by Mahesh Uniyal
(IPS) NEW DELHI --
became the world's second most populous nation on May 11, with one billion people, amid official functions to mark the event.
But the enthusiastic search for the baby born at 12:56PM, who will be officially declared the billionth Indian, is tempered by the sobering thought that the event may be nothing to celebrate.
The day, ironically, also marks the second anniversary of India's adoption of nuclear weapons, which critics say will reduce government funds available for efforts to tackle poverty and ignorance, which hinder birth control efforts.
Senior government officials, who framed the recently unveiled national population policy, admit that will not be difficult for India to overtake China as the most populous nation.
At the present rate of growth, India will have 1.5 billion people by 2045. The population policy aims to avoid 0.2 billion births by tackling the root causes of the unchecked demographic growth.
These are the high rates of infant, under-five and maternal mortality, coupled with thinly spread and poor quality birth control and basic health services in this mainly rural nation.
Seven out of every ten Indians still live in villages that usually lack sufficient health care. Less than five out of every 10 people can read and write. The situation of women is worse, with less than a third of women literate in rural India.
The averages hide the sharp disparities with the literacy level of village women being as low as 4.2 percent in large parts of the socially backward state of Rajasthan.
India is counting on the national policy that will use a carrot-and-stick approach to persuade Indians to have fewer children.
On surface there is much good news, but this is based on national averages that hide sharp disparities between different parts of the country.
For the first time this century, India's annual population growth rate has come down below to two percent, recording 1.9 percent between the years 1991-96. The last decennial national head count held in early 1991 recorded an annual growth of 2.14 percent in the 1980s. Preparations are on for the new census to be held next year.
The average number of children an Indian woman bears during her reproductive life came down from about five in the 1970s to slightly more than three in the 1980s.
But this is still unacceptably high and far from the "replacement level" fertility of two children per woman that India has long aimed for. Moreover, the national average conceals the fact that the most populous state of Uttar Pradesh still has a high fertility rate of 4.8.
The new population policy has set a target date of 2045 for "stabilizing" the population -- a point when the net addition to the total population from births is balanced by the net reduction from deaths.
A much-praised provision of the policy cleared by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's cabinet has frozen the number of seats in the national Parliament until the year 2026. This is to ensure that states with poor records in birth control are not rewarded by increased representation in Parliament.
To show that the government is according high political priority to birth control, the policy has also provided for a first time National Population Commission to be headed by the Prime Minister that will review the working of the population policy. The commission is expected to be set up on May 11.
encourage poor parents to have no more than two children, the policy has announced a series of "promotional and motivational measures." These include health insurance schemes for low income parents who undergo sterilization after having two children. The policy also aims to expand the reach of contraceptive and basic health services.
However, some population experts think that the new measures are unlikely to be effective. They have faulted these for continuing with the official grip on the population control program.
Despite having the world's oldest birth control program that was launched in the early 1950s, India has failed to make a dent in the problem -- with just four states still accounting for four out of every 10 births.
The four -- Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh in the northern Indian heartland -- are together referred to by the Hindi acronym BIMARU (Hindi for sick) because of their persistently high levels of fertility, female illiteracy, infant and maternal mortality.
According to well-known Indian demographic expert Ashish Bose, the new policy seems not to have given "special" attention to these problem states.
"Unless a dent is made in these states, all attempts to stabilize population by 2045 will amount to nothing. But there appears to be no special thrust, no strategy on what will be done with these states," he told the Indian Express newspaper.
Bose also did not approve of the creation of more layers of bureaucratic controls by the new policy. The new policy is drawn from a draft prepared by a panel set up by the government six years ago. Bose was a member of this panel.
He pointed out that the 1994 draft had strongly urged the dismantling of the huge bureaucracy that supervises the birth control program. It had advised that each of India's nearly 500 administrative units set its own population targets and decide suitable policies for achieving these.
Another prominent population expert, K Srinivasan, who heads the Population Foundation of India, thinks that the new policy will increase bureaucratic control of the population control program.
A section of NGOs and reproductive health professionals are unhappy with the use of disincentives for birth control. They argue that it is wrong to penalize poor parents who have more than two children, as this overlooks the social and economic reasons for large families.
Having more children is seen as protection against high infant and child mortality levels. It also means more working hands and therefore income for poor families in rural India.
According to prominent woman politician and former senior government minister Jayanthi Natarajan, women's well-being is key to successful population control.
"The more effective way of dealing with the problem would be through education of girls, better health services, reduced infant mortality, and improved family well-being," she says.
May 15, 2000 (http://www.monitor.net/monitor) All Rights Reserved. Contact email@example.com for permission to use in any format.
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