The problem

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IN the consciousness of most urban middle class Indians, those who have successfully restricted their family size to two or three children, the word ‘population’ is invariably associated with galloping numbers for which the poor, those belonging to backward social groups, including some religious groups, are held responsible. Even at the dawn of the new millennium, shrill voices are heard calling urgently for a more forceful and vigorous family planning programme. For fifty years we have been in such a hurry to lower birth rates and the rate of population growth that we have disregarded saner voices calling for a more reasoned and balanced approach to population issues. Equally, we have limited documentation of how the programme is implemented at the field level or on the interface between the programme and the clients.

To adversaries of the population bomb theory the population programme conjures an imagery of cooked up data, coercion and callousness, and lack of respect for the needs of the clients. Tragically, both the protagonists of the family planning approach and those who advocate a broad-based approach, of taking the needs of the people into account, seem to have stopped listening to each other. There is really no genuine debate on the complex interlinkages between population, poverty, economic growth, education and overall health and well-being of people.

In the last eight years, especially since the International Conference on Population and Development held in Cairo in September 1994, there has been an attempt to advocate a broader reproductive health approach that includes family planning as a component. While the new language of rights and freedom has gained greater acceptance among policy-makers as well as programme implementers, just beneath the surface of terminologies and new labels, the old fear of galloping numbers persists.

Some people argue that much of this fear is based on a lack of understanding about the built-in growth momentum in India’s population due to its young age structure, which in turn is a result of high fertility in the recent past. A few enlightened political leaders and administrators at the top have increasingly begun to recognise the importance of education, access to health care services, greater awareness and, most important, overall economic development in propelling a demographic transition by taking a holistic approach to population and development. They cite the examples of Kerala, Goa, Tamil Nadu, and more recently Himachal Pradesh as states that have made noticeable progress in social sectors, infrastructural development, as well as improving access to health and family planning services and have completed or are about to complete their demographic transition.

The National Population Policy, 2000 (NPP-2000) – a historic document shaped by a number of successive experts, civil servants and governments – in some ways marks a major departure from the past. In particular, it calls for an end to a regime of incentives and disincentives, which at the grassroots level has often involved compulsion and even coercion to accept a family planning method after two children. While the NPP-2000 acknowledges the importance of convergence and synergy in making the system responsive to the needs of women or of the poor, it stops short of calling for a coordinated approach to primary health care, communicable diseases and reproductive health. Nevertheless, it does signify a bold step in the right direction.

India is a country of wide diversities; it is also an interesting bundle of contradictions. We have adopted the new language of reproductive health and reproductive rights with ease. At the same time, some states have formulated state-specific population policies which are framed in the old population control mindset and have set targets for lowering fertility within a specified time period.

Attainment of targets by a stated date or year is highly unrealistic and, if vigorously pursued, can impinge on the rights of the people. We are informed that an international NGO, linked to a significant bilateral donor, assisted four states to draft their policies that the states have adopted. Interestingly, all the four documents use the politically correct language of reproductive health and women’s empowerment while at the same time advocating stringent incentives and disincentives for people who have more that two children!

The idea of a state population policy is to identify and resolve issues pertinent to the region or sub-region. It is therefore important to acknowledge that barring a few states, most others have pledged their resolve to do away with the incentive/disincentive regime and address local issues in their population policies. Notable among them are Gujarat and Orissa.

Population stabilisation will happen because, and there is enough evidence from all over the country including the large North Indian states, women do not desire many children; they would rather limit reproduction if they have confidence that their children will survive, and if the family planning and other reproductive health services are easily available and accessible without undermining their sense of dignity and privacy. Experience of women’s empowerment programmes in the government sector and among NGOs has amply demonstrated that enhancing women’s status and, in particular, their decision-making and bargaining power within the family and the community has a positive impact on a number of development indicators – including education of girls, family size and children’s health. Coupled with sustained efforts to enhance income and create conditions where women retain control over that income, this could make a big difference.

While national and state policies pay lip service to women’s empowerment, we still have a long way to go before service providers and administrators begin to look at women as autonomous human beings – thereby changing the dominant mindset where women are seen as baby producing machines on the one hand and perpetuators of the population problem on the other. The challenge before all the players in this field is to frame population and development issues in the larger context of gender justice and women’s autonomy.

Since the announcement of NPP-2000 the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of the Government of India has encouraged a number of institutions and networks to debate the national policy and emerging state policies. It is indeed heartening that, after almost 50 years of one-way communication, the government has welcomed public debate on the issue. Through this issue of Seminar we hope to generate an informed debate on population and development – moving away from doomsday scenarios on the one hand and a negation of the problem on the other. It is not as if population size is not an important development concern – the question is to understand the issue in a larger historical perspective and come to grips with factors that propel change.