parts of the country as part of a solution to India’s population explosion — often fail to meet their targets. Most men refuse to be sterilized, thinking the process strips them of their manliness.

The region has failed repeatedly to attract villagers to government family planning programs, said Maneesh Srivastava, chief administrator of the district of Shivpuri. “In fact, we never managed to meet even one-fourth the annual sterilization target.”

After a survey found that most men refused vasectomies because they did not want to lose their “manliness,” the government adopted a new strategy.

“We decided to match it with a bigger symbol of manliness: a gun license,” Mr. Srivastava said, and “it has worked wonders.”

Only eight men came for sterilization in the district last year. In the first 10 weeks after the plan was announced this year, more than 200 men have undergone vasectomies and many others are waiting, he said.

Some villagers surveyed said they opted against sterilization because it would make them impotent. Government officials responded by stating views from medical professionals that sterilization did not affect male virility and that many men were living happily after the procedure. It was not persuasive.

“But as soon as the offer of a gun license was announced, people threw away all worries and began responding to our program enthusiastically,” said one family planning official.

Because of the gun licensing plan, he said, officials expect to attract more men for vasectomies this year “than we got in the past 20 years.”

A gun is the ultimate status symbol in the culture of Madhya Pradesh. Many villagers in worn-out sandals and riding old bicycles proudly show off their guns slung over their shoulders or revolvers hung from their waists.

Mr. Srivastava said many peasants try to buy guns by “even selling off their last piece of land.”

He said that even a good number of Muslims, who are traditionally against sterilization, have come forward to undergo vasectomies after the deal was announced.

Vasectomy camps are viewed with suspicion in India.

In the mid-1970s, when Prime Minister Indira Gandhi declared emergency rule and suspended the constitution, her ambitious son, Sanjay, began a program of forced sterilization. Zealous officials keen to meet his targets reportedly took men out of buses and trains and sterilized them forcibly.

Four years ago, when officials in the northern Uttar Pradesh state implemented a similar program, critics said it encouraged a gun culture in a region where firearms violence is already alarmingly high. The Madhya Pradesh plan has drawn similar criticism.

“Where there are guns, even minor feuds often escalate into events that claim lives,” said former senior police Officer S.S. Shukla. He predicted the crime rate in the Chambal division — in northern Madhya Pradesh where Shivpuri is located — will increase because of the plan.

Getting a firearms license is a complicated process in India, and tens of thousands of applications have been pending for years. To be eligible, an applicant has to prove that he faces a grievous threat to his life and does not have a criminal record.

“To get this certificate from police, here you have to spend some thousands of rupees in bribe in most cases, even if you are the most deserving candidate for a gun license,” said one man in Shivpuri who underwent a vasectomy two months ago.

“I am really happy that I have got the license now as soon as I opted for this scheme. My first application for a license did not meet with success, even in eight years.”

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