Six questions for six CMs

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By the next two decades India’s population will affect its all-round growth more profoundly than change in economy or climate. And half of population growth will happen in the Hindi belt States, led by Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Are the Chief Ministers of these States bothered about the frightening implications?

Should India be pulled back because of neglect? By 2030 India’s population will impact it more profoundly than economic growth or climate change. At one level we foresee a young, productive population and few dependency ratio problems. The assumption is only partially correct as inter-State disparities are growing rapidly. The changing size, composition and spatial distribution of the population are becoming more skewed. There is a need to analyse these trends, identify the causes, project what’s going to happen, and become alive to the implications.

By 2026, half of India’s population growth will happen in Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Nearly half of that increase will occur in 70 districts of Uttar Pradesh. During the same period the southern States together will add just 13 per cent to India’s population growth. The Hindi belt will need more than three decades to reduce fertility to what Kerala achieved in 1988, Tamil Nadu in 2000, and Andhra Pradesh in 2002. The last is a study in contrast and shows what family planning can achieve on its own steam.

In Andhra Pradesh the percentage of rural girls marrying before 18 is surprisingly higher (even today) than the predictable laggards Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. Andhra Pradesh also exhibits the largest proportion of non-literate married women up to the age of 45. On this score this technologically advanced State still ranks lower than the erstwhile ‘Bimaru’ conglomerate of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa(with or without Jharkhand, Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh).

Despite these contradictions, profound changes are set to occur as one looks at Andhra’s younger generation. Take for example the unmarried 15-24 year olds with 10 years of schooling. According to the latest District Level Health Survey of 2007, the State has outshone Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra in improving girl’s education up to matriculation level and now stands on par with Punjab and Delhi in the proportion of ‘tenth pass’ unmarried women.

When it comes to the average number of children ever born to mothers over 40, Andhra Pradesh ranks alongside progressive Tamil Nadu, Punjab, Himachal Pradesh, Chandigarh and Goa with three children per woman. Even in comparatively developed States like Gujarat, Maharashtra, West Bengal, Karnataka and Delhi, the average number of children born to 40 plus women remains four. The figure is as high as five children per woman in Rajasthan, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar. Uttar Pradesh has the dubious distinction of women having an average of six children until menopause (and not family planning) liberates them from unwanted pregnancies.

Andhra Pradesh has managed to reduce fertility only because facilities for limiting family size were accessible and District Collectors were constantly enjoined to give primacy to family planning. The point, in short, is that reducing fertility is achievable on its own. More importantly, it can dramatically improve life for the next generation.

To start with, regular reduction in the number of premature nuptials is certain. Also from now on an astounding number of marriageable girls will be equipped with education, because their mothers had the good fortune to be able to limit family size. That had unchained their daughters from the drudgery of housekeeping and sibling care which permitted them to stay in school. All this will automatically slash maternal mortality; create a better understanding of motherhood and produce healthier children. All because families were encouraged to have fewer children. Much as the precursor southern States had already done in the Seventies, Eighties and Nineties.

Chief Ministers Mayawati, Ashok Gehlot, Raman Singh, Nitish Kumar and Shivraj Singh Chouhan, and the Adviser to the Governor of Jharkhand need to respond to some vital questions:

1. Are they scared of speaking about family planning up front? When more than 50 per cent of the people in the reproductive age group use no contraceptives, can their States afford to overlook family planning?

2. Why have they not exercised their authority to prevent illegal adolescent marriages? Teenage pregnancies cause thousands of deaths of mothers and infants. When did they last review this? What instructions did they give? Do they know the result?

3. Are they aware that almost half their rural boys are married before the legal age? Surely that is not difficult to stop?

4. It is said that letting population grow unabated keeps people ignorant and incapable of demanding their rights, which is good for politicians. Do they agree?

5. When the focus changed from chasing targets to improving contraceptive choice, each State had a duty to make access to services universally available. Does it bother them that in their States the unmet demand for contraception is highest in the country? That the average number of children born to 40 plus women is still five and often six?

6. Does it trouble them that almost 40 per cent of all deaths are among children? Does it worry them that every third child is either stunted or underweight — and is denied the opportunity to develop to full potential?

Society should ask these questions. In public view.


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