Population explosion in India can create new problems especially for future generations, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said while addressing the nation on Independence Day. The statement came against the backdrop of India being projected to overtake China as the world’s most populous country around 2027, according to a United Nations (UN) report. In an interview with Mint, Shailaja Chandra, first executive director of the National Population Stabilization Fund, and former secretary in the ministry of health and family welfare talked about family planning schemes in India, the shortfalls, challenges and the way forward for population stabilization. Excerpts:

What is your opinion of Prime Minister Modi’s statement on population explosion in India? What do you think about laws regarding population control?

Prime Minister Modi expressed deep concern over the “jansankhya visphot” (population explosion), which is a direct outcome of irresponsible parenthood. He lamented that such children are often denied health and education as parents failed to plan the family. As the burgeoning population has become a burden on society he exhorted central and state governments to confront the situation.

Indeed, the Prime Minister broached this contentious but vital subject in a nation-wide address, a challenge no leader has ever highlighted publicly after forced sterilizations performed during Emergency brought odium to the family planning programme. Our population scenario is daunting. The fertility rates in densely populated states such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Rajasthan, and Madhya Pradesh are still high. On the other hand, in the nine states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Punjab, and Himachal Pradesh the fertility rate has plummeted to European levels and the fertility decline could soon become worrisome.

A new law will achieve nothing other than increasing harassment and inviting chastisement from the international community for reneging on our commitment at the International Conference on Population and Development 1994, which espoused free and full choice in marriage-related decisions and reproductive health. Twelve states in the country have at some time already enacted laws to adopt the two child policy or face punishment. That has had little effect on the reproductive practices of most people in those states.

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How effective have the Indian government’s family planning programmes been in bringing down fertility rates?

It’s a mixed bag. The ministry of health and family welfare pursued the family planning programmes with an emphasis on sterilization leading to the near exclusion of improving comfortable access to temporary methods of contraception. The will to genuinely help couples overcome contraceptive problems were brushed aside. An exaggerated dependence was placed on women who have studied till Class VIII called ASHAS because they carried condoms to village homes without any guarantee that men would use them. Data shows the use of condoms is extremely poor.

The implementation of family planning is a state subject and different states have adopted different strategies over the years. Some states such as Andhra Pradesh pushed the two child norm so much that they encouraged women to have two children in quick succession and then get sterilized. The state thus achieved 1.8 fertility rate when most of the country was grappling with fertility rates three times higher. This was done regardless of the woman’s child bearing capacity and need to care of the older child. Himachal Pradesh is a shining example of encouraging girls’ education up to Class XII and also overseeing that there was complete adherence to the legal age of marriage unlike other states in north India where early marriages still take place. Its example has been extraordinary.

Would you suggest any specific strategy followed elsewhere in the world, such as China, to combat population explosion?

Given that India is producing 25 million infants annually adding to an already colossal base of young people something has to be done. If the focus shifts to doing what countries such as Iran, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Indonesia did so successfully, the money and the means can be found.

In the eighties, Iran realised that the costs of maintaining a snowballing population exceeded the country’s capacity to provide sufficient food, education, housing, and employment. The health ministry launched a nationwide campaign and introduced contraceptives—pills, condoms, IUDs, implants, tubal ligations, and vasectomies. Birth control classes were required before a couple could get married. Mobile teams were sent to remote parts of the country to offer free vasectomies and tubal ligations. Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Indonesia also made injectables and IUDs easily available under their national programmes in a big way.

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The China example should never be adopted by any country. If India does it, it will be a disaster. In our country what is needed is for village health workers like ASHAs to be allotted a cluster of households with growing adolescents in the family. They can be enumerated and followed up with counselling on birth control and infant health.

To what extent did the existing staunch social, gender, and religious biases in India contribute to population explosion? What is the solution?

It is not a bias. It is just crude economics. A father pays less dowry to get a nubile daughter married. All families prefer a young girl to an older, educated one (unless she brings home earnings). While the need to prevent mishaps are real, the same families seem to postpone marriages if the girl starts earning in a factory or local school. Economic incentives seem to override the usual reservations then. There are scores of incentive schemes that encourage girls to stay longer in school but they do not make a sustainable impact. Such schemes should be linked to marriage and any couple from a high fertility district who has the first child after 22 may be given a post office savings certificate encashable in seven years and doubled if there is a four-year gap between two children.

Registration of births, deaths, and marriages should be moved out of the hands of so-called village headmen, sarpanches and BDOs (block development officers) who have failed us and should be entrusted to a more effective entity at the tehsil level reporting directly to the area SDM (sub-divisional magistrate). Non-registration of a marriage or a birth should make the couple ineligible for receiving any Aadhaar-linked benefit and also liable for criminal action for falsification of records, if attempted.

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Is India short of finance and manpower for effectively implementing family planning programmes?

Already a lot is being done under the National Health Mission. One does not need billions of rupees as no high-tech equipment is needed. One needs an effective agency to get after the states and to use the census data, Survey of India maps, National Informatics Centre’s knowledge of spatial mapping and local data to identify families and reach out to them. Aadhaar can be of immense help. The states need technical handholding, not more laws.

Can empowerment and strengthened reproductive rights of women help stabilize population?

If girls are married later, if they are allowed to study till Class XII as Himachal Pradesh did almost 20 years ago, things will change. Once educated, essentials such as contraception, immunization, nourishment, and the ability to negotiate sexual matters and timing of births will happen automatically. Stabilization will take at least two decades more but that does not mean we just sit back. Everything must be done to slow the momentum.

What are current challenges before India in controlling population and what is the way forward?

Demographers have said we are on a fast train running at high speed which cannot be stopped suddenly. Stabilization by all calculations will take another 25 to 30 years and we cannot bring it any faster because of the past legacy of a broad-based young population all of whom will have kids. However, if we pay attention to the quality of population, we can stay young and healthy as a nation. Pushing up the age of marriage, the timing of births, making all birth control measures easy to access, enlarging the use of injectables and IUD, will pay richer dividends than coercion or draconian laws. India has the knowledge. It needs a massive policy thrust.



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