“Suppose you own a pond in which a water lily is growing. The lily plant doubles in size each day. If the lily were allowed to grow unchecked, it would cover the pond in thirty days choking off other forms of life in the water. For a long time, the lily plant seems small and so you decide not to worry about cutting it back until it covers more than half the pond. On what day will that be? On the twenty-ninth day, of course.”

Meadows and D.H. Potomac use this French riddle in “The Limits To Growth” to illustrate the apparent suddenness with which a fixed limit is reached in exponential growth. The late Dr. Alan Gregg, member of the Rockefeller Foundation found a biological analogue between present population dynamics and the unrestricted growth of cancer cells in A Medical Aspect of the Population Problem.

Certainly, it is not a mere coincidence that whenever we think of the silent explosion of population, the metaphors that spring to the mind are all connected with suffocation, choking off other forms of life, malignant growth and finally death This problem is a problem of sheer numbers. It raises questions of how the new millions are to be fed, clothed, sheltered and educated; of how they will live and ultimately, how they will die. It concerns the size of our resources and how they are to be shared. It concerns each and every individual literally.

First, a few thoughts on the word ‘failure’ in the topic. Failure is a coin with two sides. On the one hand, it has the brutal implication of inadequacy and impotence. It impels the irrational element in our collective ego to rake up the past in a witch hunt where blame is passed from one to another. On the other hand, failure, as that clichéd truth goes, is indeed the stepping-stone to success. Studying the causes that lie behind the dubious honour that fell upon us on May 11, 2000 will give us a clue to possible improvements and solutions better adapted to our particular problem. It will wipe the slate clean for a fresh attempt, enriched with experience. It is with this second perspective, which concentrates on the future than the past, that I present my views here.

The one bitter truth that we have learnt from our crusade against population explosion is that beyond a point, the population policy is absolutely helpless. How far can the government or NGOs affect the voluntary private action of millions of husbands and wives, taking individual decisions in a matter that touches one of the most intimate sides of life and raises delicate questions of custom and religion? Our failure teaches us that personal choice is the crux of the issue.

This is a country where even in this age, the newly married bride and groom, when they touch their elder’s feet, are blessed with the traditional “May you have a hundred sons”. One of India’s first big field projects, the Khanna study concentrated for six years on seven test villages containing 8000 people. It was concluded that the villagers had large families because they need them. Why then had most of them accepted the contraceptives? Because otherwise they would be classified as resistance cases and would have to bear with getting long and tedious monthly discussions on the need for restraint!

The population policy must help individuals make an intelligent personal choice. An enlightened decision could be guided by the following six criteria identified by L.R. Taylor in his introduction to The Optimum Population for Britain,

  1. Not to produce unwanted children.
  2. Not to take a substantial risk of begetting a mentally or physically defective child.
  3. Not to produce children because of irresponsibility or religious observance, merely as a by-product of sexual intercourse.
  4. To plan the number and spacing of children in the best interests of mother, child and the rest of the family.
  5. To give the best possible mental and physical environment to the child during its formative years, and to produce children, therefore, only in the course of an affectionate and stable relationship between man and woman.

The elucidation of long-term and short-term benefits that will accrue f to them as individuals should be the focus rather than abstract promises of a prosperous India with an optimum population. ‘What will happen to me and my family?’ Is a more compelling question than what will happen to my country in the future? If I may suggest a new slogan for the family planning programme, it would be “Of the People, By the People, For the People.”

The population policy made the mistake of tying itself to the medical profession and its self-interested paternalism. Instead it has to be further localized to make it more convincing. We should make an example of the imaginative pilot projects in the Bangla-moong Districts of Thailand, where distribution of Contraceptives has been entrusted to the shopkeepers, school-teachers and the village headmen. The essence of this approach is [community self-help, using people to reach people.

We have no dearth of ingenuity here in India. Dom Moraes in A Matter of People relates the interesting experiment made by UPASI (United Planters Association of South India) in the Nilgiris. UPASI has the advantage of a readymade organization. Within this set-up it addresses not just population problems but also the health and future of each individual family unit among the plantation workers. There is a scheme for women workers in which, for the first two children and for the third child if it is spaced, the worker earns a bonus of Rs. 5 per head on her salary. The bonus stops if there are more children. Further, UPASI has set up nurseries on the estate to care for the children.

This excellent example illustrates how by working at the grassroots level through a community association, local family planning needs can be identified and met. When one is taking from a macro-level, it is difficult to talk in one language that can be understood by everyone. But at a micro-level one can choose the language/ words and tone that the audience knows best.

