Banal and obvious are the two adjectives that immediately come to mind to describe the debate, for the first time in 33 years, specifically on population stabilisation in Parliament. The fact that the Lok Sabha has been apprised of the fact that we are nowhere near stabilisation despite being one of the first countries to put a family planning programme in place suggests that this politically explosive issue has been swept under the carpet for far too long. Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad, who lets his silence speak for him oftener than his words, told us everything we already know: that poverty and early marriage are among the main causes for large families; that population stabilisation cannot be achieved through legal force; that 14 states have achieved the optimum total fertility rate of 2.1 and that there can be no coercion in family planning. But what he didn’t tell us is what the government has done, or plans to do, to address the population issue.
Had the health ministry done its job, that of delivering quality healthcare to people, there would be no need for this debate on population, much of it would have been resolved. If maternal and child mortality had been addressed, birth rates would automatically have come down. If the promised ‘cafeteria method of contraceptive choice’ had been offered, people would have opted for reversible methods of family planning. If men had been involved more in the programmes, family size could more easily be scaled down. If more health workers were sensitised, the message of smaller, healthier families would have got around a lot more and a lot better. So there we have many of the answers if Mr Azad would care to listen. It is a myth that the poor want to have more children. They do so because they have no access to contraception and no guarantee that their children will live past infancy. If the minister had focused on primary healthcare, many of the problems which dog the family planning programme could have been eliminated. Incentives may work in some cases. But the size of a person’s family is so personal and inviolate that people don’t decide on it according to incentives in cash or kind.
Certainly, there have to be more awareness campaigns on the benefits of a small family, but ultimately it is the choice of the individual. India has been down the path of coercion once with disastrous results. But this doesn’t mean that population should be treated as a political hot potato for so long. There are many suggestions by eminent experts on solutions to the issue, all of them easily doable. So perhaps, it is time for Mr Azad to schedule another stock-taking debate so we can ascertain that the population numbers being bandied about add up to something concrete towards stabilisation.