Gandhi Battling Tradition to Curb Population Growth

Times Staff Writer

Rishi Ram Khari and his wife, Shakuntala, agree with Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi about India’s urgent need for family planning. Ideally, Khari said the other day, his wife nodding support, the Indian family should not have more than two children.

Khari, 50, and his wife, 45, are successful farmers in this village near New Delhi. They have six acres of good land, three fat water buffalo, a cow and a television set. They also have 10 children, ranging in age from 8 to 28.

Their first nine were girls. In keeping with Hindu tradition and despite their patriotic belief in the need to restrict the size of families, they felt that they should have at least one more.


“We were only waiting for a boy,” Shakuntala Khari said. “Every time I was hoping the next one would be a boy. In this family, sometimes a husband will take a second wife if he does not have a boy.”

Her husband said: “It is true that the population problem exists, but I had no other solution. What Rajiv Gandhi says about a small family is right, but in our village it is necessary to have a son.”

The couple from Sultanpur illustrate the essential problem in India’s losing battle with itself. Although many Indians feel positively about birth control, powerful religious and social traditions--the preference for boys, for example--prevent enough of them from doing anything about it in time to make a difference.

Meanwhile, India’s population rushes ahead like a runaway train. In no other place is the arithmetic of overpopulation so daunting.

Already, one of every seven people on earth lives in India. Every year India adds the equivalent of the population of Australia, about 15 million people. In just 14 years, India’s population will be 1 billion, and sometime after the turn of the century, India will almost certainly pass China as the most populous country on earth.

Attitudes Must Change

To confront this demographic nightmare, which helps keep more than half of all Indians in a state of abject poverty despite steady national economic growth, the Gandhi government is planning to launch this fall its most ambitious population control program yet, a $3-billion campaign aimed at changing entrenched attitudes that have crippled such efforts in the past.


In democratic India, family planning is an explosive political issue. The only election defeat ever suffered by the Congress Party--the party currently known as Congress-I that Rajiv Gandhi now heads--came in 1977 amid widespread charges of intimidation and coercion in the population control program of the time. That program was run by Sanjay Gandhi, Rajiv’s brother, under Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, their mother.

Rajiv Gandhi’s approach has been cautious. He is trying to build a “people’s movement” in support of birth control.

To pave the way for the new program, the government hired three outside market research firms to conduct a massive study of public attitudes. The results of the survey, which took several months to complete and is based on interviews with 36,000 people in five states, show that past government efforts were based on misconceptions about the Indian people.

For years the government carried out its family planning program under the slogan, “A Small Family Is a Happy Family.” The slogan appeared on billboards, television commercials, radio spots and leaflets throughout the country. The ideal family was shown on posters: a smiling husband and smiling wife with two smiling children.

But the survey found that most Indians think this is an absurd, even laughable, concept.

Except among the urban elite, the Indian family is an extended family, with many generations living under one roof. A typical Indian household, like an Indian railroad station, is chaotic, a riot of noise and activity. It will contain its own temple or mosque, a central courtyard for communal cooking and dormitory-style bedrooms.

Meaningless Slogan

In such an environment, the government slogan had no meaning.

“The slogan itself, in an Indian context, is totally contrary to the culture,” said Titoo Ahluwalia, a Yale University graduate who was chairman of one of the marketing groups that conducted the study. “Actually, a large family is a happy family in India. When you find a slogan that goes against the current, you are going to find it hard rowing.”


An approach that does make sense to most Indians, the researchers found, is to say that a smaller family is a richer family. Accordingly, the new government program is expected to focus on the idea that the smaller family will be able to afford better food. A large family will be portrayed not as an unhappy family but as a luxury that Indians can no longer afford.

The cost of raising children is well known to most Indians, rich and poor alike. Most farmland has been subdivided into uneconomically small parcels, and the need to have children to help with the farm work is not as great as it once was.

Too Expensive

Even relatively prosperous farmers such as Rishi Ram Khari in Sultanpur complain of the cost.

“It is a very expensive time now,” Khari said. “Every man thinks many times before having another child.”

The researchers also found ineffective a government strategy of focusing on the health of young mothers with too many children. Much emphasis--there was even a classical dance routine on the subject--was put on the plight of weary, overburdened young mothers to make the point that fewer children spaced over more years would improve the mother’s health.

