Indian state offers free breast implants to the poor

Michael Safi in Delhi
The Indian state of Tamil Nadu is offering free breast implants to the poor. Photograph: fStop Images/Getty Images/Vetta

A south Indian state has become possibly the first in the world to offer publicly-funded breast implants, its health minister arguing, “Why should beauty treatment not be available to the poor?”

The Tamil Nadu state health department on Wednesday launched the free service at a clinic in the capital Chennai. “If we don’t offer [the procedure for free], they may opt for dangerous methods or take huge loans for it,” said C Vijaya Baskar, the state health minister.

The clinic had already been providing breast reconstruction surgery for cancer patients, but was now extending the service for people who wished to alter the size of their breasts for other health or cosmetic reasons.

The head of plastic surgery at the clinic, Dr V Ramadevi, said some of her patients sought breast reduction to alleviate shoulder and back pain, while others sought to augment or shrink their breasts for a boost in confidence.

“There is a psychological benefit. Many girls who have larger breasts don’t like to go out. There is no reason this surgery should be restricted from the poor.”

The procedure would also be available to men, she said.

Cosmetic surgery has slowly grown in popularity as Indians have became wealthier, with about 420,000 procedures performed in 2016, compared to about 390,000 six years earlier.

According to the International Society of Aesthetic Plastic Surgery, there were about 33,000 breast augmentation surgeries carried out in India in 2016, the most recent year it published statistics, versus about 50,600 procedures in 2010.

But among the men the figure has grown, according to the same group, with 25,640 seeking breast reduction in 2016, an 11,000 increase on 2010 figures.

Among the procedures that have surged in popularity are controversial “limb-lengthening” surgeries intended to increase a patient’s height.

Apart from providing breast surgery, the Chennai clinic will also perform free cleft lip surgeries for children and hand transplants among other procedures.

Tamil Nadu’s government is known for its largesse, particularly under former chief minister Jayalalithaa, who pioneered free food canteens and doled out wedding jewellery and venues to the poor.

A former public health director for the state, Dr S Elango, criticised this latest scheme. “[It] sounds populist, but it is not an ideal public health programme,” he told the Times of India.

“State funds are required for emerging non communicable diseases and communicable diseases. It is sad that we are now focusing on beauty instead of life-saving surgeries.”