Doctors in the Indian state of Chhattisgarh performed hysterectomies on poor village women without a valid medical reason in order to claim money from a national insurance scheme, the state's health minister said on Wednesday.
Under the programme launched in 2008, doctors can claim up to 30,000 rupees ($540) to treat poor families, providing a safety net to help pay for expensive hospital surgeries. But critics say the programme was exploited by unscrupulous doctors.
"The women were deliberately ill-advised by doctors who removed their uterus to get money," Amar Agrawal, Chhattisgarh's health minister told Reuters.
"As per my information the doctors have so far managed to make roughly 2 crore (10 million) rupees ($360,000) in recent months by removing uteruses without any valid medical reasons."
The state government examined 1,800 hysterectomies performed in the impoverished state as part of an investigation into the alleged scam. Many of the operations were suspected to have been performed illegally, government sources told Reuters.
A woman cannot bear children after the removal of a uterus and the procedure is often accompanied by the removal of ovaries, which some studies have linked to early onset of osteoporosis and other serious side effects.
Raman Kataria, a physician with a non-profit organisation in rural Chhattisgarh, said government policy was abused because of the absence of an external governing body and standard treatment guidelines.
"There has to be a regulatory body," he said. "It cannot be left to the devices of these care providers."
Multiple pregnancies, early childbearing, malnutrition and traumatic home deliveries make rural women in India susceptible to multiple problems of the uterus.
A similar scandal was reported in 2010 by media in the state of Andhra Pradesh, where many illiterate village women between 20 and 40 years of age underwent hysterectomies.
A recent Thomson Reuters TrustLaw poll, based on parameters such as quality of health services, education levels and the threat of sexual violence, ranked India as the worst country to be a woman in the G20 group of nations.