Info Change India



Last updateSat, 22 Jul 2017 6am

You are here: Home | Population | Population | Population Puzzle | Changing the focus of population policy

Changing the focus of population policy

By Nalini Bhanot and Laxmi Murthy

Saroj Pachauri, Asian region director, Population Council, writes: "Since the first world conference in 1974, a great debate has plagued the population field; a debate between advocates of development who believed that development is the best contraceptive and, therefore, a necessary precondition to sustained fertility decline, and those who asserted that family planning services must be implemented to meet the high demand for fertility control which they believed existed. A notably wide gulf remained between these two essentially academic positions. The practical result was ambivalence and ambiguity in many countries about which approach to take. The International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD) at Cairo , in 1994, took giant strides towards resolving this conflict by placing the population problem squarely in the development context and focusing attention on individual needs instead of demographic targets.

"At the ICPD, the nations of the world agreed that governments should give special attention to the education of girls, the health of women, the survival of infants and young children, and, in general, the empowerment of women. At the same time, comprehensive reproductive health services should be provided to enable couples to achieve their reproductive goals, and determine freely and responsibly the number and spacing of their children (United Nations, 1994)"

India was also a signatory to the ICPD agenda.

In fact, from the 1980s onwards, more than a decade before the ICPD, several pressure groups had formed in India , demanding a change in direction of the government's family planning programme. Noting the failure of the family planning programme, some Indian planners had already started arguing for an increased focus on overall development. Feminists and democratic rights groups had begun demanding an end to the coercive policies of population control. And feminists, in particular, began protesting against the use of hazardous contraceptives in a health setting that was abysmally inadequate for safe delivery of such methods. Moreover, they insisted that a broader view be taken of women's health needs and that far greater attention be paid to their basic needs for food, water, shelter, employment, etc, rather than the existing narrow focus of bombarding them with contraceptives.

While the ICPD did give a boost to some of the concerns voiced by feminists and democratic rights groups, and the government did officially abandon the setting of targets for family planning, as also the scheme of providing incentives and disincentives, the attitudes of policymakers did not change so easily.

Beyond ICPD -- change only in language

Since its inception in 1951, the population control programme of the government has been re-named several times - 'family planning' was re-named 'family welfare' in the 1970s, 'safe motherhood' in the 1980s, and 'reproductive health' in the 1990s. However, despite calling it a "paradigm shift" following the ICPD, substantive changes did not take place.

Even though the ICPD at Cairo has been hailed as a major landmark, several health experts have pointed out that the focus on women's reproductive health and empowerment still leaves out crucial areas of concern. For instance, the sex bias in society which leads to under-nutrition in girls and women, their lower utilisation of healthcare services, high death rates from communicable diseases, selective abortion of females before they are born. The reproductive health agenda, while including more aspects than contraception, still focuses on women as reproducers whereas the focus needs to be on women as whole persons who need to lead a life of dignity with access to the basic needs of food, water, shelter, education, employment and a social status equal to that of men.

India 's current population policy

India 's latest National Population Policy was announced in March 2000 (NPP 2000). According to the government, the overriding concern of this policy is economic and social development and human wellbeing. It seeks to provide quality services and supplies, information and counselling, and a basket of contraceptive choices. It will enable people to make informed choices and access quality healthcare services.

NPP 2000 abandoned the notion of incentives and disincentives as well as targets. However, several state governments were unhappy with this, believing that family planning performance would decline. States like Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Haryana, Maharashtra and Orissa continued with disincentives including limiting educational and travel concessions to two children only for government employees; debarring participation in elections to local bodies of persons with more than two children.

Changes in the Panchayati Raj Act in several states like Rajasthan, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh, the curtailment of the democratic right to contest elections if a candidate has more than two children, as well as the emphasis on the 'two-child' norm has led to distortions like an increase in sex determination tests and selective abortion of female foetuses, due to the prevailing strong son-preference. Research has shown that the two-child norm also leads to the underreporting of girl-children and the denial of education for girls, as any 'official' recognition of more than two children would lead to the withholding of certain privileges or rights. The impact of population control on the already declining sex ratio (number of girls born compared with the number of boys born) cannot be underestimated.

Sandhya Srinivasan, Executive Editor of the Indian Journal of Medical Ethics, cautions that while many of the NPP's recommendations are non-controversial on paper and seem to be aimed at providing people more services, "the proposed incentives to poor couples for sterilisation, and rewards to local bodies for their performance, could encourage coercion. Most important, perhaps, is the fact that the NPP does not seriously address the conditions which produce ill health. Without a significant change at this level, family planning will remain a low priority for the poor".

Women's organisations are also concerned about whether contraceptive technology and research will focus on safe and women-controlled products.

India poised for a bright future -- demographic opportunity

From time to time, the language of international debate changes. For decades, human populations were seen as a burden; today they are referred to as a country's greatest asset. Populations in Western countries are declining, threatening a decline in their economic power. India , on the other hand, has a young population that has the potential to power tremendous economic growth. In the words of K C Pant, vice-chairman, NCP, and deputy chairman, Planning Commission: "This is an opportunity to utilise the abundant available human resources of the country to accelerate economic development, take advantage of this period of low dependency ratios to improve the quality of life, and improve savings. The challenge is to develop a synergy between ongoing demographic, educational, economic and technological transitions so that India can hasten population stabilisation, and rapidly achieve sustainable development -- social, economic and human."

InfoChange News & Features, March 2007