CMP Trips Up On Population Policy

THE more things change, the more they remain the same! One cannot but be overwhelmed with a sense of déjà vu on reading one particular section in the Common Minimum programme of the UPA government. The section says: “The UPA government is committed to replicating all over the country the success that some southern and other states have had in family planning.  A sharply targeted population control programme will be launched in the 150-odd high-fertility districts. The UPA government recognizes that states that achieve success in family planning cannot be penalized”.

What is the success that “some southern states” have had? One would presume that the state, which is, logically most indicated as a “success story” in population stabilisation is Kerala — with the lowest growth rate in population in the country by far. From the formulation made in the CMP it would appear that in the “150 high fertility districts” Kerala’s experience would be sought to be emulated. And further, the CMP assumes that this would be based on a “sharply targeted population control programme”.


It seems that the formulation in the CMP does not recognise the role of socio-economic advances in population stabilisation. The rate of growth of Kerala’s population was actually higher than the national average till 1971, and it is only since the decade of 1971-81 that the growth rate in Kerala dipped below the national average. Between 1951 and 1991 the population growth rate in Kerala fell from 2.08 to 1.31, compared to an increase in the national population growth rate from 1.25 to 2.11 over the same period. What is important to understand is that Kerala never had a very strong population policy. When population policy theorists talk of Kerala, where the low birth rates approximate those of highly developed countries, they seldom (if ever) point out that Kerala was the first state (and still only one of three, including West Bengal and Tripura) to initiate radical land reform programmes in 1957 under the first left led government in the country. Kerala’s fall in birth rates followed a set of major socio-economic advances that led to fall in infant and child mortality rates, increase in literacy rates (crucially increase in women’s literacy rates), etc.

The process in Kerala was not duplicated in other parts of the country because of the kind of socio-economic policies that were followed by the Indian government. Yet, some advances were made in most states. These advances were, in part a result of the needs of the ruling classes (viz. an increase in education and health infrastructure) and in significant measure wrested from the ruling classes by numerous struggles of the working people in the country. Whatever the genesis, these advances, while not matching the needs of India’s working people, have led to demonstrable gains in some areas. Thus life expectancy has almost doubled since Independence, infant and child mortality rates have been halved, and literacy rates have increased significantly. There is no evidence that shows that slowing down of population growth rate in the country has been because of the population policy. In fact Kerala’s story would indicate that it has happened in spite of our population policies. Even in the rest of the country, the limited success in containing population can arguably be linked to the limited development in different socio-economic spheres.

The obvious point that emerges is: if the government is serious about population stabilisation, it needs to invest in human development premised on emphasis on education, health care and all round socio-economic development.

Interestingly, the National Population Policy (NPP) 2000 did attempt to eschew the crude “population control” view on population stabilisation. It said:  “The vast numbers of the people of India can be its greatest asset if they are provided with the means to lead healthy and economically productive lives. Population stabilisation is a multisectoral endeavour requiring constant and effective dialogue among a diversity of stakeholders, and coordination at all levels of the government and society. Spread of literacy and education, increasing availability of affordable reproductive and child health services, convergence of service delivery at village levels, participation of women in the paid work force, together with a steady, equitable improvement in family incomes, will facilitate early achievement of the socio-demographic goals. Success will be achieved if the Action Plan contained in the NPP 2000 is pursued as a national movement.”

Clearly, the NPP 2000 is at variance with the “sharply targeted population control programme” approach that finds place in the CMP. It is also at variance with the statement made by union minister of state for health P Lakshmi recently, when she said, “Main aim is population control to which we are giving more importance. We are giving more importance to family planning.”

The positive approach towards population stabilisation in NPP 2000 has been undermined in the last few years by many state population policies clearly focusing on coercive measures. It is indeed unfortunate that the CMP attempts to set the clock back.


