Culture & Life · History · History of Medicine · Public health

The “oppressive” history of family planning and population control in India

I wrote this for Swaddle on July 8 2018Here is the original article. I based it primarily on the book ‘Reproductive Restraints: Birth Control in India, 1877-1947’ by historian Sanjam Ahluwalia of Northern Arizona University Below are some excerpts:

Birth control began in India not as a free choice by individuals to manage their fertility, but as a compulsory prescription by elites to manage the nation’s fertility rates. As Sanjam Ahluwalia notes, there was little in the writings of these men that sought to empower and improve the socioeconomic conditions of the underprivileged women (and men) they blamed. Most of the emphasis was on reprimanding India’s poor and subjecting them to what the elites considered was ‘good’ for them and for the nation. Novelist Salman Rushdie, too, seems to have picked on this condescending aspect of the family planning discourse. At one point in his novel Midnight’s Children, in a scene set in 1947, the gynecologist Dr Narlikar says: “Birth Control is Public Priority Number One. The day will come when I get that through people’s thick heads, and then I’ll be out of a job.”

Unfortunately, our obsession to control the reproductive choices of our fellow citizens continues to this day, evident from regular calls to bring in compulsory government-mandated birth control in India. It is high time we realized that, as a group of JNU PhD scholars recently wrote, “vikas is the best contraceptive.”



Below are some of my views on the oft-mentioned challenge of ‘overpopulation’ in India. This was written on Quora in response to the question Why isn’t Indian government doing anything to control population growth?

All governments in India, at all levels, have generally done something or the other to control what has been termed overpopulation. For children of my generation the government-sponsored ads on Doordarshan about contraceptives, including a condom one that featured the epic Nargis-Raj Kapoor song Pyaar hua ikraar hua, were the most visible instances of sarkari family planning work. The real question here is not about why our governments have been doing nothing, but about why not much is coming out of what our governments have been doing for decades.

The answer to that lies in this question itself – our abiding and eminent desire to ‘control’. By ‘our’ I mean we the privileged, elites, non-poor folks of India. We who consider the poor as obstacles to ‘development’ because of their ‘dirty’ habits and their ‘tendency’ to give birth to multiple kids “even if they can’t provide for” these kids. What we were taught as we grew up is that ‘overpopulation’ is a huge problem for the nation. We were hardly told, if ever, that having many kids, esp in quick succession, is a serious health problem for women. We were taught about population control as desirable, but were never told about birth control as eminently desirable – because the former was ostensibly about national well-being and the latter only pertained to the well-being of women.

So first things first. ‘Overpopulation’ as such is not a problem. It was Thomas Malthus who made such a line of thinking popular through his predictions, in the 1700s, about an arithmetic growth in resources and a geometric growth in populations. He has been proven wrong over and over again. World population is now several times what it was in his time, but still the human species (though not all humans) is thriving.

The problem is not overpopulation, but overconsumption. Here I quote from a Guardian piece discussing this problem:

If everyone on Earth lived the lifestyle of a traditional Indian villager, it is arguable that even 12 billion would be a sustainable world population. If everyone lives like an upper-middle-class North American (a status to which much of the world seems to aspire), then even two billion is unsustainable. Population decline is welcome news, but it needs to be considered in a larger context. Population stability [would not work] if it is accompanied by continued growth in consumption. This means that overpopulation is a red herring. Of course, at some point, preferably soon, population growth must end, but overpopulation is a diversion from more fundamental issues.

Now, saying that overpopulation is a red herring doesn’t mean that an indefinitely growing human population would be fine and nothing to worry about. (Such an attitude was actually encouraged by a Univ of Maryland professor in one NY Times piece, the bottomline of which was that humans are all-powerful and thus we can always modify our surroundings to suit our numbers and our lifestyles.)

