Rivers and Relationships: Pharma-Pollution in India No Song and Dance

By Eleanor Frances

The people of India love their rivers. In fact, the country is named for the Indus, a major river that flows through northern India and Pakistan. The beauty of India’s majestic rivers is evident to all, not just to its people who consider their rivers sacred (Ghosh).

Source: http://www.indiawaterportal.org/post/36052

Even so, about 70 percent of drinking water in India is polluted, and there is increasing concern following the 2007 Larsson study of the water at a pharmaceutical plant in Patancheru. The experts detected an amount of pharmaceuticals 150 times greater than ever found in US waters (Nisha; Unnikrishnan). The Patancheru disaster showed the extent of the pressing problem of disposal of pharmaceuticals (Mendoza). Even small or trace amounts do not entirely dissolve and are not fully cleaned in water treatments, so they stay around to endanger plants and animals. Contraceptives contain hormones, including estrogen, which has been shown to act as an endocrine disrupting hazard, especially to aquatic life. Does India really need contraceptive hormones to burden a water system endangered already by contaminants in drinking water?

Although frequently targeted for population control efforts, Indian women are not entirely welcoming of the West’s contraceptive programs. Brinda Karat, general secretary of All India Democratic Women’s Organisation, has identified the specific political and financial interests: “Funding agencies which are concerned about the health — not of Indian women but of multinational companies — will be giving money to the Indian government, which will use it to buy the [contraceptive] injections,” said Ms Karat. “So Indian women’s bodies will become a conduit for international funding to multinational companies” (Sharma).

Meanwhile, Mira Shiva, an Indian activist and founder of the People’s Health Movement, has stressed the duplicity of those who claim to be feminists yet support coercive population control programs. Shiva points out the commercial and imperialist interests involved in essentially racist, sexist, and anti-poor policies: “It is no secret that there is a complicity of interests between medical and pharmaceutical research, transnational funding for such research and international policies” (Shiva, 89). The population control agenda has joined with the feminist cause to push a program that is not good for either India’s women or its rivers.

In fact, both rivers and relationships suffer under the pressure on the poor to contracept. According to the agenda of such NGOs (Non-Governmental Organizations) as International Planned Parenthood, Shiva further notes that countries in Latin America, where women were sterilized, should by now have seen fewer impoverished people. Yet, that has not been the case. Planned Parenthood is all about promoting contraceptives as part of a modern life style of empowerment for women. Their recent marketing effort employs Indian style of dance and dress to claim that women benefit by using contraceptives.

A case in point is a recently posted video on You Tube called “Planned Parenthood Goes Bollywood!” in which an attractive group of women and men dance along the main street of a town that could be Patancheru, the town where an unheard amount of pharma-pollution was detected. The video could be a finale for a Bollywood movie in which villagers pile out into the streets in celebration of a wedding. Yet, this video is not marking the occasion of a man and woman joining in the long-term commitment of sacred matrimony, but the use of contraception. While the film is about America’s political situation and not specifically commenting on India, it does call into question the premise of the video, especially in light of India’s endangered waterways.

Specifically, the film is very playful and humorous. The central character is Pillamina, a woman dressed in a costume resembling a package of birth control pills. It even includes a tug of war scene between the pill-clad figure and two handsome Indian men. It is as if to say, go ahead and enjoy any number of sexual partners, because with the pill you call the shots. Although the original man is seen running away, the woman is smiling suggesting that with contraceptives there is no sense of loss. So, the woman can experiment as she would like without apparent consequences. Yet, is this simplistic claim seen in the light-hearted video presentation in any sense valid?

Research suggests it is not. A study conducted by Lionel Tiger, the Charles Darwin Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University, suggests that biological process is an essential part of attraction. Tiger observed stumptail monkeys off the coast of Bermuda, and compared how they behaved after being given contraceptives. The way the contraceptive works is to mimic pregnancy, and the male is not usually attracted to an infertile or pregnant female, as the mating signal is turned off. Tiger’s experiment demonstrated that when the female monkeys were injected with the contraceptive Depro Provera, the male monkeys no longer attempted to mate with them (Tiger). Dr. Janet Smith, Chair of Life Ethics at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, has summarized the study and discussed the conclusions reached. (See video below.)

Given what the pill actually does accomplish, Planned Parenthood needs to redo the video if their intent is truly to be educational or informative instead of just cute and catchy. The educational version would show Pillamina first taking a pill, then dancing alone. This is because a woman on the pill appears infertile, so her signal will “go silent” and she drops “off the map” of prospective mates. There is a biological process at work, and Pillamina’s fertility signals are not “on.”

