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World Population Day has just gone by minus the usual doomsday predictions that India will soon go under with the weight of a billion plus. This is a welcome sign of maturity and, dare we hope, an understanding that, channelised correctly, a large population is an asset. India’s advantage lies in its enormous young population. But, with the population slated to go up by 371 million between 2001 to 2026, there is no room for complacency. The health minister’s suggestion to introduce sex education in schools does not come a moment too soon. This should be aimed not so much at controlling numbers as to impressing on people that the smaller their families, the better the quality of life.
Popular perception has always been that population is a problem in India. Experts have propounded the theory that development is the best contraceptive. It is to an extent but, today, thanks to factors like the mass media, almost everyone realises the importance of quality of life for their children. The State is yet to catch up with this thinking, or rather it still feels that it knows best how many children people should have. This is why you see state governments still introducing incentives and disincentives to encourage small families. The problem lies in the prevalent methods of family planning. For the vast majority of Indians, the World Bank-promoted basket of contraceptive choice does not exist. At best they have sterilisation in dusty public health clinics. Why should anyone go in for contraception that is irreversible? Of course, the focus is on women here. They should reserve the choice to have children. Equally, men should be partners in the stabilisation process.
Population figures mean nothing to most people. But if the State were to convince people, through imaginative campaigns, that smaller families work better and make available a choice of contraception, chances are that they would listen. If couples are assured of the survival of their children, they are likely to space their families better. The message should be — take care of people and population will take care of itself.