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Mind the gap

People don’t respond when they are told to keep their families small. A more nuanced approach to population management is required, says Lalita Panicker.

india Updated: Aug 11, 2009 01:39 IST
Lalita Panicker

Population control is a must. We are sitting on a volcano. We don’t need so many people. Population is a drag on growth.
These are some of the sentiments recently heard from the highest quarters, including from Health Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad. But we are justifiably proud of our young population, our demographic dividend. We will assume that these

vast numbers of young people we are so proud of didn’t spring up from immaculate conception. So where do we stand? Is a young and growing population a good thing or a bad thing?

It may interest the minister and other Cassandras to know that the new National Population Policy (NPP) unveiled in 2000 does not speak of population as a problem. Neither does it use the word ‘control’. The need to stop the unwashed masses from procreating formed the pivot of Sanjay Gandhi’s uniquely cruel sterilisation drive. That many in their prime were forcibly denied the joys of parenthood is now well-documented.

There are lessons from the political fall-out of that vicious campaign.

Simple. People didn’t then and they don’t now like to be told how many children they should have. It is a personal choice and cannot be restricted because the government gets the heebie-jeebies about the population clock galloping on.

The advocacy of strong-arm methods for controlling population is an attempt by the government to cover up how spectacularly it has failed to implement its own population policy. The trouble in India is that there has never been much clarity on the issue of population. The Hindutva loonies have always propagated the bizarre notion that Hindus must go forth and multiply lest they be swamped by the infinitely more fertile Muslims. The other is that the poor have a penchant for producing more children to help augment household income and that they must be headed off at the pass.

The question of choice in the size of one’s family does not seem to arise. There is no evidence to suggest that the poor or illiterate want more children. They simply don’t have the access to space their children or indeed the assurance that a child born to them will live to see its first birthday. Like we take out insurance for a rainy day, they too hedge their bets. Given a choice, would most of us opt for a permanent method of family planning? No. Neither would a poor person.

The ‘cafeteria approach’, where a basket of contraceptives would be offered, remains a pipedream. Family planning clinics hardly exist in rural areas. The mindset of rural health workers is to somehow get hold of people and ensure that they do not reproduce any more.

If a woman were to get a reversible choice of contraceptive and basic healthcare, chances are that she would opt for a smaller family. The poor all the more realise the need for smaller families, especially in light of their limited resources. China, that proponent of strong-arm tactics on the one-child policy, has realised the folly of its ways and has all but reversed it. It has seen the deleterious psychological effects on children who grow up alone to obsessively concerned parents and on women who long for a second or third child.

Have you noticed that apart from thundering on about stopping people in their tracks on the issue of reproduction, there is no informed debate on this issue any more? The aim of the NPP was to bring down the total fertility rate (the number of children per woman) to 2.1 by 2010. But today, the figure is 2.8, ruling out even a remote possibility that this will happen. In states like Uttar Pradesh, the administration is busy building statues, perhaps as a diversion to prevent people from producing children. Much like Azad’s novel formula of giving people power and so they can watch television to stop them getting some action between the sheets.

This poverty of thought on what is an issue that needs urgently to be addressed will boomerang on our economic growth story. There is no point hyping this demographic dividend if young people do not have either the health or education to make them productive.

This government has the mandate to engage in some innovative thinking on this matter. And always keeping the aam admi central to any policy. The noted economist A.K. Shiva Kumar once told me with disarming simplicity. “Take care of people, and population will take care of itself.”

If the government can draft IT tsar Nandan Nilekani to frame unique identity cards, can it not set up a similar autonomous body to oversee a population stabilisation programme? The minister and his people can then be free to tackle the myriad other problems we have, control them if need be. People are not some abstract mass that can be brought to heel. The issue of children is a very emotive one. It must also be kept in mind that no policy can work if it focuses only on women. For the majority of families, it is men who determine the size of the family.

Now that things are moving along, we hope swimmingly, on the education front, population should be taken up in mission mode. It is not difficult. It is not expensive. All it takes is to involve people and provide them with the tools to regulate and safeguard their families. People don’t respond when you tell them that they must keep their families small so that population figures can be contained. They do when you tell them that smaller families mean more food on the table and more money in the kitty. The choice is clear, isn’t it?