Actual Indian women express concerns that suggest they do not consider the pill just a song and dance. Their comments about possible bloating and unwanted weight gain due to hormonal imbalance probably reflect a deep-seated distrust of the long list of risks associated with the pill (“Weight“). For instance, hormonal birth control pills can cause migraine headaches, or increase their frequency and severity. This is worse in some women than in others. An increase in upper respiratory infections, sinusitis, menstrual cramps, acne, breast tenderness, vaginal candidiasis (commonly known as “yeast infection”), bacterial vaginitis, and urinary tract infection can also result from taking the pill (“What”). More worrisome, contraceptive pills also cause nausea, vomiting, mood swings, and depression as well as introducing an increased risk for blood clots and cancer, which can be fatal. Most astonishing is that all these symptoms are considered “normal” unless severe! So, contrary to the happy-go-lucky image produced by the choreography in “Planned Parenthood Goes Bollywood!”, women on the pill are not dancing in the streets. In fact, after taking contraceptives, many may do just the opposite, by staying inside in a dark room until a headache has diminished.

Likewise, the main street that Pillamina dances along could easily belong to a city such as Patancheru that most likely lacks adequate water treatment facilities to remove excreted hormones from drinking water. Although filters have been shown to be successful, they are expensive and often impractical for developing countries (Dery; Balinski). Drug disposal methods may improve, moreover, but that does nothing to get rid of water contaminated by contraceptives, which are excreted when Pillamina flushes the toilet.

Renee Sharp, senior analyst at the Washington-based Environmental Working Group, commented: “People might say, ‘Oh sure, that’s just a dirty river in India,’ but we live on a small planet; everything is connected. The water in a river in India could be the rain coming down in your town in a few weeks,’ she said. ‘It’s absolutely the last thing you would ever want to see'” (Mason). Clean water is an international issue.

On the basis of environmental risks, it seems wise to explore equally successful alternate methods of birth control such as Natural Family Planning or NFP. As it happens, the World Health Organization has studied the success rate of NFP and found it is as successful as any available artificial contraception. What’s more, the people of India have demonstrated the willingness and care needed for NFP to be successful: “One very large trial involving about 20,000 Indian women showed an unintended pregnancy rate of less than 0.3%” (Kahlenborn). In light of that willingness and care, it is time outsiders not impose a Western view of relationships on India, where even rivers hold a sacred status.

Works Cited

Balinski, Thaddeus.  “Scientists: harmful hormones from birth control pill can’t be filtered out in sewage treatment.” LifeSiteNews. 12 Sept. 2012. http://www.lifesitenews.com/news/scientists-harmful-hormones-from-birth-control-pill-cant-be-filtered-out-in

Dery, Luke. “Troubled Waters: Removing Estrogen from Our Water Supply.” scientiareview. Web. 22 Jan. 2012. http://www.scientiareview.org/pdfs/169.pdf

Ghosh,  Ayan. “Wandering Waters: A Breathtaking Photo Essay on the Rivers of India.” India Water Portal. 18 Jan. 2013. Web. 20 Jan. 2012.  http://ayan82.carbonmade.com/projects/3027420#15

Kahlenborn MD., Chris. “What a Woman Should Know about Birth Control.” One More Soul.  Web 22 Jan. 2012.    http://onemoresoul.com/contraception-abortion/risks-consequences/what-a-woman-should-know-about-birth-control.html

Mason, Margie. “World’s highest drug levels entering India stream.” Fox News. 25  Jan. 2009 http://www.foxnews.com/printer_friendly_wires/2009Jan25/0,4675,PharmaWaterIndia,00.html

Mendoza. Martha. “Indian Stream A Cocktail Of Drugs.” CBS News. 11 Feb. 2009,  Web 20 Jan. 2012. http://www.cbsnews.com/2100-202_162-4752641.html

Nisha, T.  “Water Quality Assessment from the catchment to consumer.”  India Water Portal.  August 28, 2012. Web 20 Jan. 2012.   http://www.indiawaterportal.org/node/30863

“Planned Parenthood Goes Bollywood!”  You Tube.   3 Aug. 2011.   Web 20 Jan. 2012.  http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=Sw2REPmbtj4

Sharma, Rohit. “Indian women’s groups protest at new contraceptive trial.” British Medical Journal.  31 July 2001.

Shiva, Mira. “Environmental Degradation and Subversion of Health.”  In Close to Home: Women Reconnect Ecology, Health and Development.  Ed. Vandana Shiva.  London: Earthscan. 1994.

Tiger, Lionel.  The Decline of Males: The First Look at an Unexpected New World for Men and Women. New York:  Macmillan.  2000.

Unnikrishnan, Geetha Mathew, M K. “The Emerging Environmental Burden from Pharmaceuticals.”  Economic & Political Weekly.   5 May 2012 vol xlviI no 18  EPW  http://www.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/file/Burden%20from%20Pharmaceuticals.pdf

“Weight Gain Myths Busted.” Hindustan Times. 9 Dec. 2012. Web 20 Jan. 2012. http://www.hindustantimes.com/News-Feed/Wellness/Weight-gain-myths-busted/Article1-970680.aspx

“What a Woman Should Know about Contraceptives.” Catholic News Agency.  Web 20 Jan. 2012. http://www.catholicnewsagency.com/resources/life-and-family/sexuality-contraception/what-a-woman-should-know-about-contraceptives/

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