India Defuses Its Population Bomb

The world's second most populous nation uses sterilization, contraceptives to reach fertility milestone. From a report: Back in the 1960s, India faced an exploding population, with a fertility rate of nearly six children per woman. When famine struck, U.S. President Lyndon B. Johnson initially refused to deliver food aid, citing the country's high birth rate. In response, India's Prime Minister Indira Gandhi dramatically expanded the first national family planning program in a major developing country, offering cash incentives for both men and women to be sterilized. The city of Madras, now called Chennai, paid men $6 a snip. For the next 60 years, India continued to focus on sterilization as well as contraceptives and education for girls. Now, Indian health officials say the task of defusing their population bomb is finally done. Late last month, the National Family Health Survey (NFHS), a periodic investigation of half a million households, announced a milestone: The country's fertility rate had for the first time fallen below the widely accepted "replacement level" of 2.1 children per woman. (The U.S. rate is 1.8.) "Women are seeing the wisdom in having fewer children," says Poonam Muttreja, director of the nonprofit Population Foundation of India. India's population growth is not over yet, however. Thanks to past high fertility rates, two-thirds of the population is under 35 years old, and a large cohort of people is now entering childbearing age. Even at replacement fertility rates, the children of these young people will continue to push up numbers, and India may exceed China as the world's most populous nation as early as next year. Still, India's population is set to decline in about 3 decades, putting the country on the same track as a growing number of developing nations, such as its neighbor Bangladesh and Indonesia. India remains well behind China in falling fertility. In China, where the population may be at its peak, official figures put the fertility rate at 1.7 children per woman. State-sponsored family planning remains "the single most important driver" of India's drop in fertility, says Srinivas Goli, a demographer at Jawaharlal Nehru University. More than 55% of couples use modern contraceptives, the latest NFHS survey found. Of these, one-fifth use condoms and one-tenth the pill. But sterilization of women, generally in government-run clinics, accounts for two-thirds of all contraception. Sterilization has a checkered past in India. During the mid-1970s, Gandhi allowed states to operate compulsory sterilization camps. An estimated 19 million people were sterilized, three-quarters of them men. The program's unpopularity helped bring down Gandhi's government in 1977, says Monica Das Gupta of the Maryland Population Research Center.

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