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29 Nov


Traditionally in India, the study of population is understood to be the concern of demographers and, at the most, of government census officials who bring out the Census of India Report once in ten years. Population studies, however, is more than just keeping count of numbers, or of births and deaths. It presents an overview of the socioeconomic condition of society and is relevant in determining its course of social and economic development. Thomas Malthus’ work Essay on the Principle of Population (1798) is considered as the leading treatise on study of population in which he explicated the fundamental theory of population growth.
According to the theory, population grows at a much faster rate than what the natural resources can provide for. The number of people doubles every 25 years if unchecked and thus grows at a geometric rate (1, 2, 4, 8 etc.) while food production increases at an arithmetic rate (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc). And given the limited natural resource base, there will be a shortage of food supply. This gap between the rates of increase of population and food supply creates what he termed as ‘positive’ conditions such as wars, famines and epidemics that act as checks against overpopulation. He was against the use of birth control methods and abortion to check population. He suggested some ‘preventive’ checks for overpopulation like prolonged celibacy and late marriage.
India was one of the first countries to recognise the population problem and adopt an official national programme on family planning in 1952. Concern over the rise in population in India started well before independence, in the 1930s. Between 1881 and 1931, India’s population grew from 27.7 million to 279.0 million; and between 1931 and 1940, it grew from 279.0 million to 318.7 million.
The rise was phenomenal, from 10% in the first decade to a 14% in the second. This growth was unprecedented, primarily because of the measures taken to control epidemic and famine situations. The concern over the rise of
population was more among the social reformers, intellectuals and the Congress party than in the British government. The British government was cautious in raising the issue, as they had witnessed the reaction of people to birth control back in Britain and also because they did not want to create conditions of unrest among the Indians over the issue.
Most Congress workers, under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi, were against birth control measures. The use of contraceptives was considered sinful; it was seen as a method to offset the procreative role of sex. But many leaders, scholars and trainees of the Indian Civil Service, who had been to England and acquainted with the Malthusian theory, considered India as a likely casualty of the ‘positive’ checks – wars, famines and epidemics due to overpopulation and poverty.
The Neo-Malthusian League was established in Madras (present Chennai) as early as in 1929. The League brought out a propaganda journal titled The Madras Birth Control Bulletin. It was in Mumbai that birth control. was for the first time seen not as a means to control the population, but as a method of liberating women from the frequent and difficult task of childbearing, preventing unwanted pregnancies and improving the health of women.
Professor R.D.Karve in Mumbai made it his lifelong mission to campaign for the rights of women and educate people about birth control. He later became the member of the Family Planning Association of India formed in 1949. In 1935, the All India Women’s Conference also took up the issue of birth control in the annual meeting held in Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala) and adopted a resolution to uphold birth control with the view to improve the status of women in society.
The ‘Bengal famine’ in which over 1.5 million people died and the inquiry that followed brought to light the effect of a rising population on the economy and poverty. Similarly the Bhore Committee Report of 1949 also related issues of public health, sanitation and prevention from communicable diseases with population control. Both the reports formed the foundation for the family planning programme after independence and its inclusion into India’s five-year development plans. The First Five-Year Plan 1951-6) stated its intention as follows, “the reduction of birth rate to the extent necessary to stabilize the population at a level consistent with the requirements of the national economy”.
Clearly, the intention was not just to reduce population, but also to stabilise population growth rate at a level that can be sustained by the national economy. But population control was pursued as an independent agenda, separate from the concerns of development and social change.
It was in the Fifth Plan period (1974-79) that the National Population Policy (1976) was formulated. Concerted effort was made to improve the organisational structure of the health department and increase its efficiency in achieving family planning goals. Government offices, villages and urban centres were targeted for sterilisation. The Emergency that followed soon after, as per many analysts, brought out the uninhibited and obsessive side to this drive of bringing down the population. The emergency created a fear among people about forced sterilisation and the newly elected Janata government changed its approach to pacify people’s fear regarding birth control. It adopted the term “family welfare” instead of “family panning” to suggest a malleable character of the programme. The concentration was now on educating people and thereby motivating them to adopt family welfare measures. A number of recommendations of the 1976 policy were nonetheless adopted. For example, the age of marriage of boys and girls was raised to 21 and 18 respectively. The Sixth Plan (1980-85) set long and short-term targets, which persisted through the Seventh Plan (1985-91); the long-term goals focussed on reducing the size of the family, the birth, infant mortality and death rates, while the short-term goal was to encourage sterilisation, use of Intra-Uterine Devices (IUDs) and other conventional contraceptives.
