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Last Updated: Wednesday, 10 January 2007, 09:53 GMT
Cash boost for tribal families
By Subir Bhaumik
BBC News, Shillong

Amelia Sohtun, husband and their 17 children
Amelia and her husband make a living selling vegetables and fish (Photo: Subhamoy Bhattacharjee)
Amelia Sohtun has 17 children and she has recently received a cash reward of several hundred dollars for mothering them.

So have Dorothia Kharbani and Philomena Sohlangpiaw for producing 15 children each.

All three are members of the Khasi tribe in India's north-eastern state of Meghalaya.

National policy in India seeks to limit population growth.

But, the Khasi Hills Autonomous District Council (KHADC) in Meghalaya has started rewarding Khasi mothers with more than 15 children as part of its declared mission "to save Khasis from being outnumbered by outsiders".

"We have enough land but if our Khasi people don't grow in numbers, migrants from Bangladesh or elsewhere in India will occupy that living space," explained KHADC chairman HS Shylla.

Some mothers say they are grateful for the payments, but women's rights activists have been less happy.

The KHADC is an elected autonomous body of the Khasi tribe and the state government generally avoids interfering with the KHADC in matters of local customs and traditions.

"We are encouraging our people to grow more. Now the Khasi population is around one million in Meghalaya, but we want it to double in the next 10 years," Mr Shylla told the BBC.

'A Christmas gift'

In its quest to encourage Khasi women to have more and more children, the KHADC organised a function in November.

We want our women to produce more and more children
Nestingdkhar Nongdkhar, deputy chairman of KHADC

They handed over a cash reward of 16,000 rupees ($360) to Amelia Sohtun, a 48 year old Khasi mother from Rngi village on the outskirts of Shillong.

"This cash reward was like a Christmas gift for me. We are poor people and it is tough to maintain seventeen children," said Amelia.

The irony is that Amelia's husband is one Jimdir Rai, a Hindi-speaking migrant from northern India.

Amelia runs a small tea shop near the air force base at Laitkor Peak on the upper reaches of Shillong, where she and her husband earn their livelihood by selling vegetables and fish.

map

Later in the month the KHADC honoured two more Khasi women in Nongstoin in West Khasi Hills District.

Dorothia Kharbani (58) and Philomena Sohlangpiaw (45) were given 15,000 Indian rupees ($337) each for mothering more than 15 children.

Dorothia says she has given birth a staggering 25 times, with 15 children surviving. Sixteen of Philomena's 18 children have survived.

Nestingdkhar Nongdkhar, the Deputy Chairman of KHADC and local representative of Nongstoin in the council, told the BBC: "These two women have been projected as role models and everybody here has understood why these rewards were given.

"We want our women to produce more and more children."

India is desperately trying to control its rising population, now well over a billion people.

Its national family planning policy propagates the slogan: "Hum Do, Hamare Do" (we are two, and we should have two children).

This is a very patriarchal view of reproduction which is not acceptable to us
Patricia Mukhim, campaigner

But Mr Shylla said the Khasis should be "exempt" from the national policy.

"Ours is a peculiar situation and we have the right to take measures that suit us," he said.

Ethnic tribes people constitute 85% of Meghalaya's population of nearly two million.

Over the years, scores of Bengalis and Nepalis have left Meghalaya after attacks by Khasi hardliners.

In Tripura state, Bengali settlers are now more than 70% of the population and the ethnic tribes people have become a minority in the last 50 years.

Hindus and Muslims of Bengali origin account for more than 40% of Assam's population.

'Patriarchal'

"Becoming a minority may not be an immediate prospect but the fear is real," says Peacefully Kharkhongor, a local anthropologist.

"But at the level of the family, bringing up so many children is not going to be easy."

Dorothia Kharbani and her husband Wilbert Marwein, and 11 of their 15 children
Dorothia and 11 of her children (Photo: RL Lynghkoi)

Women's rights activists in Meghalaya are, however, furious about the KHADC's move of honouring mothers with more than 15 children.

"This is an attempt to deny our women their reproductive rights," said Patricia Mukhim, Meghalaya's leading columnist.

"This is a very patriarchal view of reproduction which is not acceptable to us."

She denounced the KHADC for encouraging poor villagers to have so many children.

"They will give a one-time cash reward, a few thousand rupees. How will the parents bring up so many children? - That is not going to be easy."


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