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 and counting. At this rate, India will surpass China as the most populous nation within 50 years, with 1.62 billion people. If so, one in every six people in the world will be Indian.

The electronic board shows public awareness of the problem, but 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. For years, population control, one of the most pressing issues facing India today, has been taboo: Politicians fear losing votes by advocating unpopular family planning policies.

HEROISM. If Gujral can craft a coherent policy, he could do much to reduce rural poverty in India. According to the International Monetary Fund, India under current policies 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, outraged the public by ordering forcible sterilizations of large numbers of people with his mother's blessing. Since then, administrations concerned with their political survival have steered clear of the subject. Family planning, female literacy programs, and sterilization have made progress in nearly halving the birth rate from 6 per woman in 1951 to 3.4 today. But India is still far above its target rate of 2.1. Gujral's predecessor, Deve Gowda, had refused to discuss the topic entirely, saying it was "too sensitive." And although Gujral has said he wants to tackle population growth, the official party manifesto of his United Front coalition does not list family planning as a goal.

There are recent signs of new attempts to tackle the growth problem. Some $1.2 billion has been pledged by the World Bank, European Union, Japan, and other donors over the next five years for population programs, but government participation is the key to their success. India currently spends $420 million per year, or 50 cents per capita, on family planning. However, critics say most of that money is inefficiently used, with 70% spent on the salaries of workers who are poorly trained. Even the Secretary of the Ministry of Health & Family Welfare Y.N. Chaturvedi says this year's budget is not enough, and he welcomes participation from Indian industry.

Some corporations have included family planning in their employee benefits programs, but examples are few. Private organizations including the Family Planning Assn. have made some progress, but they provide just 20% of the services and say the government views them as competitors, not allies.

BAD EXAMPLE. A number of factors exacerbate the growth problem. Indians are living an average of 10 years longer than in the 1970s, to age 60, because of better health care. In addition, Indians tend to have bigger families because of a high infant mortality rate of 8%, a bias toward male children, the need for extra farm hands in a heavily agricultural society, and the tradition of offspring providing for parents in old age.

Although research shows Indian women don't want large families, says Pravin Vasaria, director of the Institute of Economic Growth, access to planning centers is a problem: India comprises 600,000 villages split into 1 million hamlets in often remote and hilly terrain. Many in government set a bad example. Laloo Prasad Yadav, the chief minister of the northeastern state of Bihar--one of India's poorest, with an average of 4.5 children--has 12 children and proudly encourages others to emulate him.

Some states are trying to counter big families: The state of Rajasthan has passed a law whereby village council members lose their seats if they have more than three children. The southern states of Kerala and Tamil Nadu have successfully lowered the average to two children per family. What's needed now is for India's politicians to make such efforts the national norm. Meanwhile, the clock keeps ticking.

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