The researchers found that that message had very little impact in rural India, where 76% of the people live and where social traditions are most rigid.


Women’s Low Status

Meena Kaushik, a social anthropologist who directed the survey in the state of Uttar Pradesh, said: “Sadly, we found that the status of the female was so low that most people could not give a damn. We told the government that they were beaming their messages to the least important member of the family.”

So instead of focusing on the young mother, the Gandhi government is considering an advertising campaign that will emphasize the improved health of the children, including the all-important male child, that comes with delaying childbirth until an older age and allowing more time between children.

Another likely target is the mother-in-law, a powerful force in Indian family life. It is often said that the only time a woman achieves any real status in India is when she bears sons and the sons marry and bring their wives home.

The theme of the tyrannical woman who treats her daughter-in-law as a virtual slave is common in Indian literature and film. From the time the bride arrives in the home it is the mother-in-law who applies pressure to bear children, preferably sons, as soon as possible.

Feminist Hired

Rami Chhabra, a feminist writer whom Prime Minister Gandhi has brought in to work on family planning issues, said, “It often happens that a woman’s only happiness in life is when she assumes the role of older matriarchal figure.”

Repeatedly, in describing the outlines of the new program, Indian officials emphasize the importance of the mother-in-law in their strategy. An official in the prime minister’s secretariat said: “A crucial role in motivation is the mother-in-law. Young couples are more easily motivated to limit or delay having children. The mother-in-law tends to be most dominant.”


In 1951, India became the first developing country to undertake a family planning program. Since that first hesitant start, India has spent--with help from abroad, notably the United States--billions of dollars on population control. The Indian government estimates that 70 million births have been prevented because of birth control programs, including several million sterilizations a year.

New Approaches

But in that same period the population has more than doubled, to about 780 million from 361 million in 1951. As a result, the Gandhi government is turning to untried, occasionally bizarre schemes to achieve its goal of zero population growth by the year 2000. Some of the ideas under consideration:

- Enlisting the several million salesmen of betel nuts or bidi cigarettes--cheap hand-rolled smokes--as front-line agents in the population-reduction drive.

- Recruiting female gossips in the villages to represent the family planning program. This plan was very successful on a small scale in the state of Karnataka.

- Raising the education level of men before marriage in order to raise the marriage age and education level of women. In the past, there have been efforts to prolong female education--nearly 75% of India’s women are illiterate--but new studies have shown that a more effective way is to target men. Better-educated men demand better-educated women.

- Encouraging married couples to talk more. Custom often dictates that a husband never talk directly to his wife or call her by any personal name.


Communication Vital

“We want to improve inter-spouse communications,” said Krishna Kumar, 46, a member of Parliament and deputy minister for family planning. “We found that in 60% of marriages, the husband and wife have never talked to each other about family planning.”

Kumar is well known in family planning circles as a result of his work as district administrator in the state of Kerala, where he directed one of India’s most successful family planning programs. In 1971, he organized a “sterilization festival” in which more than 63,000 vasectomies were performed in a single month.

He said: “We must build up the male ego as a decision-maker. We will project the male as a wise man to have a small family.”

Optimists see the new drive as the most positive move in years to control the population. Gandhi fuels their hopes by describing overpopulation as India’s most threatening problem.

Focus on Family Planning

Last year, he doubled the budget for family planning in the five-year period that will end in 1990. He named one of his most trusted Cabinet members, Narasimha Rao--the father of eight children--to head the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, which oversees population programs.

Some sections of the government were heartened by the researchers’ conclusion that the rural populace is much more aware of family planning programs than ever before. Moreover, the researchers found that nearly 70% of the people have a positive attitude about smaller families.


Chhabra, who was named to a post in the Health Ministry after years of being one of the family planning program’s severest critics, said: “I’ve never been so positive. I think it is entirely possible to do what China did--halve its birthrate in a decade--and to do it in a democratic, humane fashion.”

For Chhabra, acceptance of the principle of family planning by the majority of the people was the biggest hurdle. Now comes the job of putting the positive attitude into practice.

