Counting On People

Is there a population explosion in India? Is the population really growing at an alarming rate? The answer is no. India's population growth rate and total fertility rate has been steadily declining over the last two decades. In 1951, the average number of children was six and today it is little over three. Yet, statistics show that population has grown from 36 crore in 1951 to 102 crore in 2001 and it is still growing.

Then why are the numbers so high? This is because India has a high proportion of young people (60 per cent) in the reproductive age group. So even if there are fewer children per couple, the quantum increase in number will remain high because the numbers of reproducing couples are high. Simple as this answer may seem, it is absolutely correct. Yet, the government prefers to overlook this fact while formulating its population policies that remain coercive and demographically driven. There are innumerable horror stories of women whose human rights were grossly violated so that population targets could be met.

Some of these experiences of women and the conditions they face in the name of population stabilization have been documented for the first time in a book, "Coercion Versus Empowerment", edited by Shruti Pandey, Abhijit Das, Shravanti Reddy, Binamrata Rani and published by the Human Rights Law Network (HRLN, a collective of lawyers and social activists.

In this book, individual testimonies reveal the impact of these policies on the people. Over 50 affected persons from 15 states recount their personal experiences, detailing failed sterilizations and post-operative complications, coercive abortions due to failed sterilization, desertion, abandonment and abuse to meet the two-child norm.

All this information has been collated from the People's Tribunal on Coercive Population Policies and the Two-Child Norm organized in 2004 by HRLN in collaboration with the Hunger Project, Healthwatch, Sama and other NGOs to initiate a public debate on the issue.

According to Syeda Hameed, member, Planning Commission, the testimonies had a major impact on all those present at the public tribunal. "I was very moved by the stories I heard. The challenge for me as a member of the Planning Commission was to be able to sensitize policymakers on this issue. At this time when the approach paper to the 11th Plan is being finalized, we are trying to reflect the issues raised at the tribunal," she said.

This is why most activists feel that although the tribunal took place two years ago, it has relevance even today. "We find new forms of incentives emerging to meet population targets. Nowadays the incentives for sterilization are gun licenses. In Lakhimpur, UP, two sterilizations can get a license for one handgun. To get a license for a big gun, the target is five sterilizations. The focus on incentives, disincentives and sterilization has to stop," says Abhijit Das, activist and co-editor of the book.

Clearly, the answer to population stabilization is not pushing sterilizations and chasing targets. But why have targets become necessary in the first place? "Population growth has become a perennial source of worry for politicians, policymakers and development planners. There is a fear psychosis or a number phobia amongst them. While numbers are fascinating and usually carry with them the weight of so-called undeniable truth, the numbers related to population have led to extremely debatable and often misinformed public policies that have serious consequences," contends Almas Ali, public health specialist, Population Foundation of India.

This is where the book becomes extremely relevant as it debunks popular population myths. One of most popularly held beliefs is that India's population is growing because the uneducated rural poor are having more children than they did 50 years ago, while the educated and urban middle class controls its family size.

Ali points out that in reality, the size of families among all social groups, poor and middle class, rural and urban, is decreasing. Rural women have 2.1 fewer children than they did 30 years ago while urban women have 1.7 fewer children over the same period.

Another myth that the poor have more children because they do not appreciate the benefits of family planning is also exposed. Studies show that the poor too have a strong desire to plan their families. But lack of financial resources, inability or lack of access to contraceptive methods prevents them from doing so. In fact, the unmet need for contraceptives on some states in as high as 25 per cent.

The biggest myth that the book deflates is that the population of Hindus is declining and that of Muslims is increasing. It has often been propagated that because Muslims have high fertility rates they need to be controlled. This fallacious belief has led to the targeting of this community and attempts to control reproductive capacities of the women have been made under the guise of population control.

Coming to the two-child norm, Shruti Pandey, HRLN lawyer and co-editor of the book, asserts, "Imposing the two-child norm is unnecessary when most people, particularly women, want to have fewer children. The National Family Health Survey of 1999 found that 72 per cent of women with two children and 86 per cent of women with four or more children do not have any more children. If these women have more children than they want, it is because the state has failed to provide them adequate access to safe and appropriate reproductive health services and, more importantly, the freedom and empowerment to make fertility choices."

In states where the two-child norm has been imposed, the incidence of pre-birth sex selection practices has grown thus worsening the already declining sex ratio. Studies have shown that this norm is directly related to men deserting their wives, denying paternity of their children or even giving away their children. Yet, the government continues to embark on the perilous path of adopting coercive methods to `stabilize' population. Primitive and risky practices like using bicycle pumps to inflate the abdomen for sterilization surgeries, injecting quinacrine, an anti-malarial drug, and open-air operations continue to be performed to meet population goals.

How many more botched sterilizations, abortions and deaths will it take for the government to realize that social development, women's empowerment and greater gender equality has to be at the core of its population policies? It is high time the government stops counting its people and instead begins to count on them.  


More by :  Swapna Majumdar

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