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Contraception? And us? You must be joking

It’s ironic that while taboos around tuberculosis, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases have disappeared, the government is still shy about discussing contraception and sterilisation.

india Updated: Jul 10, 2010 23:19 IST
Sanchita Sharma
Sanchita Sharma
Hindustan Times

"This village has a lot of kids, I’m told it is God’s gift,” remarked Microsoft founder Bill Gates, 54, on a visit to Bihar in May.

Gates was in Guleria village in Bihar’s Khagaria district to review polio and other vaccination services being funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. Home to the “maha-dalit” musahars (rat-eaters), the lowest sub-caste among dalits, the village was left with only young children, women and the elderly as the young men had migrated to other states in search of work. The dozen young women I spoke to had an average of six children — the lowest four and the highest seven. None of them had heard of contraceptives, just as the children had not heard of schools.

We’ve all heard that India has the diversity of a continent, but few people know that it has the population of several continents. The UN Population Prospects data shows Uttar Pradesh’s 183 million population equal Brazil’s 187 million, Maharashtra’s 104 million equally Mexico’s population, Orissa’s 39 million equal’s Argentina, and Kerala’s 33 million are just a million ahead of Canada’s 32 million. Put all the states together and India accounts for 17 per cent of the world’s 6.8 billion people, with its population of 1.19 billion second only to China’s 1.34 billion. And with the teeming millions expected to multiply to 1.4 billion by 2026, you would have thought the country would be on a population stablilisation overdrive. You thought wrong. There’s work happening, but it’s happening so quietly that even the people meant to hear about it are clueless about what they can do not to have a baby.

It’s ironic that while taboos around tuberculosis, HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases have disappeared, the government is still shy about discussing contraception and sterilisation largely because it wants to distance itself from the forced sterilisations of the Emergency era.

Today — July 11 — is World Population Day, and the Union Health Ministry marked the occasion by making 3,000 school children run from Rashtrapati Bhawan to India Gate. Don’t ask me why. “Awareness” is the lame excuse, but if I ever get an intelligent answer, you’ll hear from me.

Clearly, what India does not need is China’s draconian one-child policy that prevented 400 million births since it was introduced in 1979 and came at a huge cost of society. Apart from making the workforce elderly, it led to millions aborting their girl child. That skewed the sex ratio so much that now 24 million men cannot find wives in China.

India’s population stabilisation policy has been advocating rather than forcing a two-child norm to bring down the country’s total fertility rate — the total number of children a woman has in her lifetime — to 2.1 from the 3.2 in 1998. We’ve done okay, it’s 2.6 now, but we would show better results if contraception services — such as sterilisations, contraceptive pill, intrauterine devices, injectible contraceptives etc — reached couples who need it. With fertility rates of 1.7, Kerala and Tamil Nadu have shown the way, but the national average remains high because of laggard Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, the two most post populous states that account for 30 per cent of the country’s population. Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Orissa, Jharkhand, Chattisgarh, Jharkhand and Uttarakhand are the other states that need attention.

With 50 per cent of the population now in the reproductive age of 15-49 years, India needs to worry about the 69.1 per cent people who do not use contraceptives. “Fifty-six per cent married women in Uttar Pradesh do not want more than two children, so it’s now up to the government to ensure that sterilisation services and contraceptives reach them,” said Dr Amarjit Singh, executive director, National Population Stabilisation Fund.

But if Guleria village is anything to go by, people would rather put their faith in God than government.

First Published: Jul 10, 2010 23:17 IST