Any population policy, however imaginative and well-planned, is unlikely to get far unless accompanied by radical socioeconomic changes, which encourage individuals to willingly choose late marriages and smaller families. Of these, two factors are desperately needed with special regard to population control.

One is the eradication of poverty. As Ronald Higgins comments in The Seventh Enemy, in which he identifies population explosion as the primary threat to human welfare, the crisis of population is the crisis of the politics of poverty. There is a vicious cycle in which poverty and high fertility reinforce each other. Poverty fosters the children-for-insurance attitude and the extra mouths intensify the poverty.

The other is the emancipation of women. As long as a woman is regarded as an expendable asset, she will be nothing more man a sexual object and a baby-making machine. Educate her, enlighten her and give her control over her own body. It is the woman who bears the pains of childbirth. But it is rarely she who chooses to have the child. We need to counter male patriarchy and female submissiveness before we teach couples to make intelligent family planning choices.

Thus, die population problem is not just a matter of handing out contraceptives to happy peasants. It involves social life and economic life and medicines, and necessities and indeed every one of the chessboard entities that combine to make the life of man and woman.

Today the population policy in India is associated with the same old slogans and cliched advertisements. The campaign stands desperately in need of new and effective advertisements. Consider that the red triangle has to compete for attention with the trendy and colourful ads of soft drinks, automobiles and electronic goods. Multinationals are pouring money and effort into their public relations. Bold lively advertisements that grab the attention of choosy customer have become the order of the day. Why should family planning be left behind? It is high time that family planning propaganda measures became more attractive and creative. They should also be target audience specific. Let people start talking about the interesting advertisements for family planning and soon they will start taking about family planning itself.

One way of ensuring this is to use endorsements by famous personalities. Pepsi reported record profits after film stars and cricket stars were roped in to recommend it. Dom Moraes in A Matter of People states that family planning in the 1930’s would have become much more popular if only Mahatma Gandhi had chosen to support it. In today’s media-savy world, the family planning programme must make use of opinion-makers from films, sports, arts and politics to carry its messages across to different segments of the society.

We also need to debate on what is more effective in terms of renting large families—rewards or punishments. In India, corruption affected us so much that the government offers bribes to those who control their family size. The bribes range from cash incentives to saris, n the motivator, who brings in a person to be vasectomised, receives payment per head. As a result often, motivators brought illiterate men, senite men, unmarried men and already vasectomised men. On the other hand, Singapore has employed sanctions rather than discriminating against large families for example, in the provisions public housing. Surely the fear of punishment is a more compelling force than the greed for reward, particularly in a country like ours where lethargy has seeped into our psyche.

One important question that remains is: Can India do it alone? Perhaps yes, but it is going to be a long and difficult haul. India desperately needs support from other nations. For that matter, the burgeoning population is a world problem and nations of the world must help each other. Time and again, the greatest thinkers have mooted the idea of pooling together all the resources of the world and launching a united combat against population and poverty. In his essay on ‘The lace of Overpopulation’, Arnold Toynbee says, “In order to raise the world food supply to the maximum, the whole habitable and cultivable surface of the planet will have to be through together into a single unit the purposes of food production and distribution”. Further, he reminds of how immediately after the Second World War, the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Agency actually achieved this in part and ensured lat no one in the word starved. Granville Clarke also made the same point.

Hunger is a stronger force than nationalism. Perhaps someday soon, world conscience will awaken enough to fulfill this great vision. Till then, e can at least try to evolve a coherent and practical world population policy.

Side by side with population control, we need to plan for our growing population. Alternative foods and nutritional supplements have to be developed urgently to deal with the impending and inevitable hunger id malnutrition. Agricultural production has to be increased through irrigation, use of fertilizer, pest control and improved seeds. The food population dilemma will be the death of our nation unless resolved. We also need to plan our use of land. Deserts will have to be resurrected, back bays will have to be reclaimed and conventions of architecture will have to be modulated to suit the pressures of population. Our urban banners must follow the example of the Japanese and the French and think of subterranean cities and cities built on stilts over the sea.

Equally important is human resource development. This country needs a more humanist approach in its national policies. Through education and employment, our people must be given the chance to respect and esteem themselves. Whether or not; we have the second largest population in the world, we must have the best people.

The problem is definitely big. But we are bigger. Our hope, our courage, our patience, our stamina and our will are bigger. We will just have to grit our teeth together, clench our fists, tighten our belts and pour a little more blood, sweat and tears into the battle. And we will win. There will come a day that will be worth all that effort. A day that fulfills the words of Lord Boyd Orr, “….the present explosion of population…is merely the birth throes of a new age of stabilized population in a world of plenty.”