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LET THE NUMBERS SWELL

In the leafy Rampur village in Jehanabad district, 64 kilometres from Patna, 31-year old Usha Kahar hunches over an earthen oven, while her six children — two boys and four girls, all between three and seven years — hover around her. Her eldest son, Sonu, seven years old, sits stiffly in one corner. He would have to support the family as an earning hand soon, but it would be at least 10 more years before he could command a man’s wage. Usha Kahar’s husband, Ramesh , who is a migrant labourer, remains away seven months of the year. But each time he leaves home, she sees him off as a pregnant woman.

Although only 31, she has been through 15 pregnanci es. There have been six miscarriages and three infant deaths. Regular pregnancies have left her with a peculiar paunch which makes her look permanently pregnant. Usha and her husband met a group of health workers from Patna working on population control. Petrified by the queries put to them on the size of their family, Usha asked, “Kyun puch rahe ho e sab' Isma kuch kanun to nehi a gaya” ( Why are you asking all this' Has there been any law on population recently') “We are poor people. We have to have some children to fall back on”, said Ramesh, asking repeatedly if he were wrong.

Ramesh Kahar, like many backward caste members of rural Bihar, is not wrong, for he knows how his “large” family bails him out in the midst of dire poverty. When he is away in Punjab, working as a migrant labourer, three of his minor children go to Arwal to work as hands in a grocer’s shop. The Kahar family votes for Laloo Prasad Yadav’s Rashtriya Janata Dal.

For voters like Ramesh Kahar, it came as a surprise when the chief minister, Rabri Devi, returned from a meeting with the prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, and announced her government’s decision to follow the two-child family norm. She, however, remained non-commital on the question of debarring politicians having more than two children, claiming that “this would require a political consensus”.

Rabri Devi and her husband, Laloo Prasad Yadav, are themselves parents of nine children. In January 1991, when the two joined a campaign in Patna against population explosion, they preached the benefits of a small family, they only managed to provide some comic relief. While she talked about the necessity “to keep the size of your family small”, Laloo Yadav waxed eloquent about the “small family which brings prosperity”. Later, however, he was forced to sing a somewhat different tune in his meetings in the districts: “It is not our duty to impose any norm on your family. We only say that you have a responsibility to the children you give birth to”, he said.

This year, the ruling RJD was under tremendous pressure from the prime minister’s office as well as from the lobby of the southern states who wanted the allotment of development funds to be linked to a state’s achievements in the social sector, especially population and literacy particular. Will Laloo Yadav be serious this time and risk being unpopular to attain the goal of containing the population explosion' Or will the “messiah of the poor” try to gain political advantage by taking the issue to the backward caste votebank on the eve of the polls'

In Bihar, the rich happen to have smaller families than the poor. Sixty four per cent of Bihar’s population form the backward caste segment. Eighty five to 90 per cent of Bihar’s rural families own less than five acres of land each, while 13 per cent of the upper-caste families own the largest share of land and control the economic levers of the state. The poor, with no land under their control and minimum wage rules in the offing, are forced to depend on the large-size families. The myth of a large family serving as a social security network is perpetuated by the lack of literacy and basic health infrastructure. “Education and health facilities are the best contraceptives for the poor in Bihar”, thinks Augustine Veliath, a senior programme officer for the United Nations Children’s Fund in Patna. The international council on management of population, a Malaysia-based research group, which is now carrying out a study on the sexual behaviour of the people and the role of non-governmental organizations, found out a stubborn backward-caste people resistant to even a suggestion of change. No wonder Bihar’s population problem is a nightmare for demographic analysts.

“The rural middle class is yet to be convinced by our campaign for small family. They still suffer from the anxiety that less children would mean fewer earning hands”, said Mridul Shahni, director of Bihar Voluntary Health Association, which has been working for a long time on population programmes. “Even the rich these days seem to be clinging to the large-family concepts to retain their vast land-holdings”, says Shaibal Gupta, a veteran social researcher at the Asian Development Research Institute. This is borne out by the latest fertility rates. Since 1971, the state’s population figures had begun to swell with those of the other BIMARU states like Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Rajasthan, but it still had a lower percentage than the national average. Between 1991 and 2001, Bihar recorded a population increase of 29 per cent against the national average of 25 per cent.The fertility rate rose by 4.3 per cent against the national average of 3.2 per cent.

There are regions which have recorded a staggering growth in population compared to the rest of the state, particularly the northern regions. In a paper, Abhimanyu Singh, an Indian Administrative Service officer, who was state coordinator for centre for policy research, stated how the population of Tirhut and Mithila divisions recorded 2.91 crore which was higher than the population of Canada (2.65 crore). Canada happens to be more than thrice the size of India.

No wonder then that “half of Bihar’s population go to bed without food”. The population fatigue is beginning to tell on the state’s already drained economy. There has been an alarming spurt of migration of teenaged boys, who face regular abuse in Mumbai, Ahmedabad and UP’s Mirzapur.

Politically, it is next to impossible for the RJD chief, Laloo Prasad Yadav, to pass a law to adopt the two-child family norm without losing a substantial chunk of his support base, and alienating himself from the backward-caste vote bank. He had described C.P. Thakur’s attempts at talking about a compulsory means to the end as the “advances of the parivarwallah in your private domain”. In 2001, when Thakur said in a rally in Saharsha that there was a need “for a coercive method to control population” — and subsequently talked of a law — the RJD campaigned against it for weeks as a return of the “Sanjay Gandhi formula”. There is no act of treachery or meanness of which these political parties were not capable of, the RJD workers explained to the people, outlining the supposed horrors of 1974, when a coercive method had allegedly been abused. Laloo Yadav’s backward voters felt reassured.

That may be the reason why Laloo Yadav looked unruffled when the prime minister suddenly summoned Rabri Devi and three other chief ministers of the Hindi-heartland states for an urgent discussion on population, following the intense lobbying from the states of the South. “It is one thing to announce a policy but quite another to see that it is not shoved down the throat of the people”, he said.. Laloo Yadav is not ready to buckle under pressure, no matter if it comes from the South and relatively affluent states like Gujarat and Maharastra. He has his strategy and his support base to rely on.

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