India’s silly start to population fight
“The increase of population in India constitutes a big national problem.”
Sixty years ago, on December 20, 1956, India’s then health minister Rajkumari Amrit Kaur said this in Parliament.
The country’s population at the time was less than a third of the 1.2 billion recorded in the 2011 Census. We were a country of 361 million in 1951 and increased by 21% to 439 million 10 years later. With that population and today’s GDP we could have been a reasonably well-off country. But if our leadership was alert to the population explosion all those years ago, how did we continue multiplying for the next six decades?
Neither Urgency Nor Direction
Did Government of India not try hard enough to check population growth, or did it stray in the wrong direction? Both.
India’s ‘family planning’ or birth control effort started soon after Independence, but it lacked urgency and direction. “While government are not unaware of the problem, it is not possible for them to initiate any countrywide scheme of control on a matter like this without a very careful study of all factors involved,” Kaur had told Parliament on July 29, 1952.
It was a reasonable approach, but was the government really making “a very careful study”? All it had done until then was set up three experimental centres for pilot studies on a birth control measure that both scientists and planners did not find feasible. Steamrolling all opposition, the government wasted several years on this measure.
The Rhythm Folly
The government’s pet birth control measure was called ‘rhythm method’. Instead of contraceptives it required knowledge of a woman’s menstrual cycle. Couples who took the course were advised to have intercourse on days when ovulation was least likely to occur.
Even in 1952 doctors spoke against the method. Kaur admitted: “Some of the women’s organisations have given their opinion. They are in favour of the use of mechanical contraceptives.”
The pill was not available then but condoms and foam tablets were. Did the government try to popularize these? Asked whether the government intended to subsidize contraceptives for the poor, on September 13, 1954, Kaur replied: “No, government is not supplying contraceptives to anybody.”
What about grants to institutions and experts for research in family plann