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A reality game show and family planning? Sounds like an odd combination, but not in the dusty lanes of Aligarh, where an unlikely blend of both cuts through the apparent chaos. Even as residents battle a serious lack of civic amenities, there are those like Zafaruddin, 27, a daily-wage labourer, who are crusaders of another sort. Until six months ago, few knew the reclusive father of four from Bhujpura. But today, Zafaruddin is called a “role model”—ever since he won the Happy Dampatti (Happy Couples) contest, a reality show targeted at low-income couples in Aligarh’s slums. He won because he is one of the first men from his community in the city to have opted for male sterilisation; many others have followed his lead. In predominantly Muslim societies such as this one, sterilisation, especially of men, is still taboo. But for Zafaruddin, religion mattered little at the time. “All I could think was: ‘I need a quick, permanent solution to family planning.’ With rising prices, I can’t afford to have any more children. If only I had known about male sterilisation earlier! But I learnt about it at a Happy Dampatti camp and I instantly got it done,” he says.
How does Happy Dampatti work? Modelled on the popular television show Indian Idol and cleverly tweaked to appeal to slum dwellers, the contest has seen many stereotypes take a backseat. Young couples are invited to enter the contest, interviewed on camera and asked to share personal stories about using contraceptive methods. Based on the interviews, their confidence levels and awareness of family planning, the couples are judged by a panel of experts. What has made Happy Dampatti immensely popular among Aligarh couples is that this is no regular “awareness drive”. It targets family planning not by sermonising, but by plucking role models from within the community, where too many are unaware of modern contraceptive methods, and a family having six to eight children is the norm.
The enthusiastic, if surprising, response to Happy Dampatti is really what has set the ball rolling here. “Nearly 3000 couples participated, 200 interviewed, parts of which were aired on local television and radio channels, in effect, reaching out to a population of six lakh. The fact that people are able to see their own neighbours on air, talking about the contraceptive methods they use, being open about subjects that were considered taboo, has been inspiring for others,” explains Dalbir Singh, technical officer at Urban Health Initiative (UHI), the organisation that launched Happy Dampatti, with the support of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The effects, happily, are already beginning to show.
At Kehkashan and Mohammed Shakeel’s home, in a slum cluster called Jeevangarh in Aligarh, talking about sex and contraceptive methods is no hush-hush affair. Kehkashan, 25, a mother of three with a jovial way about her, and Shakeel, 28, her bashful husband, are thrilled that their regular condom use has won them a place among the 35 winning couples of Happy Dampatti. They received a shiny new fridge, and oodles of confidence. “I was hesitant at first: how would I talk about condoms on camera? But when I saw so many other couples out there, also speaking about all this on camera, I let go and spoke freely,” recalls Kehkashan.
Modelled on Indian Idol, but for an urban slum milieu, the show does not sermonise as much as it incentivises family planning.
Such sentiments are echoed in Aligarh’s other slums. Everywhere, you meet couples who have begun to cling to refrains like: “Sarkar kehti hai hum do, hamaare do, hum kehte hain, hum do, hamaara ek.” For one, scores of couples are beginning to see sense in having only as many children as they can afford to raise comfortably, with a space of three years between each. In Gandhinagar, for example, a cluster dominated by a Hindu community, Mamta, 26, and Kamal Verma, 27, have one daughter, and don’t want another child—for a while. “We always keep condoms at home,” says Mamta, dressed coyly in a red sari, pallu drawn over her head. “After we won a prize on Happy Dampatti,” she says, pointing to the home theatre set behind her, “a lot of couples in our neighbourhood ask us for advice on family planning.”
There is, indeed, a palpable sense of liberation that is livening up the community. A rare openness to bedroom chatter, a new confidence in being able to control and plan their lives. It isn’t just Happy Dampatti, but an infectious atmosphere that’s catching everyone’s fancy. Meet feisty Anisha (she likes to go by her first name), a peer educator from Jeevangarh, who goes door to door getting groups of women together. “I use board games, like a tweaked version of Snakes and Ladders that has been adapted to family planning, to bust myths that many women have. I create an environment where women talk openly with each other about their sex lives and contraceptive methods. Mehndi competitions, for example, work really well to create an easy bond,” she explains. Also essential to beating old stigmas is clearing the air on sterilisation. Condoms are the most popular contraceptive here, but to encourage safer and permanent techniques, local imams are brought in to explain that having a surgical procedure is in no way disrespectful to Islam, points out Dalbir Singh.
Thus far, in seven clusters covering over more than 200 slums, thanks to UHI's collective efforts, including Happy Dampatti, 2,047 women and 310 men have opted for sterilisation. Nearly 3,800 have had intrauterine contraceptive devices (IUD) implanted, while injectible contraception (DMPA) has found 2,242 takers. That is a huge jump in a place where the primary concerns are no spousal interaction, low awareness levels about family planning, and little bedroom talk. But now, family planning is becoming a talking point: between couples, among friends, and even at family gatherings. “I have two girls and we don’t want any more children. So I started taking oral contraceptive pills. Now, my wife and I can have sex whenever we want. No tension!” exclaims Brijgopal Sharma, 29, a shop owner. “The buzz around the reality show in the neighbourhood gave me a chance to talk about it with my friends, eight of whom have followed my lead and adopted various family planning methods,” he adds. Chand Tara, 25, and her husband Parvez, 30, on their part, were relieved when their decision to opt for female sterilisation after the birth of their second child recently found support from both sets of parents. “The education levels are low, plus there is rampant misconception that getting an operation done is against our religion. But I don’t believe it. My neighbour and sisters-in-law have opted for an operation as well, inspired by me! People have certainly started thinking more about family planning now,” says Chand Tara.
That’s true. Examples of couples who have modern contraceptive terms on their fingertips and women finally being able to talk openly about practical sexual concerns are plenty. In Aligarh, they are the real reality television stars. Without the glitter, but abounding in promise.
Jan 16, 2012: Edited after posting. A slightly edited version of this piece appeared in print.