Is India's population policy sexist?

Indian women Female sterilisation is the mainstay of India's population programme

Can the promise of a car or a mixer grinder help keep India's population in check?

Well, that's what health authorities in the northern state of Rajasthan apparently believe. They are offering a cheap car, among other things, as a prize in an attempt to sign up some 20,000 people to meet an ambitious sterilisation target. Time will tell whether this turns out to be another gimmick or an innovative incentive.

But what worries many is the ethics of such sterilisation drives in a largely patriarchal society like India.

As population expert Usha Rai says, the promise of such lucrative incentives typically make husbands push their wives to undergo sterilisation and avoid a range of contraceptives that are available to help limit the size of their families. There's enough evidence to support this concern.

Some 37% of India's married women - who use modern family planning methods - have opted for sterilisation, a government study has found. (Only 1% of males had opted for sterilisation.) Intrauterine devices, condoms and pills were being used by some 10% of the women.


In India's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, with 200 million people - and an economy the size of Qatar which has a population of less than 2 million - the bulk of women who use any modern method of family planning get sterilised.

Ever since the 1970s India has used a combination of coercion and incentives to carry out sterilisation drives to check population growth.

During the 22-month-old Emergency in the mid-1970s when prime minister Indira Gandhi suspended democratic rule, the government embarked on a draconian campaign to sterilise poor men - they were dragged into operating theatres in makeshift camps, and police surrounded entire villages at night and herded the men into the camps.

A street in India India is home to 17% of the world’s people

More than six million Indian were sterilised in one year - that's 15 times the number of people sterilised by the Nazis. Mrs Gandhi government was routed in the next elections, thanks to the public anger against this drive, among other things. It is "politically dangerous", as one expert says, to target the reproductive ability of men in India.

There is little doubt that unchecked population growth is an existential threat to India - 17% of the world's people live in a country which has only 3% of the world's land area.


The good news is that India's birth rate has dropped by more than half in 35 years - from 5.7 children per woman in the mid-1960s to 2.7 in 2010. Nearly a third of India's people have lowered their fertility to replacement levels.

The bad news is that India is still set to overtake China as the world's most populous nation by 2030. A Planning Commission report points to a "chilling" fact: the wide geographical disparity in the projected population growth. The four northern states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh will alone account for 44% of the expected addition of 370 million people to India's population between 2001-26, the report says.

That's not all. Half of India's population is in the reproductive age group. More than 40% of the population increase is contributed by births beyond two children per family. Just over half of the 188 million couples are using contraceptives.

But, as many experts believe, India's family planning programme continues to be sexist. The onus, as award-winning science writer Maria Hvistendahl says, is on women to control their fertility.

Even the Planning Commission admits that female sterilisation has become the mainstay of the programme. High levels of infant and child mortality and preference for sons means that women delay sterilisation.

Experts believe that women should be offered more reversible choices of contraception like injectibles and implants which are not presently offered under India's family planning programme.

More importantly, they say, men should be pushed to take more responsibility for limiting their family - male methods account for only 6% of contraceptive use in India. Should women be bearing the brunt?

Soutik Biswas Article written by Soutik Biswas Soutik Biswas Delhi correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Well, it's time we snap out of the past, congress tried it's luck with emergency rule and was thrown out, so we know we won't take crap, it's time we deal with educating ppl and please women stop treating ur husbands like 'they know best' think for urself and do what is right and not what is convenient or traditional!

    With many hopes, lots of luck and courage! Go India go!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    I believe, this is a responsibility of every citizen of India to control the birth rate. It is the fact that education is being widen and broaden accross the India but at the same time we must not act irresponsibly. I think we must promote adoption and only one child policy.... Who says that you cannot contribute towards country's growth?

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    I remember reading in India a government spokesman saying that the shortage of women isn't a problem. Men will marry later and take younger girls. Can't anyone see the shortcomings of ignoring this issue. As for stimulating the supply the mind boggles at how this might be arrived at. I think India in 2030 could be a very strange country (even stranger than it is now).

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    (1) Here is a paradox. I actually know of a woman from India who has two daughters and does not want any more. However, her husband is against the idea. She therefore wants to be sterilised without her husband's knowledge or consent. Is she being sexist? (2) Has anyone heard of a scientist in India, Sujoy Guha, who has apparently perfected a reversible vasectomy-equivalent that is 100% reliable?

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Selective birth? more boys and less girls? Encourage it! At the end of the day thats also a limiting factor in population growth.
    Alas, market forces will come into play at high levels. if there aren't enough girls to go round, the scarcity will drive their values up, stimulating supply


Comments 5 of 23



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