We need to be concerned about the growing number of humans, yes. But not because of the old logic that more people = more poverty = less national development / more obstacles to progress. (The primary reason for poverty is not more people, but more inequality – a highly skewed concentration of wealth.) This logic, especially in India and other previous colonies of Western nations, is a result of the colonial line of thinking that almost always displaced blames for debacles and disasters on native populations (just like today in many countries the ‘majority’ displaces blames for all problems on the minorities). Here is what historian Mohan Rao says about the genesis of the concept of overpopulation:

The idea that Indian poverty was due to overpopulation is an old one, first expressed by Abbé Dubois (1765–1848) around 1799 when working as a missionary in southern India. Surveying the destruction of the Indian weaving industry due to goods from Lancashire, he noted ‘of these causes of misery, the chief one is the rapid increase of population’. This became ‘common sense’ for colonial administrators taught by Thomas Malthus at Haileybury College, before they set sail to India. Although Malthus does not use the word ‘overpopulation’, the idea is named after his famous 1798 publication, An Essay on the Principle of Population.

But of course the British don’t deserve all the blame. Their line of thinking was always selectively adopted and modified by Indian elites to further their own agendas. Here’s one particularly vile quote of one Pune elite man (though he was not the only one to harbor such feelings) taken from historian Sanjam Ahluwalia’s book ‘Reproductive Restraints: Birth Control in India, 1877-1947’:

When our eyes fall on street loafers who make their bed in the gutter we find them bearing more children than the rags with which they cover their shame, and are reminded of the bitch that breeds kennelfuls of puppies four times a year.

The way I see it, your – and in general of many Indians’ – strong wish that the govt must do something to control population growth is a manifestation of this legacy we have inherited. A legacy which has always looked down upon the poor of India as problematic and as beings to be ‘controlled’ in one way or another. I recently wrote an opinion piece on this, and here I quote some lines from it.

Our disproportionate focus on the two-child policy, especially the belief that implementing it rigorously would solve many of India’s major problems, is one legacy we need to shake off at the soonest. British colonial officers first used the argument of India being ‘overpopulated,’ and famines being a result of that, to escape blame for their own administrative inefficiencies and negligence. This colonial line of thinking was repeated and formalized so much that it became ‘common sense’ for even the Indian elites, and, as received wisdom, it continues to influence our thinking to this day.

For more than two decades now, research has shown that positively maneuvering social and economic conditions of communities, rather than negatively manipulating the reproductive organs of individuals, is a far more productive and compassionate approach. Consider this extract from a lecture given by economist Amartya Sen in 1995. We need to remember that families and communities themselves begin adopting birth control methods appropriate for their specific situations, if some basic progress is made. In the absence of the latter, it would be unfair and impractical to expect underprivileged citizens to spend their time, energy and other resources in birth control strategies (which even many of us from privileged backgrounds find hard to comprehend), or for them to trust a government which eagerly wants to operate on their reproductive organs but hasn’t upgraded the primary school in the village for years or decades:

While Kerala and Tamil Nadu have radically reduced fertility rates, other states in the so-called ‘northern heartland’ (such as Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan) that have much lower levels of education generally, female education in particular, and general health care, have high fertility rates — between 4.4 and 5.1. These states have high rates despite a persistent tendency to use heavy-handed methods of family planning, in contrast with the more voluntary and collaborative approach used in Kerala and Tamil Nadu.

Unfortunately, our obsession to control the reproductive choices of our fellow citizens continues to this day, evident from regular calls to bring in compulsory government-mandated birth control in India. It is high time we realized that, as a group of JNU PhD scholars recently wrote “vikas is the best contraceptive.”

The way I see it, currently we are nowhere near an all-round vikas, and in fact since 2014 have gradually moved far away from any targeted vikas of our poor and working-class fellow citizens (see India has taken a quantum jump in the wrong direction since 2014: Amartya Sen)

In such a state of affairs, any population-control program using just medical and technological measures and ignoring social/political/historical factors, would be inefficient and even counterproductive.

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