What the proponents of strong measures to control the country’s population refuse to acknowledge is that population control policies just do not work. All over the globe population increased as a response to economic development. This is most clearly demonstrable under Capitalism, where major rise in population was seen after the Industrial revolution in the late eighteenth century. Much of this growth was first seen in Europe, the seat of Capitalism as well as that of the concomitant economic development in that period. There are many reasons why this happens.

0To start with economic development leads to greater availability of food, which in turn leads to higher survival rates. Gradually improved conditions of housing, other civic amenities, improvements in public health infrastructure, education, etc lead to declining death rates. These conditions also facilitate increase in birth rates — better nutrition enhances the ability of women to bear children, and higher survival rates mean that there are more women who survive through the childbearing age. A combination of high birth rates and high survival rates, thus, provide a dual push to population growth rates. We can thus see a peaking of population growth rates in Europe in the first part of the Twentieth Century. Let us not forget that England is still twice as densely populated as India.

The fall in birth rates starts somewhere in the middle of this process of increasing growth rates of population. This happens because the fall in birth rates, initially, is still much slower than the fall in death rates. So, even though fewer children are born, the population still continues to increase as even less people die. It takes much longer for birth rates to fall to a level where they compensate for the very low death rates. We can see this happening in the developed Capitalist world — Europe, North America, Japan, etc. — only in the second half of the twentieth century.

Decline in birth rates are predicated on a complex set of factors. Crucial to this is child survival rates. In situations where child survival rates are very low, birth rates are high because families produce more children as an “insurance” that at least a few of them will survive up to adulthood.

 The second crucial factor is related to women’s position in society and the economy. The old feudal values, where women are seen as just “home-makers” ensure that child rearing remains a full-time occupation for women in the child bearing age. Improved nutrition ensures that the span during which women can produce children increases significantly. Thus women, for 20-25 years move from one pregnancy to the next through much of this period. This cycle is dented only when women start entering the job market to take up independent careers, and are not seen as mere “tubes for producing babies”. The cycle is further dented when women are able to independently articulate the need to limit families, as repeated child-births (and early child-birth) take a toll on their health. Moreover, in developed Capitalist societies, the frenetic pursuit of material comforts act as a brake on family size — as a large family compromises access to an array of consumer goods. A combination of these factors has led to precipitate falls in birth rates in much of the developed world, and we see a reverse of the earlier process — birth rates dipping below the low death rates, leading to an actual fall in population.


What has been recounted above can be termed as the “natural history” of the dynamics of population change. India is in the kind of situation where Europe was in the first part of the twentieth century — high birth rates and declining death rates leading to an aggregate growth in population. Many of the factors that promote high birth rates — high infant and child mortality, gender discrimination, etc. — are still prevalent in significant measure in most parts of the country. Of particular significance is the severity of gender discrimination, and consequent preference for male children, still prevalent in India. A population policy which does not address these determinants of high birth rates cannot hope to succeed. If we critically examine the so-called successes of the population policy in this country, it should be evident that these have taken place not because of the population policies pursued in India, but because of limited progress made in social and economic development — however halting, inadequate and iniquitous they may have been. So the prescription should be one of rejecting the present paradigm that determines population policies in the country, and not one of further strengthening such policies.

When international “development” agencies, foreign funded NGOs and assorted socialites and celebrities speak tearfully of the poor Indians who need to adopt family planning, they essentially seek to pass on the burden of the effects of undiminished exploitation by their own class onto millions of poor Indians. India’s population continues to rise because a majority of Indians are poor, denied of basic health and education facilities, and without sustainable forms of employment. We do not need a population policy that targets the poor, and especially women amongst them. The poor in this country need access to methods by which they can limit their families. But for them to be able to do so they need a much larger set of enabling conditions. To deny them these conditions and simultaneously to seek to pass on the burden of guilt for India’s slow pace of development amounts to making a mockery of their present pathetic conditions of living.

One hopes that there will be a more informed debate on our future strategy for population stabilisation. One also hopes that the CMP’s garbled reference to targeted programmes in 150 districts is just an aberration and is not a reflection of the government’s thinking.