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Last Updated: Saturday, 28 August, 2004, 10:45 GMT 11:45 UK
India's population: A problem for all?

By Mark Tully
BBC correspondent in Delhi

By 2050, India is predicted to have overtaken China as the world's most populous nation. In an already overcrowded world, richer countries are being asked to share responsibility for the problem of this population explosion, which to a large extent is due to poverty.

Bombay railway station during rush hour
India is expected to grow from 1.08bn to 1.63bn people by 2050
Wherever I go when I am in Britain, I find India is known for two things - poverty and population.

This latest report from the Population Reference Bureau is not going to do anything to improve India's reputation.

I say reputation because so many people I meet blame India for having such a large population.

They seem to think that because small families have become the norm in the West, Indians with large families are irresponsible and should be disciplined to ensure they do not have too many children.

"After all," I am told, "China had a one-child family policy. Why can't India?"

Even the most ardent fans of Jawaharlal Nehru, independent India's first prime minister and the founder of the dynasty which still dominates Indian politics, would agree that he did not take population control sufficiently seriously.

Sterilisation scare

But when his daughter, Indira Gandhi, tried to make up for that by pursuing a draconian population control policy, she made matters worse.

During the state of emergency she imposed in the mid-1970s, police and other officials were ordered to enforce family planning - and compulsory sterilisation was the weapon they were given.

Reporting on the election campaign at the end of the emergency in 1977, I met a 70-year-old man who had been sterilised, and heard many more stories like his.

In rural areas, men often told me they hid in the sugar cane when officials visited their villages, for fear of being sterilised.

Government school teachers admitted forcing men to be sterilised, because even they had been given family planning targets they had to achieve.

Indira Gandhi dismissed those stories as rumour-mongering, but the voters did not.

1 India, 1,628m (2)
2 China, 1,437m (1)
3 United States, 420m (3)
4 Indonesia, 308m (4)
5 Nigeria, 307m (9)
Source: PRB (2004 position in brackets)

They threw Indira out in the election at the end of the emergency, humiliating her worst in areas where the compulsory sterilisers had been most active.

As a result, for 20 years no politician dared to suggest family planning might be a good idea.

Now family planning is back on the agenda and the population growth has slowed down, although not enough for Western critics.

But there is a problem: they do not understand.

They are concerned about the growing population because of the strain on global energy resources.

Chinese and Indians are already consuming so much oil that they are having a serious impact on world prices at a time like this, when there are fears of a global shortage.

But the experts of the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute confidently assert: "People usually have as many children as they think they can afford," and scarce energy, they maintain, will mean more expensive energy and so fewer children.

Those American population pundits should - as I did - share a meal with Budh Ram, a landless labourer in the Northern State of Uttar Pradesh.

There were about 17 of us squatting on the sunbaked mud of his small courtyard.

The food was dhal, some watery vegetable especially for the occasion and chapatis.

Family assets

Budh Ram's was a traditional extended family, so by no means everyone was a direct relative, but he insisted on telling me how each person contributed to the family coffers.

Finally he came to a boy of about seven and said: "Even he takes the village cattle out to graze."

But what about those Western critics of India I meet? Are they entirely blameless? I think not

Budh Ram - like millions of Indians - was barely in the cash economy, and for him each child was a potential economic asset.

That Indians are not opposed to family planning on religious or any other cultural grounds is shown by the fact that they take to small families enthusiastically when they are firmly in the cash economy.

The problem lies with those Indians who are not.

India can not escape all the blame for the poverty which produces large families.

The new prime minister, the economist Dr Manmohan Singh, has already said the government must reform what he calls the delivery systems - the civil service and other institutions, which can swallow up as much as 85% of funds allocated for improving the lot of the poor.

Any new money Dr Manmohan Singh has announced for the poor will go down the drain, too, if the bureaucracy, hated by villagers for its arrogance and corruption, still retains its British Raj structure.

But what about those Western critics of India I meet? Are they entirely blameless? I think not. Nor do Indian critics of the West.

They ask what the rich countries are going to do to help.

I believe they can help by accepting that the global economy is skewed in their favour, and appreciating that the gap between those in the cash economy and those outside is their problem too.

If the richer nations do not accept poverty is a global problem, they are never going to get beyond hopeless, helpless, Malthusian hand-wringing.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 28 August, 2004 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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14 May 03  |  South Asia
Country profile: India
04 Aug 04  |  Country profiles

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