An influential tribal council in the northeastern state of Meghalaya is encouraging mothers to bear more babies with cash rewards for doubling its population to two million, its chieftain said.
The Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC), a constitutional body to protect and preserve traditional customary laws and culture, is worried that the state's Khasi and the Jaintia tribes could become extinct with the unabated influx of non-tribal people to the state.
"There is a great fear that Khasi and Jaintia tribes could get wiped out if we do not encourage bigger families from now onwards and hence a systematic campaign has been launched by us," said KHADC chief HS Shylla.
"Last week we rewarded a mother of 17 children with a cash prize of Rs 16,000. We are soon going to felicitate another Khasi mother of 20 children," Shylla said.
Meghalaya, bordering Bangladesh, is a predominantly Christian state of 2.3 million people. The Khasis, the largest tribe in the state, accounts for about 879,000. The Jaintias and the Khasis put together make about one million.
Unlike in other parts of India where the bride traditionally moves into the groom's home, the Khasi tribe operates according to an age-old matrilineal system under which the man shifts to the wife's residence.
Under Khasi customs dating back more than 1,000 years, children carry their mother's family name and women have the main say in the running of the household.
The council now plans to offer cash rewards to all mothers having 15 or more children as part of a drive to encourage baby boom between the two tribes.
"We make it a point to speak to the villagers about the need to have more children if we want the existence of the Khasis and the Jaintias as distinct tribes. We want the population of the two tribes to double to two million, although we have set no target," said the 52-year-old Shylla, a father of four girls.
He considers himself 'unlucky' as his wife was unable to bear him more children for medical reasons.
The council's move for bigger families is in sharp contrast to India's family planning efforts.
"We cannot encourage such things as it is medically not advisable for mothers to bear children in large numbers," Health Minister ED Marak said.
"But in the absence of any legislation, we cannot prevent the council from launching such a campaign."
Women rights groups in Meghalaya have opposed the campaign.
"What happens to the mother's health if someone bears children every year and what is the quality of life the kids are going to have? These are issues to be addressed and we find this campaign absolutely bizarre and unacceptable," said Hasina Kharbhih, Meghalaya's best-known rights activist and a Khasi herself.
But Shylla is undeterred by such resistance. "We are facing opposition from various quarters, but we will go ahead and try to convince the people that with the numbers, quality in life will come automatically," he said.
"More important than anything else is the future of these two tribes."
Trying to justify that non-tribal people could overwhelm Khasis and Jaintias, Shylla said the latest census figures showed a decline in the decadal population growth rate between 1991 and 2001 from 32.86 percent to 29.94 percent.
"We are motivating people against using condoms as this is indirectly slowing the population growth among our tribes," Shylla said.