The Plans demonstrated, time and again, that enacting laws or implementing birth control programmes was unable to deliver the desired results. The deeper analysis of the population puzzle reveals that the accompanying measures to reduce poverty levels, economic and social disparities in the country were not effectively translated into practice. Most remained on paper; the goal of employment for all, improving the quality of life of people by providing efficient and regular basic services of education, health and sanitation and water and most importantly strengthening the capacity of people to procure these services without difficulty are yet to be achieved.
High population growth rate is found in the northern states of India in comparison to the rest of the country. Interestingly, Kerala, which is one of the states that has brought down its fertility rates, is still one of the most economically backward states in the country. The Kerala experience illustrates how economic growth is not the only important condition for population regulation. In fact, the case of West Bengal, the other communist stronghold in the country has not been able to achieve the success of Kerala, primarily due to the lack of attention given to female literacy.
An analysis of states like Goa, Kerala and Tamil Nadu, which have registered a drop in population growth, demonstrates other supposedly “extraneous” reasons for the same. Goa despite the strong presence of the church has never been averse to family planning propaganda. It has like Kerala always recorded high female literacy level. The age at marriage of women has been higher than the rest of India. Kerala with a communist state in power for over two decades in the State and a strong workers’ movement was able to direct economic and social change. Land reforms, regularisation of minimum wages in agriculture and the organised sectors and premium attention to primary and secondary education ensured social justice and reduction of poverty levels and thereby created conditions for fertility regulation and decline in population growth.
Tamil Nadu experience reveals the role of a strong bureaucracy and political will in popularising the family planning programmes. Known for the self-respect movement spearheaded by Periyar and his strong radical views on caste, status of women and education, marriage and contraception in the 1920s, the political and social climate was already set for implementing birth control programmes.
The bureaucracy in Tamil Nadu pioneered the family planning programmes and developed a comprehensive maternal and child welfare programme in the state. The ‘camp approach’ was also systematically institutionalised in the state. The programme was also decentralised to the district level and was made a special responsibility of the district administrators.
Components of teaching or awareness building, extension or instructions about contraceptive services and ‘after care’ services to persons who undergo vasectomy was included in programme. Popular initiatives (funded by International agencies) like midday meals for over 9 million school children, which also generated employment for over two hundred thousand women in the villages, further helped in building a mass base for the programme.
Evidently the supply driven services of fertility and population regulation have to be complemented by the principle of demand for these services. The demand or motivation for fertility regulation has to be created by concerned citizens, organisations and the government. Increasingly it is clear that a target-oriented programme of population control is narrow and does not address the larger social, political and economic issues that perpetuate conditions of poverty, illiteracy and ill health. Any policy framework for population control has to create favourable conditions for economic, social and political equality as well as environment friendly economic growth. Bureaucratic efficiency and good governance are also at the heart of a successful delivery system of health services. Unless this multi-pronged approach is adopted and implemented with right earnest, containing population growth will be difficult, if not impossible. The National Population Policy of India, 1994, explicitly argues for a pro-poor, pro-nature and a prowomen population programme, which views people as active partners in dealing with the population problem rather than the source itself. Initiatives by the Indian government to decentralise development concerns to the lowest levels of administration and thereby involving the elected representatives of the village councils and non-governmental organisations in implementing health programmes, as well as mainstreaming alternative medicine systems and health delivery systems within the government have been evolve a multi-pronged approach to population and development. The policy attempts changes, however, have to be supported by a strong political will and a sense of social responsibility.

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