Was Ford Foundation Culpable In Aborting Female Foetuses In India?

Was Ford Foundation Culpable In Aborting Female Foetuses In India?

The Ford Foundation’s Quest to Fix the World – this New Yorker piece in the January 2016 issue of the magazine by someone named Larissa MacFarquhar caught my eye.

It’s beyond doubt that Ford Foundation is a highly controversial organization with an unsavory past in India (and I suspect in many other third-world countries), and I was keen to know what the insufferably long and at-times rambling piece had to say about Ford Foundation and India.
To be honest, I suspected at the onset this was a puff piece done to massage the egos of the high-and-mighty at the Ford Foundation, and by the time I had read through it, my suspicions had been confirmed, and worse.There were two bits that caught my attention in particular.

The first:  “In April, the government froze the bank accounts of Greenpeace India, and in the same month cancelled the registration of nearly nine thousand N.G.O.s that received money from abroad.

While true in itself, this sentence failed the basic smell-test of journalistic ethics. Why? Because the sentence presented facts selectively to present a manifestly one-sided version of what actually transpired.
The facts – not in dispute – are such:
  • In October 2014, the government of India had sent notices to 10,343 NGOs that received foreign funds for not filing their annual returns for three years in a row – 2009-10, 2010-11 and 2011-12. Only 229 replied.
  • Therefore, in April 2015, the licenses of approximately 9000 NGOs were cancelled. Not as a retributive measure – as the article implies – but for not following the law of the land, after following due process. [source: India Today report, April 28, 2015, link]

Hence my conclusion that the writer of the piece failed – either due to incompetence or worse – to follow basic journalistic ethics.

The second item that caught my attention was more serious.

In an attempt to appear objective, the writer tried to include some criticisms of the Ford Foundation’s activities in India. This is what the pertinent sentence is: “responding to government concerns about overpopulation, Ford funded research that led indirectly to a forced-sterilization program in the mid-seventies that unintentionally killed close to two thousand people owing to botched surgeries.

Now, this line is something that goes beyond mere journalistic incompetence and enters the hallowed grounds of PR whitewashing on behalf of Ford Foundation. Whitewashing of Ford Foundation’s culpability in the mass-murder of millions of fetuses. Of female fetuses, to be precise by making it sound that Ford Foundation was at best guilty of funding the incompetent, nothing more. The truth, however, is far more serious, and paints the Ford Foundation in a much, much darker light.

That is a rather fantastical accusation to make, isn’t it? If yes, it’s only because it’s true.

And yes, the answer is somewhat long.

In the 1960s – over half a century ago, when paranoia over communism was at its peak in the West, it was argued that poverty helped fuel a drive towards communism. The thinking in the West went that over-population was a big contributing factor towards poverty.

aaaTherefore poor nations with large populations (India, China) were most at risk of being overrun by communism. These nations had to be stopped from over-breeding. Ergo, the UN, World Bank, Ford Foundation, and other eminent groups teamed up together to come up with strategies.
This included funding advances in contraception. But the biggest “breakthrough” in their thinking was this: Families in countries like India had large families because they wanted a son, and kept reproducing till they got a son. If a son was what they wanted, why not simply abort the female foetus? That way, the civilized westerners reasoned, the poor would get what they wanted – a son – and the West would get what it wanted – a stop to the rapid rise in the populations of these countries. Problem solved.

US President Lyndon Johnson in 1965 had remarked: “Less than $5 invested in population control is worth a hundred dollars invested in economic growth.” “In 1965, Alaskan Senator Ernest Gruening, aware of the forecasts for trouble in India and cheered by Johnson’s willingness to address the issue, launched a three-year series of hearings on the population crisis.”

Eminent personalities who worried about the “population bomb” included John D. Rockefeller III, who decided to do something about it. A gathering took place in 1952: the “Conference on Population Problems“, to discuss the possibility of exporting population control to “poor growing countries”, and India was at the top of everyone’s mind there.

Rockefeller founded the Population Council, Moore founded Population Crisis Committee. The two bandied with the Ford Foundation, World Bank, UNFPA, USAID, IPPF to sell Asian nations population control. At the same time, even other aid was made contingent on “the adoption of population control targets.
Thus was born amniocentesis or sex-selective abortions.
At AIIMS (All India Institute of Medical Sciences), the Ford Foundation and others gave money for the research, by determining the sex of the foetus: a female foetus could be aborted. A young doctor who worked at the AIIMS in the 1970s writes about one such experience that left him shaken. He saw a cat carrying off a freshly aborted foetus, blood dripping. Funding from the West had achieved wanton killing of foetuses in India on a massive scale.

By the late 1970s the western advisors had mostly left, and it was only recently that the IPFF and Rockefeller archives were opened up.  The “story begins in the mid 1960s” when Sheldon Segal headed to India. Segal had been hired by John D Rockefeller II and he became head of the Population Council’s biomedical division. In India, he became personal advisor to the head of India’s director of family planning operations.

The World Bank directed India to make Lt. Col. LB Raina (director) to stop focusing on maternal health, and make population issues his “unconditional first priority.” [emphasis mine]

This done, “Segal’s primary assignment while in Delhi was to found the department of reproductive physiology at the AIIMS.”

Western money had backed the creation of an extensive network of community family planning advisers in India.

During these years, the Rockefeller Foundation had its largest staff outside New York in Delhi. Personnel from the Ford Foundation “alone numbered in the hundreds”. This prompted a “senior government official” to state “watching with anxiety the increasing penetration and power of foundations like the Ford [and] Rockefeller … in governmental spheres.”

