Defusing India’s population time bomb with incentives

Sunita Laxman Jadhav
is a door-to-door saleswoman who sells waiting. She sweeps along muddy village
lanes in her nurse’s white sari, calling on newly married couples with an
unblushing proposition: Wait two years before getting pregnant, and the
government will thank you.
It also will pay you.

“I want to tell you
about our honeymoon package,” began Jadhav, an auxiliary nurse, during a recent
house call on a new bride in this farming region in the state of Maharashtra.
Jadhav explained that the district government would pay 5,000 rupees, or about
$106, if the couple waited to have children. Waiting, she promised, would allow
them time to finish their schooling or to save money.

Waiting also would
allow India more time to curb a rapidly growing population that threatens to
turn its demography from a prized asset into a crippling burden. With almost
1.2 billion people, India is disproportionately young; roughly half the
population is younger than 25. This “demographic dividend” is one reason some
economists predict that India could surpass China in economic growth rates
within five years. India will have a young, vast workforce while a rapidly
aging China will face the burden of supporting an older population.
But if youth is India’s advantage, the sheer size of its population poses
looming pressures on resources and presents an enormous challenge for an
already inefficient government to expand schooling and other services. In
coming decades, India is projected to surpass China as the world’s most
populous nation, and the critical uncertainty is just how populous it will be.
Estimates range from 1.5 billion to 1.9 billion people, and Indian leaders
recognize that that must be avoided.

Yet unlike
authoritarian China, where the governing Communist Party long ago instituted
the world’s strictest population policy, India is an unruly democracy where the
central government has set population targets but where state governments carry
out separate efforts to limit the birthrate. While some states have reacted to
population fears with coercion, forbidding parents with more than two children
from holding local office, or disqualifying government workers from certain
benefits if they have larger families, other states have done little.
Meanwhile, many national politicians have been wary of promoting population
control ever since an angry public backlash against a scandal over forced
vasectomies during the 1970s. It was considered a sign of progress that India’s
parliament debated “population stabilization” in August after largely ignoring
the issue for years.“It’s already late,” said Sabu Padmadas, a demographer with
the University of Southampton who has worked extensively in India. “It’s
definitely high time for India to act.”

The program here in
Satara is a pilot program – one of several initiatives across the country that
have used a softer approach – trying to slow down population growth by
challenging deeply ingrained rural customs. Experts say far too many rural
women wed as teenagers, usually in arranged marriages, and then have babies in
quick succession – a pattern that exacerbates poverty and spurs what
demographers call “population momentum” by bunching children together. In
Satara, local health officials have led campaigns to curb teenage weddings, as
well as promoting the “honeymoon package” of cash bonuses and encouraging the
use of contraceptives so that couples wait to start a family. “This is how
population stabilization will come,” said Rohini Lahane, an administrator in
the district health office.

India averages about
2.6 children per family, far below what it was a half century ago, yet still
above the rate of 2.1 that would stabilize the population. Many states with
higher income and education levels are already near or below an average of two
children per family. Yet the poorest and most populous states, notably Uttar
Pradesh and Bihar, average almost four children per family and have some of the
lowest levels of female literacy.

“An educated girl is
your best contraception,” said Dr. Amarjit Singh, executive director of the
National Population Stabilization Fund, a quasi-governmental advisory agency.
He said that roughly half of India’s future excess population growth was
expected to come from its six poorest states

Maharashtra is not in
that category, but its population is still growing too fast. Maharashtra
population is still growing too fast. A farming district ringed with green
hills, Satara has 3 million people. A 1997 survey found that almost a quarter
of all women were marrying before the legal age of 18, while roughly 45 percent
of all infants and young children in the district were malnourished.
In response, the district began a campaign to reduce the number of child brides
and more than 27,000 parents signed a written pledge agreeing not to allow
their daughters to wed before age 18. Within a few years, the marrying age rose
and the rate of child malnutrition dropped. Today, officials say about 15
percent of children are malnourished. but if couples were marrying a little
later, they were usually producing a child within the first year of marriage,
followed by another soon after. So in August 2009, Satara introduced its
honeymoon package as an incentive to delay childbirths. So far, 2,366 couples
have enrolled.

“The response has
been good,” said Dr. Archana Khade, a physician at the primary health care
center in the village of Kahner. “But the money is a secondary thing. It’s
about the other things, for better future prospects.”

In Satara, the
birthrate has fallen to about 1.9 children per family, partly because of the
honeymoon package, with many women opting for sterilization after their second
child. Problems persist, such as a sharp gender imbalance in Satara and many
other regions of India because of a cultural bias toward having sons. With more
pressure to limit families to two children, female fetuses are often aborted
after a couple sees an ultrasound.

Yet the idea of
waiting appeals to many young women. One new bride, Reshma Yogesh Sawand, 25,
said she and her husband want to wait to have a child – and only one – in order
to save money and move to a bigger city.

“If I have just one,”
said Sawand, who is taking a computer course and has a job selling insurance
policies, “I can take better care of it.”