Family Planning - India's Abandoned Agenda

November 04, 2006
Shantanu Dutta

From time to time, I remember Sanjay Gandhi. I was growing up as a teenager in the middle of the emergency and Sanjay Gandhi and his five point program was some thing that was well known then. The then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi had her own twenty point program but it was her son Sanjay and his five point program that was far better known to people. The constituent points of avoidance of dowry, tree plantation, family planning, higher literacy and better sanitation continue to be relevant a quarter century after they were first drawn up.

Sanjay initiated a widespread family planning program, his "vision" for a contained population growth and a nation without crowding. But this resulted in government officials and police officers forcibly performing vasectomies and in some cases, sterilizing women as well. Officially, men with two children or more had to voluntarily submit to this, but many unmarried young men, political opponents and ignorant, poor men were also believed to have been sterilized. This program is still remembered and criticized in India, and is blamed for creating a public aversion to birth control and is considered largely responsible for Mrs. Gandhi and the Congress Party losing the general elections in 1977.

Since 1977 the family planning program in India has seen several flip flops. The nomenclature "family planning" was dropped from official vocabulary because of its past associations and called "family welfare". Subsequently , after the landmark international conference on population and development in Cairo in 1994, when connections were established between population size and other aspects of development , the program as it was known and administered since independence with the "Do ya teen bus" and " Hum do , Hamare do" type programs was abandoned . It was recast as an integral program where family planning was just one of the many components offered as a basket of many health and development offerings from the government. Eventually, a national commission on population was set up with M.S. Swaminathan the father of the green revolution in the chair and a population policy was drawn up in 2000.

Meanwhile, a couple of years prior to the conference at Cairo, India had begun its journey into liberalization and a market driven economy. Since Nehru's time, a whole generation had grown up learning that no amount of development in India would yield adequate results without some form of population stabilization at the national level and some birth control at the family level. But slowly these voices began to get drowned. The numbers became assets in the economy as purchasers of products and commodities and India began marketing itself as the destination of the world's finished goods. Some where along the way, population stabilization and birth control lost out.

Poor communities swamped with the burden of providing for large families will not be able to move forward. But as communities become confident that their children will survive till adulthood, and as they become financially stable and able to control their destinies, they typically decide to have fewer children. All this is fine in the long term. However, meanwhile a growing population continues to pose a threat to limited resources and at the current rate of growth all our forests and fertile land will disappear, and our water supplies will be exhausted.

Human beings are infinitely valuable and not just because they make up the numbers that we need to help position ourselves as an important player in the international community and the global market. But till we have the ability to provide for the ones who exist today and provide for them an environment that assures them a life of dignity, we still need family planning. Sanjay Gandhi was right after all, even though his methods were wrong.

Shantanu Dutta is a medical doctor by training and a development professional by vocation. His writings mostly deal with change, complexity and conversion and tries to look at a changing world through heaven's eyes.
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Family Planning - India's Abandoned Agenda


Author: Shantanu Dutta


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November 4, 2006
08:05 PM


I'm sorry to be hurtful but this is a very poorly written article. You started off well by documenting some facts( human rights violations by the congress government, cairo summit, national comission on population) but then you wandered off and started making claims which were completely unsupported by any data, statistics or arguments.

You seem to blame the liberalization of the economy for the drowing of the voices favouring birth control (reduction in TFR?). This is an unsubstantiated claim.

You have

1) not mentioned any statistics or cited papers containing any econometric results which might first indicated that birth rates or TFR have gone up in the post liberalization era( or not gone down sufficiently)


2) if they(birth rate,TFR) have gone down then you have done nothing to connect it to the liberalization process.

I followed the link to the National commission on Population that you have provided. Looking that the data that they have provided, the birth rate (per 1000 population) in India was the lowest in the 1996-2001 period and second lowest in the 1991-1996 period, in the last 100 years.


If you go to the US census bureau webpage and look at their International brief on India, you will see the the TFR in india has gone down from 5.7 in the mid 60s to 3.3 in 1997.


Infact the UN projects that the TFR will fall to 2.1, replacement levels, by 2015-20.


Also, it can be argued that the fall in fertility level and reduction is birth rates can be best acheived by educating and empowering women (rather than forced sterlization) and the liberalization of the economy has opened up new employment and educational prospects for women. The UN paper, I provided the link to above, argues that there has been an increase in women's share of agricultural employment and an increase in the average wages they earn. There has also been a fall in male -female wage differentials.

It seems to me that it could be argued that liberalization is potentially solving the problem of population by empowering women relative to men.

Please not that I am not making the above arguments. I have not thought enough about the subject nor do I know enough about it to provide a thoughtful analysis. I am merely suggesting stories which upon further reflection I might find inadequate. But since you seem to know and care about the matter, perhaps you could tell me the flaw in the above reasoning.

In any event:

You claim that in the long run economic welfare will lead to the stabilization but lament that in the short run our resources are going to run out etc.


You do not demostrate that the message of population control has been lost. You just claim it.

You blame liberalization for it but again provide no rationalization for it.

You do Not demonstrate that the problem has worsened in the last decade.

You provide NO short run solutions.

Let me make it clear that I am not saying that I agree or disagree with your arguments simply because you have not provided any arguments. You have merely made assertions. I think the second half of your article is devoid of any content.

November 27, 2006
09:27 AM

I think Anshuman's critique is well placed with respect to the article's haphazard claims and incoherent assertions (more so towards the end).

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