Money without strings was not acceptable. India at the time got $1.5 billion in annual aid, much of it from the U.S. government, UNFPA, the Ford Foundation, and the World Bank. The Rockefeller Foundation representative thought India was “in danger of becoming ‘nigger rich.'” [emphasis mine] Therefore, “the Rockefeller Foundation first posted an employee at AIIMS in 1958 as an adviser to the institute’s director.”

Ford Foundation gave Indian universities a $1.7 million grant in 1962 “for research in reproductive medicine at Indian universities,”  the bulk of which went to AIIMS.
In 1969, the Ford Foundation “allocated $63,563 for “research in reproductive biology” at AIIMS.” This period of funding happily coincided with the Emergency in the mid-1970s, when Sanjay Gandhi – the younger son of prime minister Mrs. Indira Gandhi – initiated a massive effort to sterilize men. By the time this gruesome period was over,”6.2 million Indian men had been sterilized in just one year—fifteen times the number of people sterilized by the Nazis.” [Emphasis added]
indiraMrs. Indira Gandhi was awarded the United Nations Population Award – the first recipient of this award, in 1983.
While any concrete link between western foundations and sex-selective abortions in India has been hard to prove, Dr. Puneet Bedi speculates it was “mainly the Ford Foundation.” He was a medical student in 1978, when on a round at Delhi’s Lok Nayak Jayaprakash Narayan Hospital, just outside the labor room, “a cat bounded past him with a bloody blob dangling from its mouth.”

“In 1975 AIIMS, the country’s most prestigious medical school, unveiled India’s first amniocentesis tests at its govt teaching hospital.” Other hospitals quickly started offering the test. Doctors not only readily identfied the sex of the foetus, but also offered to abort if it was a female foetus. Several AIIMS doctors published papers “explaining the project as an experimental trial with potential to be introduced on a larger scale.”

While western experts later “distanced themselves from the excesses of the Indian Emergency”, facts speak otherwise. Demographer Kingsley Davis endorsed the authoritarianism of the Emergency and the expansion of the program into slums.
A World Bank official in Delhi during the time “returned to Washington to urge that the bank increase its support for India’s Family Planning program.” Even as India’s minister Karan Singh admitted to “abuses” in the forcible sterilization program, World Bank president Robert McNamara wrote this after a visit to India during the Emergency – “At long last, India is moving to effectively address its population problem.”

Therefore, these foundations and their money comes with at a heavy, heavy cost. It may well be a perfect example of a Faustian bargain.

But there is an even deeper story here. One whose facts run contrary to the charge of misogyny and patriarchy hurled at Indians, and especially Hindus, in arguing that a bias against the female child has been an invariant of Hindu India for millennia.

Here again, facts speak otherwise, and paint yet another grim picture of yet another genocide that western intervention wreaked. This time, you have to go back a hundred or more years.

When the British conducted the first census in the Indian colony (in the last quarter of the nineteenth century), they found a skewed gender ratio, even then.They looked to Hindu texts to explain this bias against the girl child but actually found that Hindu texts condemned the killing of foetuses, without exception. So much so that even John William Kaye, the East India Company historian, had to concede in his “curmudgeonly way”: “It is almost the one exceptional case of a barbarous custom that has not the sanction expressed or implied, by precept or example, of the monstrous faith [Hinduism] which these people profess.”

So much for small mercies.

So what was behind the practice of female infanticide? After all, if it had been a “custom”, no group could have survived for millennia practicing this “custom.”

A clue lay in the fact that the practice was more widespread among land owning groups. Lower castes had simply “copied” the practice. “As time went on, the idea that some castes and tribes had always killed girls evolved into doctrine.”

It was only after India’s independence that a study of the archives and records left behind by the British revealed the horrifying truth – “the British tax collection drive that occasioned Jonathan Duncan’s discovery of female infanticide had actually helped cause the crime.

When the British took control over the country, they centralized land administration and introduced stricter property rights than what the Mughals had enforced. European “medieval feudalism” was transported to India.”Women had once held property rights,but now they were excluded from owning land.”

The British were much more stricter than the zamindars in collecting taxes from the peasants. Then the British supplanted the zamindars altogether, making their own appointees responsible for revenue collection. The zamindars found themselves without any income.
In a bid to keep the land within the family, and because British law forbade daughters from having property rights, the reasoning gravitated towards killing off daughters.The British could not but have been aware of this connection – new land policies and the rise of infanticide.
In the mid 19th century, many Indians tried to bring this to the attention of the British. In 1873 the British came out with the Female Infanticide Act, which also attempted to cap dowry and marriage expenses. This had the perverse effect of worsening infanticide!

The three chief takeaways from this are:

First, the New Yorker piece is an extremely shoddy piece of journalism that should have been published in a Ford Foundation pamphlet at best, and certainly not in any self-respecting magazine.
Second, the role of the Ford Foundation and its culpability in perpetrating the mass abortion of female fetuses has never been fully investigated. If done so, it may well be one of the biggest crimes of the twentieth century.
Third, the rush to anoint western aid agencies as saviours of the Third World reeks of a neo-colonial racism that still seems rampant in much of western writing.
A closing observation: there is already a hook in the article to assign credit to Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Swachh Bharat Abhiyan” (English: Clean India Mission) to the Ford Foundation and other similar western agencies.
Watch this space.

Chief reference: “Unnatural Selection: Choosing Boys Over Girls, and the Consequences of a World Full of Men”, by Mara Hvistendahl  [link]

Disclaimer: views expressed are personal.

Abhinav Agarwal

Abhinav Agarwal is a son, husband, father, technologist and an IIM-B Gold Medalist.