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India’s Population Control Measures: A Historical Perspective

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India's Population Control Measures: A Historical Perspective

India’s Population Control Measures: India has grappled with the perennial concern of its burgeoning population for decades. Since 1951, the country has been exploring various avenues to curb the population growth, with one notable approach being the implementation of sterilization, also known as “nasbandi.” However, during the emergency period in the 1970s, forced sterilization emerged as a significant political issue.

Forced Sterilization During the Emergency

In 1975, during the emergency period, millions of men were forcefully sterilized. It is said that Sanjay Gandhi, the younger son of the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, vigorously promoted this campaign. The most vulnerable targets of this initiative were the economically disadvantaged population.

During this time, police would cordon off entire villages, and men would be subjected to coerced sterilization. According to reports, approximately 6.2 million people were sterilized within a year. Tragically, this period also saw the deaths of around 2,000 innocent individuals due to botched operations.

Understanding Sterilization

Sterilization is a permanent contraceptive method that involves the cessation of reproductive capability in men or women. Following sterilization, individuals are rendered incapable of conception or bearing children. In male sterilization, the vas deferens tube is either cut or sealed, preventing the passage of sperm from the testes. Similarly, in female sterilization, the fallopian tubes are either cut or blocked, hindering the passage of eggs from the ovaries to the uterus. Importantly, female sterilization does not affect menstruation or hormone levels.

Rationale Behind the Sterilization Drive

In 1951, India’s population stood at approximately 361 million. During the preceding decade (1941-1951), the country witnessed an annual population growth rate of 1.26%. Based on these trends, eminent demographer P.C. Mahalanobis projected that India’s population would increase by 5 million people each year.

In response to Mahalanobis’s report, the Indian government initiated the National Family Planning Program, making India the first country in the world to undertake such a campaign. Under this initiative, extensive efforts were made to raise awareness about family planning, encouraging families to have no more than two children with a minimum two-year gap between births. However, the government’s efforts proved largely ineffective.

Challenges and Economic Imperatives

Gopalaswami’s report not only advocated for family planning but also suggested widespread sterilization as a means of population control. Sterilization, being a simple surgical procedure, was deemed cost-effective and minimally invasive. However, garnering public support for sterilization was no easy feat. There were numerous misconceptions surrounding the procedure, including fears of death, weight loss, fatigue, and loss of libido among men.

Nevertheless, the prevailing belief among Indian policymakers was that population control was imperative for economic development. Consequently, various campaigns were launched at different phases, with a significant increase in budget allocation post-1965, when a separate department for family planning was established.

International Pressure and Political Climate

Between 1972 and 1980, the World Bank extended a loan of 66 million USD to the Indian government for sterilization efforts. Western nations exerted pressure on India to control its population, with Indira Gandhi being coerced into accelerating the sterilization campaign.

The Coercive Era: Sanjay Gandhi’s Influence

In the midst of economic turmoil and political instability in 1975, Indira Gandhi declared a state of emergency. It was during this period that Sanjay Gandhi, despite lacking any official position in the government or party, spearheaded the massive sterilization campaign. His sole qualification was being the Prime Minister’s son.

A Paradigm Shift: Centralization of Family Planning Programs

In 1976, significant changes were introduced to India’s constitutional framework under the leadership of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. The amendment granted the central government the authority to execute family planning programs, marking a pivotal shift from state-level control. Subsequently, the central government facilitated the training of state-level leaders and implemented ambitious initiatives such as vasectomy camps and setting specific targets for population control.

Sanjay Gandhi’s Vision: Addressing Population Growth

Sanjay Gandhi recognized population growth as a critical impediment to India’s progress and emphasized the need for strict measures to regulate it. He entrusted state chief ministers with the task of achieving population control targets, incentivizing them to fulfill these objectives. District commissioners were rewarded with accolades for their contributions to population control efforts. Consequently, a fervent zeal to achieve targets pervaded the administration, particularly in states like Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, where significant strides were made in population control.

Innovative Strategies in Population Control

Efforts towards population control extended beyond coercion, encompassing various subtle tactics. Government mandates stipulated that employees who didn’t undergo sterilization wouldn’t receive promotions or salary increments. In some cases, individuals were denied wages unless they could provide evidence of undergoing sterilization. Moreover, obtaining licenses for driving, operating rickshaws, or paying taxes necessitated proof of sterilization. Educational institutions began denying admission to students whose parents hadn’t undergone sterilization, while hospitals ceased providing free treatment without sterilization certificates.

Impact on Marginalized Communities

The brunt of these coercive measures was borne by marginalized segments of society. Police authorities indiscriminately rounded up individuals from railway stations or bus stops, irrespective of age or marital status. The economically disadvantaged, illiterate, prisoners, pavement dwellers, unmarried youth, newly married couples, and hospital patients became unwitting victims of population control mandates.

Political Ramifications and Public Backlash

Sanjay Gandhi’s decree mandating Congress party membership contingent upon sterilization for males under 37 sparked widespread controversy. The subsequent backlash against coercive population control policies culminated in the electoral defeat of the Congress party in the ensuing parliamentary elections. The Janata Party assumed power, with Morarji Desai as the Prime Minister. Tragically, Sanjay Gandhi met an untimely demise in a plane crash in 1980.

Persistence of Population Control Efforts

Even after the Emergency era, population control remained a priority for subsequent governments. During the Emergency, over 6 million sterilizations were conducted nationwide within a year. According to government statistics, India witnessed approximately 4 million sterilizations during 2013-14. However, the figures for male sterilizations notably decreased during this period.

Challenges and Human Rights Concerns

The coercive nature of population control efforts led to numerous instances of botched surgeries, resulting in over 700 deaths between 2009 and 2012. Post-operative complications were reported in 356 cases during this period. Additionally, as per United Nations data, India accounted for 37% of the world’s female sterilizations in 2011, raising concerns about violations of reproductive rights.

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