Late-night TV as population control measure – When there is no electricity, there is nothing else to do but produce babies - Ghulam Nabi Azad (Health and Family Welfare Minister)
India's health minister believes late night TV makes for good birth control. Family planning experts fear he has simply run out of ideas for curbing India's potentially catastrophic population growth.
It's still unclear how serious Health and Family Welfare Minister Ghulam Nabi Azad was being when he made an impassioned plea this month for India to bring electricity to all its villages.
"When there is no electricity, there is nothing else to do but produce babies," Azad said at a function to mark World Population Day.
"If there is electricity in every village, then people will watch TV till late at night and then fall asleep. They won't get a chance to produce children," he said.
Whether the minister was being flippant -- he insists not -- the issue of population growth in India, and the lack of success in controlling it, is deadly serious.
Since independence in 1947, the population has tripled to nearly 1.2 billion and now grows by 18 million every year.
India is expected to surpass China as the world's most populous nation by 2028 and the population is predicted to top 1.5 billion by 2050.
This in a country where scarce resources already have millions competing for drinking water, sanitation, health care, education and jobs.
Family planning in India was held back for decades by the fallout from a disastrous sterilisation programme introduced in the mid-1970s by Sanjay Gandhi, son of the then-prime minister Indira Gandhi.
The programme targeted men with more than two children but, in order to meet quotas, government officials forced large numbers of unmarried, poor men to submit to vasectomies.
The policy was discontinued after less than two years, but its legacy was a long-lasting aversion to any government control programme that even hinted at coercion.
That, and the democratic principles upon which the modern Indian state was founded, prevented any emulation of China's one-child policy.
"In a democracy, the government has no business to order its people to have fewer children," said Neeraj Singh, who runs a voluntary organisation to educate young married couples about family planning.
"It can only educate them to understand that the population issue needs urgent attention and that only citizens can do something to address the problem," Singh said.
But such lessons are hard to get across in a country where family is paramount and where many still see children as an investment for their old age.
"Asking people to have fewer kids in India is just like telling them to change their religion. It is a very sensitive issue," says Veena Rawat, who runs an all-women organisation that advocates family planning.
Rawat believes the government has to provide specific incentives to make people sign up for programmes.
"We could induce couples to have fewer children by providing monetary support or gifting them retirement benefits... ways to make people who adhere to family planning feel special," she said.
For Azad's television theory, she has nothing but scorn. "Such bizarre ideas are only suggested when the government has no intentions or is too scared to find solutions," she said.
While the health minister himself has warned that India is "sitting on a volatile volcano", some demographic experts question the whole premise of the population doomsday scenario.
They point to growing evidence that population growth decreases as the economic and social status of people, and especially women, improves.
Nine relatively affluent Indian states, including Maharashtra and Punjab, boast fertility rates -- the number of children an average woman produces -- as low as 1.8, compared with a national average of 3.4 in 1993.
In the 1980s, the government launched a popular slogan "Hum Do Hamare Do" (We Two and Our Two) suggesting a small family -- with two children -- is a happy family.
This resonated with middle and upper-income groups but had little impact among India's poorer masses, for whom children were key income earners. The importance attached to male children also meant that many couples with two daughters would keep trying for a son.
Shyama Kumari, a mother of five who distributes free condoms for a voluntary organisation in the New Delhi slum where she lives, is an example of how disadvantaged Indian women who understand and appreciate family planning are often unable to practise it.
"Some women mock me and say I should give my husband a condom too but he refuses to use it and believes children are God's gift," said Kumari, 32, who secretly terminated her sixth pregnancy.
"One day, I suggested he undergo a vasectomy but he abused me and said I was a witch as no wife would ever take away her husband's manhood," she added.
Kumari can also testify directly to the inadequacy of Azad's concept of television as a libido reducer.
"I have a small TV in my home. My husband watches some shows in the evening but we have sex at least three times a week," she said.
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