Watch TV instead of having sex
Sadhvi Sharma reports from Bombay on one Indian official’s mad scheme for reducing the number of poor people.
To mark World Population Day last Saturday, India’s health and family welfare minister, Ghulam Nabi Azad, declared that every rural home in India should have a television. But this was no campaign for the masses’ right to infotainment. Rather, Azad sees the TV as a magic bullet to fix the country’s ‘population crisis’ - that is, TV shows might prove to be a distraction for those impoverished baby-making machines in rural India. If they could just watch TV instead of having sex, there would be fewer poor, rural babies born. Population crisis solved.
Azad explained in great detail how televisions could reduce India’s population growth by 80 per cent: ‘In olden days people had no other entertainment but sex, which is why they produced so many children. Today, TV is the biggest source of entertainment. Hence, it is important that there is electricity in every village so that people watch TV till late in the night. By the time the serials are over, they’ll be too tired to have sex and will fall asleep. Then they won’t get a chance to reproduce. When there is no electricity, there is nothing else to do but produce babies.’ (1)
Perhaps this describes a typical night in the Azad household, but the idea that rural Indians have nothing but intercourse on their minds, and that they need to have their sex drive tamed by television shows, is pure fantasy. Azad sees poor people as irrational, idle creatures who need to be controlled. The fact that he wants to control them through benevolent-sounding means (having access to electricity and TV are no bad things in themselves) doesn’t make his proposal any less pernicious.
With India’s population crossing the one billion mark, the South Asian nation has become the ultimate nightmare for neo-Malthusians. India’s population is expected to surpass that of China’s in the next two decades, and so the government is worried sick about our sex habits.
‘What’s television got to do with sex, anyway?’ asks Kailash Shirodkar, a father of two in Bombay. He suggests to me that it is possible to enjoy both TV shows and sex – sometimes at the same time. ‘I chose to have kids because I love children. The TV had nothing to do with it.’
Shafi Ansari, a car mechanic who studied only up to fourth grade, is also a father of two. He tells me that ‘children are our wealth’. While on the one hand he is concerned about our rising population (it causes traffic jams, he says) he also says that peoples’ choice to have children is not some random act; there is a rationale to it. ‘Often you find people in rural areas desire more sons so that they can have more helping hands on the farms.’ This very sensible reason for having children is often ignored by those who treat the poor as ignoramuses with ‘nothing to do but have sex’.
The idea that men and women in rural areas who often have to engage in back-breaking drudgery for long hours have so much free time on their hands that they don’t know what to do with it is ludicrous. Many people in rural areas could do well to have more leisure time to watch television, make love or whatever else they might enjoy.
Priya Bhosale, a doctor at a government hospital, says she was baffled by the health minister’s ‘irresponsible’ remark. ‘Some of my patients chose not to have children, others have two or three. We respect their choice, whatever it is’, she tells me.
Another factor often overlooked by population-obsessed scaremongers is the high infant mortality rate in underdeveloped rural areas. Ansari’s father had nine siblings, one of whom died when she was three months old. Two siblings died at the age of eight and yet another at the age of 14, as a result of illness and unhygienic conditions in the village. Incidentally, the most populated state in India, Uttar Pradesh, also has the highest under-five mortality rate and the lowest life expectancy in the country (2). Often people have larger families to ensure the survival of more children.
Even though Azad insisted that he was serious in proposing TV-provision as a population control measure, some worried that he was not serious enough. His remarks prompted one news channel to hold a debate on whether population control in India is being taken seriously. The panellists spent a significant amount of time pontificating over the language of population control.
Brinda Karat of the Communist Party of India said she supported late marriage among women - Azad’s other brainwave - and that there was a difference between ‘family planning’ and ‘population control’. While the former is ‘important for women’s health’, the latter ‘denies women choice’, she said. A representative of the Population Foundation said the word ‘control’ had a ‘stink of authoritarianism’. The impatient anchor intervened, asking if we should stop being politically correct about the matter and start taking this ‘huge’ problem of population growth more seriously. Bharatiya Janata Party leader, Najma Heptullah, closed the discussion by saying ‘whatever the choice of words, there is no alternative left but to control the country’s population’.
This has been the prevailing attitude for nearly six decades now. Whether dressed up in the language of family planning, women’s welfare and reproductive health or in the form of the more authoritarian compulsory sterilisation programme of the 1970s, the impulse has been to reduce the numbers of Indians on the planet.
It is true that many women in rural India do not have knowledge of, or access to, contraception. Health services are abysmal and women are often unable to exercise any real choice. Of course all women should have the right to access contraception and to have control over their own reproduction. Yet instead of insisting that every village have access to healthcare, contraception, education and electricity in order to enjoy greater comfort, freedom and leisure time, campaigns to ‘stabilise’ the population are driven by an assumption that human life itself is a problem. People are seen as a drain on economic and natural resources and it is assumed that it is just impossible to support so many people. As Azad put it: ‘We need to think that more children means more problems.’
Today, it is largely taken as a given that population growth is India’s biggest problem, that it stifles economic growth and hinders development. This is an outrageous copout. It is easier simply to blame people – especially those poor, fecund ones in the villages – for the shortcomings of the country than to examine where policymaking around development and poverty reduction has gone wrong. The political class is using our growing numbers as an excuse for not having reached desired levels of advancement in production, development and innovation.
But human beings produce more than just babies; they contribute to India’s dynamic economy and culture. They devise solutions to our social and political problems. As India’s population growth rate has increased so has its rapid material advancement. The per capita income of the average Indian has doubled in less than a decade, the average income levels in 2007/2008 being 76 per cent higher than in the period of 2003/2004 (3). The number of people living below the poverty line is down to 25 per cent. Life expectancy was barely 30 years at the time of independence; today it is 69 years (4).
While life expectancy has increased, fertility rates in India have in fact dropped in the past two decades, but this is also seen as a problem for neo-Malthusians who complain that we have to provide for people for a longer time. Shouldn’t we be celebrating the fact that Indians live longer, healthier lives now instead of presenting people as a burden, as parasites upon the Earth?
There is no automatic correlation between population levels and living standards anyway. While in Uttar Pradesh - India’s most populous state - 31.5 per cent live below the poverty line, in Sikkim - the most sparsely populated state - 36.55 per cent fall below the poverty line (5).
Despite its recent high levels of growth, India needs even more development and higher standards of living. Fretting about our numbers is not going to achieve either. It would serve humanity better to recognise that people are an asset rather than a problem. And whether we spend our evenings having sex or watching television is none of Mr Azad’s business.
Sadhvi Sharma is a writer based in Bombay.
(1) Electricity will solve India’s population problem: Azad, DNA, 12 July 2009
(2) Population trends: India, by Arjun Adlakha, 1997 (PDF)
(3) India’s per capita income doubled in last 7 years, Times of India, 31 January 2009
(4) The World Factbook, CIA
(5) See health indicators of Uttar Pradesh and of Sikkim.