The Human Flood That Could Swamp India

Timid politicians still aren't giving leadership on family planning

At a bustling street corner in downtown New Delhi, a big electronic board is clicking ominously. Once every two seconds--or 2,055 times every hour--the clock ticks to show another baby's birth somewhere in India. Last reading--949 million. At this rate, India will surpass China as the most populous nation within 50 years, with 1.62 billion people.

These are alarming statistics. India's new Prime Minister, I.K. Gujral, says that along with poverty, education, and infrastructure, population is an important issue. Yet many are skeptical he will do anything about it. Politicians have feared losing votes by advocating unpopular family-planning policies.

If Gujral can craft a coherent family-planning policy, he could do much to reduce rural poverty. According to the International Monetary Fund, India will take 112 years to close by half its income gap with the world's advanced nations. "What is needed is demonstrable political will and a massive mobilization of private agencies and the private sector," says Avabai Wadia, founder of the Family Planning Association of India.

Given India's checkered past, that will take a heroic political act. In the 1970s, former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's son, Sanjay, with his mother's blessing, outraged the public by ordering forcible sterilizations of large numbers of people. Since then, administrations have steered clear of the subject. Family planning, female literacy programs, and sterilization have nearly halved the birth rate from 6 per woman in 1951 to 3.4 today. But India is still far above its target of 2.1. India spends $420 million per year on family planning. Yet even Secretary of the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare Y.N. Chaturvedi says his budget is not enough.

BAD EXAMPLE. A number of factors exacerbate the problem. Indians tend to have bigger families because of a high infant mortality rate of 8%, a bias toward male children, and the need for extra farm hands. Many in government set a bad example. Laloo Prasad Yadav, the chief minister of the northeastern state of Bihar, where families have 4.5 children on average, has 12 children and encourages others to emulate him.

Some states are actively discouraging large families. Rajasthan has passed an ordinance whereby village council members lose their seats if they have more than three children. The southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have lowered the average to two children per family. What's needed now is for the politicians to make such efforts the national norm. Meanwhile, the clock keeps on ticking.

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