Little Time

“When you find that awareness is 90% and positive attitudes are as much as 70%, but that practice is only 30%, it means that people want family planning but that something in their lives prevents them from taking the proper steps,” she said.

Pessimists contend that this “something in their lives” is ingrained social attitude, and that it could take decades to alter this, not the few years set aside by the government.

“It is true that things are changing,” one social scientist said. “Change is actually taking place, on a small base. But we don’t have time to wait for mothers to enhance their status. We can’t wait for all of Bihar to be educated. We don’t have time.”

Meena Kaushik, the social anthropologist, said, “We found that although there has been a tangible change in people’s attitudes, it is never going to be enough.”


Limit Varies

For one thing, she said, many people agree in principle with the need for smaller families, but their concept of what constitutes smaller is considerably different from the government ideal.

“From the notion of a limitless family, the people had come up with the notion of a limited family,” she said. “Four or five children is what they said. There was distinctly a notion that beyond five children was too many, not suited for the times.”

This may be an advance over the old way of thinking--a common Indian greeting wishes, “May you have 16 children and a happy life”--but it is not necessarily good news in a country that is trying to introduce the concept of the one- or two-child family.

Moreover, Kaushik and other researchers found that in many cases parents would not even list girl children as members of their families.

Girls Not Counted

“We don’t have a large family,” a woman in Uttar Pradesh told a canvasser. “We only have three boys.”

“But do you have any daughters?” the woman was asked.

“Oh, yes, three,” came the reply.

Ultimately, it is this preference for male children and prejudice against female children that may doom the population control program.


Some scholars, including American anthropologists Ruth S. and Stanley A. Freed, have determined that many Indians are willing to take part in family planning programs only after they have the number of sons that they feel they need. With most families this means two or more.

Sons Still Important

Another common saying illustrates the attitude: “One eye is no eyes, and one son is no sons.”

Those who are pessimistic about the population control effort conclude that, although there has been a modest reduction in India’s birthrate in the past 20 years (from more than 40 births per 1,000 to 33), only couples who have their sons early in their marriage are practicing birth control. In the two-child family, both children are usually boys.

This was evident at a sterilization camp set up not long ago near Meerut in Uttar Pradesh, the most populous state in India. Ramesh Srivastava, the district medical officer, said, “Every seventh man in the world lives in India, and every seventh Indian lives in Uttar Pradesh.”

Sterilization Ongoing

Uttar Pradesh is the cultural backbone of Hindu India. More than 120 million people live there, far more than in any country of Europe outside the Soviet Union, and about the same as the population of Japan.

From the beginning of India’s population control program, Uttar Pradesh has had a dismal record. Nevertheless, 22 people had trudged through the monsoon rain to reach a clinic, in the village of Mawana, in order to be sterilized. Most of them were women, but there were several men awaiting vasectomies as well.


Before the day was over, 54 persons would be sterilized, including a man on whom doctors performed a vasectomy during a power failure. The only light they had came through a dim, barred window.

But the doctors were experts and not likely to make any mistakes. One of them, Nilima Pant, said she has sterilized 12,000 women since 1982.

‘Terminal Method’ Preferred

India is unusual in that the majority of its people who have chosen birth control use the so-called “terminal method” of sterilization to achieve it.

Two couples waiting at the Mawana clinic for the woman to be sterilized exemplified the problem that haunts the Indian birth control program. One of the couples, Balashawar Paliwa, 28, and his wife, Nirmal, 21, had been married four years and had two sons. They came to the clinic to be sterilized 26 days after the birth of their second son.

Paliwa owns a fertilizer store in a village 30 miles away from Mawana. He said that he and his wife decided soon after their marriage to have only two children, boys or girls. Of course, they were pleased to have two boys, he said.

It had been a different experience for Kamlesh Singh, 27, and her husband, Rampal Singh, 34, a wheat farmer. Their first child, a daughter, was born 10 years ago, followed by a son a year later. But they desperately wanted another son.


Singh said: “We are rajputs (a Hindu warrior caste). We have a tradition that we should have two sons, one to go to war and the other to stay home.”

After their first son, they had two more daughters. Now, after four children, they had given up the quest for a second son.

“I had expected a boy,” Kamlesh Singh said. “That is why we postponed the operation. Now we must be reconciled to only one son.”