This article provides information about the experience of tackling population problem in India:
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 were 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- 56) stated its intention as follows, “the reduction of birth rate to the extent necessary to stabilise 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.
The provisions of population control in India by different five year plan critically examine. No numerical targets or demographic goals were set in the First and the Second Plan (1956-61) and people were expected to go to the clinics and seek family planning services. Besides providing the regular methods of birth control such as diaphragm, condoms, vaginal foam tablets, sterilisation services were also provided. The Third Plan (1961 -66) replaced the clinic-oriented approach with an extension-education approach, which aimed at taking the message of birth control to the people instead of waiting for them to approach the government clinics.
The message to the people was to adopt the small family norm, which was not only a sensible choice in terms of giving their children a better future and improving the health of women, but also the need for building a healthy and prosperous country. The family planning programme was officially made a part of the public health departments and peripheral health workers such as the Auxiliary Nurses- Midwives (ANMs) were appointed in primary health centres to inform, motivate and encourage villagers to adopt family planning methods.
By the Fourth Plan (1969-74), targets for sterilisation were set and camps were held to operate on people to meet targets. Although 61 % of the target was achieved, population growth increased at the same rate, which perplexed policy makers and administrators.
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 (lUDs) 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.