The Population Growth Rate in India

For many years concern has been voiced over the seemingly unchecked rate
of population growth in India, but the most recent indications are that some
success is being achieved in slowing the rate of population growth. The
progress which has been achieved to date is still only of a modest nature and
should not serve as premature cause for complacency. Moreover, a slowing of the
rate of population growth is not incompatible with a dangerous population
increase in a country like India which has so huge a population base to begin
with. Nevertheless, the most recent signs do offer some occasion for adopting a
certain degree of cautious optimism in regard to the problem.

One important factor which is responsible for viewing the future with
more optimism than may previously have been the case has been the increase in
the size of the middle class, a tendency which has been promoted by the current
tendency to ease restrictions on entrepreneurship and private investment. It is
a well-known fact that as persons become more prosperous and better educated
they begin to undertake measures designed to eliminate the size of their
families. (The obvious exception would be families like the Kennedys who
adhere to religious strictures against artificial birth control, but the major
Indian religions have traditionally lacked such strictures.) Ironically, the
state of Kerala which had long had a Communist-led government had for many years
represented a population planning model because of its implementation of
programs fostering education and the emancipation of women. The success of such
programs has indicated that even the poorer classes can be induced to think in
terms of population control and family planning through education, but increased
affluence correspondingly increases the pressure for the limitation of family
size, for parents who enjoy good life want to pass it on to their children under
circumstances where there will be enough to go around. In contrast, under
conditions of severe impoverishment there is not only likely to be lack of
knowledge of family planning or access to modes of birth control, but children
themselves are likely to be viewed as an asset. Or, perhaps one might more
accurately say with regard to India, sons are viewed as an asset. We will have
more to say later about the relationship between gender and population growth,
but here we may make the obvious point that if a family seeks sons it may also
have to bring into the world some “unwanted” daughters, thereby furthering the
trend towards large families. Under conditions of severe impoverishment,
attended as it has traditionally been by high childhood mortality rates, “it has
estimated for India that in order to have a 95 per cent probability of raising a
son to adulthood, the couple had to have at least six children.”
In general, direct efforts on the part of government to promote family
planning have had only limited success in India. In large part this has been
due to the factors which have traditionally operated in Indian culture and
society to promote large families, of which more will be said later. Here,
however, it might be noted that the most common family planning modes have
proven difficult to implement under Indian conditions. Where government efforts
are concerned, “for mass consumption only three methods are…advocated:
sterilization (vasectomy for fathers and tubectomy for mothers), IUDs and
condoms.” Sterilization has traditionally met with strong resistance among
uneducated sectors of the population who associate it with loss of virility or
feminimity, and, often being irrevocable, it has been a source of understandable
concern in a society where couples who may already have several children risk
losing some or all of them as a result of such factors as epidemics earthquakes
or floods. Resistance to sterilization has traditionally been strongest among
men, Chandrasekhar suggesting that the prevalence of tubectomies as opposed to
vasactomies serving serving indication that “women are becoming increasingly
aware of the problem and want to solve it without waiting for their husbands to
decide on vasectomy.”
In regard to IUD, which has been promoted since its introduction in
India in 1963, the method has not proven popular because of the relative
frequency of excessive bleeding and, though more infrequent, involuntary
expulsion. Taking note of the fact that in traditional Indian society
gynecology, obstetrics and other fields requiring intimate contact and
conversation with women are invariably reserved to female doctors only,
Chandrasekhar observes that “the real problem is the lack of sufficient numbers
of dedicated women physicians who are willing to work in rural areas and spend
some time in pre-insertion and post-insertion follow-up of their patients.”
The third major mode of contraception-condom use has seen a marked increase in
usage in India in recent years; however, much of this increase has been due less
to family planning concerns but to fear of AIDS on the part of sexually-active
persons, such as prostitutes and their clients, who could be expected to take
precautions against pregnancy anyway. As for the pill, it still has not proven
a major contraceptive mode among the uneducated masses who are most inclined to
have large families.

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In addition to long-recognized family planning modes, other factors have
been operating to limit the rate of population growth in recent years.

Unfortunately, infanticide of girl babies has become increasingly commonplace in
India, perhaps because the growth in materialism has led the lower classes to
become more and more aware of the “undesirability” of girls. While the Hindu
emphases upon dowery, which can have the effect of impoverishing a family with
many daughters, is no doubt a significant contributing factor, it should be
pointed out that population figures for Pakistan and Bangla Desh would suggest a
prevalence of infanticide of girl babies in these nation as well, despite the
fact that under Islam there has traditionally been no dowery at marriage but,
instead, a so-called “bridal price” paid by the family of the groom. Thus,
indications are that Muslims throughout the subcontinent have accepted the
Indian cultural presumption that girl babies are undesirable even though under
Islam the bride’s parents theoretically stand to benefit financially. Mahmood
Mamdan notes that, in regard to India, “the preferential treatment of male over
female clearly shows in the much higher infant death rate among females and in
the resulting higher ratios of males over females in general population,” adding
that “in most other parts of the world, females of a general population have
lower death rates than males.” Indeed, except for the Arab all countries of the
Persian Gulf, which offer employment to large numbers of unmarried men from
other areas of the Middle East, the only other countries which display a
population ratio significantly in favor of males on the Indian pattern are
Pakistan and Bangla Desh, where, as has already been noted, the infanticide of
female babies presumable also prevails.

In addition to the elimination of girl babies, either through outright
murder or the denying them food and care traditionally given to boys, abortion,
on the basis of amniocentesis, has been another means of population control
where girl babies are concerned. As in the case of infanticide, the authorities
have been largely powerless to restrict the practice, abortion being for the
most part legal in India even though the use of amniocentesis for the purpose of
aborting a healthy female baby is theoretically against the law. Another means
of reducing the “unwanted” girl babies is abandonment to charitable
organizations under circumstances where adoption will result. The anonymous
abandonment of children to charitable agencies is the another practice that is
illegal but impossible for the government to prevent, for the agencies
understandably hesitate to refuse to accept a child from a parent apparently
intent on abandonment for fear that infanticide will then be resorted to by such
a parent. And, although Indian law requires that an adoption agency give
priority to placement with families within India, the relative paucity of Indian
couples seeking to adopt children insures that virtually all babies given up for
adoption will find homes in the affluent industrialized countries of the West.

We have therefore seen that, while the rate of India’s population growth
has been slowing, some of the measures adopted to this end are not of the best.

To insure that comprehensive family planning programs find widespread acceptance
considerably more progress needs to be made in raising the standard of living of
the Indian masses for “although the wealthier, better-educated urban families do
curtail their fertility, the poor have not had the means or motivation to do
so.” “Most important, perhaps,” writes John Cool, is the fact that thousands of
years of Indian experience have shaped cultural values and social institutions,
which encourage the survival of the family and the community through high
fertility. Modernization is slowly changing this situation, but to insure
success considerably more progress needs to be made.

Chandrasekhar, S. Abortion in a Crowded World: The problem of abortion with
special reference to India (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1974).

Franda, Marcus F. (ed.). Response to Population Growth in India: Changes in
Social, Political, and Economic Behavior (New Yew: Praeger, 1975)
Bahnisikha. The Indian Population Problem: A Household economics Approach (New
Delhi: Sage Publications, 1990)
Mandelbaum, David G. Human Fertility in India: Social Components and Policy
Perspectives (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974).
Category: Social Issues


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