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Population dividend for India
Posted online: Wednesday, April 26, 2006 at 0941 hours IST
Updated: Wednesday, April 26, 2006 at 1000 hours IST
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In the 1970s, the government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, which ordered the sterilisation programme, was thrown out in elections -- her worst defeats coming in areas where the family planning campaign was robustly implemented.

In a country blighted by decades of poverty and illiteracy, many people, especially in rural India, still see an extra child as an extra pair of hands.

"People with large families are usually the ones who are outside the formal economy," said Nanda. "For them each child is an economic asset."

However, this concept has strained city resources as migrants from the countryside crowd in, looking for work.

Some experts worry the still rising population could rein in economic growth of around eight percent a year.

The government's new population policy helped bring down the total fertility rate -- or the number of children a woman gives birth to during her lifetime -- from nearly six in the 1960s to the present three, but even that number is still high, and means an additional 15.5 million people each year.


Some experts complain the government's policy is too hit-and-miss. Planners push for a "two-child" norm but the policy is rarely implemented strictly.

Efforts to forge a coherent policy have also been hampered by graft and a lack of knowledge.

Millions of condoms distributed free to combat AIDS and encourage family planning, are used for waterproofing roofs, reinforcing roads, making toys, polishing saris and even covering military guns and tanks from dust.

"We are only paying lip service to population control," said P.N. Mari Bhat, Director of the International Institute of Population Studies, a leading population think-tank.

"There is some progress in terms of control, but there are regional demographic imbalances wherein the population growth of one region has been negated by a fall elsewhere."

India's last census in 2001 revealed a sharp demographic divide between poorer northern states and economically advanced southern states, where there has been a sharp decrease in the rate of population growth in the last decade.

Experts say the demographic imbalances could fan regional tensions as people move from the poorer heavily populated areas to richer southern India.

Imbalances could also fan political tensions. Last year, a leading Hindu hardliner angered women and Muslims by pressing Hindus to have as many children as possible to avoid being swamped by Muslims.

More than 80 percent of secular India's people are Hindus, around 13 percent Muslims and the rest Christians, Sikhs and other minorities. The Muslim community grew almost 30 percent between 1991 and 2001, according to census data, while the number of Hindus rose 20 percent.

"We are on the right track," Sen said. "But the challenge is to put effective birth control measures in the northern states."

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