Recently, there have been many debates in India about population control. Unfortunately, some Muslim spokespersons and various opposition political parties think that it is a question of controlling the birth rates of minorities, without realizing that it is a necessity for all Indians in order to become a country of the first world. India has more than three times the population of the United States and less than a third of its land mass.
We will have a massive shortage of water as well as arable land, and more pollution if we do not control the galloping population growth.
We must offer our 1.3 billion citizens a better standard of living. Although India has done a very creditable job of creating enough food for all, we simply do not have the resources to provide quality education, housing, health services and adequate food to a population rapidly growing. Clean water will be scarce if we add 25 million babies a year, not to mention stretch our resources, to give every child good nutrition, healthcare, education and job opportunities when they will grow.
It really has nothing to do with religion. In fact, one of the first countries to have a comprehensive population control program was Indonesia, and it had nothing to do with China’s strict mandatory one-child policy.
I had the privilege in the 1990s of traveling to Indonesia to report in detail on its population programs and was impressed with the way they carried it forward. At that time, President Suharto was convinced that the country needed to delay its 200 millionth child by ten years and they succeeded.
Indonesia being a Muslim country where birth control is not a priority has managed to get all its citizens on board by talking to clerics not only in Muslim areas but also by convincing Christian and Catholic priests. It is pure political will and a multi-pronged approach that has helped young people and young families to have two or at most three children.
Every village, town, and city had mother-child clinics where pregnant women went to learn how to get the best nutrition for their unborn child. Once the child was born, the father and mother were told why it was better to delay the second child. Every month, a health worker visited the village to take vital statistics of the babies and see if they were well nourished, gaining weight and receiving all the vaccines that infants and children needed.
In addition, they would provide advice on birth control measures to mothers and fathers would also be invited to the counseling sessions. Many times the in-laws were also advised. Then the couple could choose the birth control measure that would suit them.
An added incentive was to provide the wife with basic training on employment and work. This may include working at home, such as sewing clothes, growing vegetables to sell, or teaching. I met several mothers from villages and small towns who told me how much their lives and those of their children had improved since all these services had been offered.
I was also taken to a family planning institution, where workers from all over the world had come to be trained in messaging and practical steps. I spoke to some from India. They told me that they already had the skills but that in India the problem was that there was no political will. Due to the urgency and drastic methods tried during this time, family planning had a bad reputation. Even though it was now in the 1990s, no politician was willing to actively promote and support the issue. Forced and indiscriminate sterilization in the 1970s had put the whole issue on hold. It saddens me that one bad judgment set our country so far behind.
I also realized that educating women was only one factor in helping them want fewer children, but it was not the only factor. Family pressure and the need to have a male child was part and parcel of the mindset that needed to be changed and was changed by bringing in councils and churches and mosques, temples. It was indeed essential for religious families to have the support of their clerics.
Indonesia being the most populous Muslim country, managed it through political will and bringing together the different communities while ensuring that the babies born would be taken care of.
It is not difficult to do, but it requires political will and a national program. There will be a pushback from opposition parties and religious entities, but if this becomes the law of the land for every family, India can certainly achieve what Indonesia did thirty years ago.
The opinions expressed above are those of the author.
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