Ten years ago, there were more zeros to celebrate (or mourn, depending on one’s proclivities) than those heralding the new millennium. To the three noughts in 2000, one could have added the nine zeros attached to the figure 6 to denote world population size. That is, the global population touched the 6 billion mark around the turn of the century. And around this time our country too hit a population milestone — reaching a size of one billion. If these population facts got much less public attention than the fireworks to usher in the 21st century, a large part of the credit must go to the activists and researchers and non-governmental organizations that in the 1990s took the population discourse out of the hands of international lobbies and aggressive national governments to give us a new paradigm of reproductive health to replace the population control ideology of that time.
Not only did the RH paradigm embarrass the population control lobby, however superficially, it also sent out an olive branch to this lobby by stating that allegiance to this paradigm would bring down population growth rates more swiftly than coarse family-planning programmes. Then, thanks largely to international pressure, national governments quickly co-opted the language of the RH movement and began to discard, again at least on paper, some of the unpleasant features of family-planning programme practice — contraceptive targets, for example. However, this also often meant that some potentially good features of family-planning programmes — information, widespread contraceptive services, encouragement to delay births, also fell by the wayside; so that in the end it is difficult to know whether women came out better or worse off.
The win-win description of the recommendations at the 1994 Cairo conference on population and development did get things right in a broad way. We are undoubtedly now in a new century of lowered population growth globally as well as in India, and it looks like we will soon enough return to the pre-20th century situation of stable and even slowly declining world populations.
That is the optimistic part. But even for a demographer firmly on the side of the RH advocates, it is nevertheless difficult to ignore that all these aggregate outcomes can hide much that is less reassuring in the individual parts. More disaggregated data make one somewhat sceptical about the complacency that the world is now a more habitable place, soon to be less crowded as well.
I know that this is a risky position to take because of all the obnoxious bedfellows it attracts. It is bad enough that at any public event where some development expert is holding forth on some development imperative or the other, sooner or later a hand will go up to ask how any development is possible given India’s population problem. And this is rarely an innocent intellectual question; invariably it is followed by head-shaking about those people — the poor (those domestic servants whom we mistresses just cannot educate) or certain religious groups (what do you expect when their leaders are determined to make them outnumber us) or the village fools (can’t they see that the generational sub-division of plots is what has kept them poor) — that can’t seem to stop breeding. The only easy way to resist joining forces with these pious questioners is for the expert to declare that we do not have a population problem, that, in any case, birth rates are coming down for all sub-groups of our population and that education, not family-planning programmes, is the answer.
All these easy responses are only partly true, but are proffered because we all want to be liked and those who do not subscribe single-mindedly to the Cairo agenda have a likeability disadvantage. They are immediately branded as not being altruistic, or sensitive, to women’s needs, or in tune with local realities. And since these accusations risk classifying them with the hawks (even worse, it risks them being welcomed by the hawks) who would like to forcibly sterilize everyone with more than x number of births, naturally they are hesitant to suggest alternative positions on the population and development issue.
But altruism and sensitivity to human rights do not belong to any one ideology alone and we can, and should, examine some of the Cairo conference assumptions and prescriptions keeping the same goals in view — gender equality, child wellbeing, the welfare of the marginalized, a respect for individual rights, and so on. There are aspects of the population and development question which the Cairo and post-Cairo agendas have neglected but do need a greater airing.
First, there is recognition today that what is good for the individual is good for society. But there is less acknowledgement of the possibility that policy objectives derived from macro considerations may also turn out to be good for the individual. After all, the macro level is made up of micro units and the welfares of both are tied up. And thus, when we ask the question, does high (or low) population growth help or hinder the social or economic development of a country or group, we are also in essence asking if high or low population growth helps or hinders the security and growth of individuals.
But note that I said high or low population growth, not high or low individual fertility. I think there is agreement that regardless of her own fertility, each developing-country individual is better off today in a society in which the fertility of the group as a whole is lower. In a slower growing society, everyone benefits. It is easier to provide a village school for 100 children than for 200 children. But if there are 200 children, then it is not really in the interests of any one woman to bring down her own fertility. In fact, the low-fertility poor woman is penalized in the village with 200 children. The individual rights framework has a tremendous potential for conflict, not just between the rights of the individual versus the State or society, but also between the rights of different categories of individuals.
So we need some kind of collective action. What a sensible population policy can do is promote such collective action, not just through information, but also through services and maybe even a package of incentives and disincentives.
This brings me to the second aspect of population and individual welfare that we should look at — can policies to lower fertility enhance rather than infringe on individual rights? I think they can. In technical ways they can do so, of course, through reduced child or maternal mortality, for example. But they can also be more subtly empowering in that the State could collude with women to overcome some of the pressures to reproduce that come from other sources such as the husband or mother-in-law. Women too may appreciate such a State-encouraged restraint on reproduction. The popular feminist literature of earlier times certainly alludes to this possibility. And data from China as well as low fertility states in India suggest that even when governments withdraw pressures to control fertility, women who have tasted the benefits of reproductive control do not want to go back to a regime of repeated pregnancies and births.
This is not to advocate compulsory birth control — State determination of intimate reproductive decisions is never justified. All I am saying here is that the State has a role to play in devising a population policy which goes beyond providing services when someone asks for them. It also has more obligations than the currently popular obligation to provide the girls’ schooling which may reduce fertility one generation down the road. Instead we need an honest and open population policy that rises above political party considerations to educate people about the benefits of slower population growth to themselves and to society, provides enough good services to make this slower growth possible, and also provides reassuring information about, and research on, the safety of these services to encourage their use. And perhaps we need to go as far as to provide some special incentives to those who heed this call. But these are matters which can only be discussed and debated if their very mention is not equated with anti-women or anti-welfare propaganda.
The minister for health and family welfare has stuck his neck out by bringing up the population question in recent fora. Instead of vilifying him for this, it may be an opportunity to have an open discussion on the subject, to reiterate the principles of human rights that should be paramount in any attempt to influence reproductive behaviour, but also to acknowledge a possible positive relationship between slower population growth and an improved quality of life for all our citizens.