By Vaishnavi Sundar
It was 2002 when the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) made Emergency Contraceptive Pills (ECPs) available in India, and 2005 when ECPs were made over-the-counter drugs. Ever since the legal availability of ECPs in 2002, we have had a female Chief Minister for four full terms, and yet the the situation is pretty grim for women living in Tamil Nadu. Maybe it is even ironic that Madurai, Tanjore, Vellore and Salem have been selected to be promoted as ‘smart cities’ in 2016. And rated the safest city in India, Chennai apparently attracts 45 percent of health tourists visiting India. As such, it is termed “India’s health capital”.
I assumed the occasional rants by women about not finding ECPs were rare, and trusted Chennai to be as progressive as it claims. This was until I set out to look for ECPs myself and found that an over-the-counter prescription free drug which is available in several cities in India, is not available in its health capital. I walked into a regular medical shop and was told that they were ‘out of stock’. A male friend walked up to the same medical store and asked for an I-Pill , and met the same fate. We went to prominent hospitals and walked up to their 24×7 medical stores — the answer was still no. Most women in Chennai know of that one store that definitely sells it, but I had to wait till the morning and chances were, they would be out too. It is funny that about a year ago, another woman on a reddit thread said the exact same thing about preserving the details of the store.
A handful of articles have been written on this ill-defined ban. For example, this article from 2006 elucidates on how despite legal availability, the TN government’s drug controller seized stocks worth Rs 50 lakh from Chennai’s pharmacies which they assumed to be ‘abortion pills’. The Drugs and Cosmetics Act empowers state government drug controllers to seize drugs only if they do not adhere to prescribed standards, or are misbranded, adulterated, and spurious. The drugs seized were contraceptives based on levonorgestrel, and according to Dr Nirmala Jaishankar, a gynaecologist at Apollo Hospitals in Chennai, “This [ECP] isn’t an abortion pill. If pregnancy has already happened, this pill won’t be effective.”
And in this article from 2008, senior obstetrician-gynaecologist Dr Jayashree Gajaraj, then president of the Obstetrics and Gynaecology Society of South India, said, “Three years ago, when the product was just launched in the market, we told women that there was a revolution in the offing. Today, many women are aware of the option, but they don’t have access to the pill.” N Selvaraju, who was director of drug control in Tamil Nadu at the time and gave in to the demands of the “protesters”, said, “We are not against women’s rights, but this is a moral concern. The advertising of this drug will mean that women will think, ‘I can do anything and there is an easy way not to get pregnant’. We can’t allow such an attitude to grow.” The present members of The Drugs Control Administration, Tamil Nadu can be found here. “Moral Concern”, mind you — not clinical, not psychological, not even rational. It is simply patriarchal.
One could go to a doctor to get a prescription which would probably make it easy to purchase ECPs, but we are talking about a ticking time bomb here. And not to mention, some doctors do smack their lips at the first opportunity to provide patriarchal lessons to their patients. Abortion rights in this country is a completely different topic. Of course it is not illegal in India (yet) but the Medical Termination of Pregnancy Act points out that both surgical and chemical abortion can be performed only on prescription and after permission has been issued by Resident Medical Officer of a government hospital. Why protest against a culture of sexual freedom for women, irrationally? Why isn’t rape, child marriage, or sex between people with STDs considered, while there is no noise around the over-the-counter sale of prescription-only drugs such as sildenafil citrate (aka viagra), which is available for as cheap as Rs 11? A drug that enables a man’s sex drive. This link provides a list of the almost endless effects of using viagra. As for an ECP: “It doesn’t have any serious side-effects — the most common is nausea caused by the flood of hormones. But take it with care. Too much ingestion of hormones can throw off your regular cycle,” says Dr Vinutha Arunachalam, Obstetrics & Gynaecology, Apollo Hospitals. Here is a meticulously drafted FAQ for those who might still have doubts.
In other states where it is not illegal, and on all leading e-commerce sites, ECPs are sold and delivered all over India. Popular brands include Cipla’s I-Pill, Unwanted-72 from Mankind Pharma, EC2 by Zydus, Norlevo from Win Medicare and E-Pill by Panchsheel Organics. That’s great , but what about the risk of not getting them within 72 hours? I know of some friends who stock up on I-Pills whenever a friend from Bombay or Bangalore visits. And I also know women (and men) who have no idea that such a ban exists in TN, perhaps because they never needed ECPs — good for them, and condoms FTW. In a country where rape is rampant and child marriage is still being practiced, providing ECPs is the least a government can do to protect a woman’s choice and dignity.
I stumbled upon an article last year in The Telegraph about the arrival of “male contraceptive pills” and how it is going to change “everything”. For all we know, in India, ‘protestors’ might want this banned too, because OMG, pills for men would mean a lack of ‘manhood’ — and we can’t accept that, can we?
Vaishnavi Sundar is a writer, filmmaker and a feminist. She is the founder of Women Making Films, a community for female filmmakers to come together and collaborate.