NEW DELHI // In the absence of legislation in India to control the burgeoning population, the government is planning to launch an awareness programme to educate people about the virtues of late marriage and family planning. In New Delhi last week, the Indian health minister Ghulam Nabi Azad urged couples to marry after 30 years of age, saying resources in the country were unable to meet the demands of the growing population. "Only people who opt to marry at 30-31 should be awarded," he said at a ceremony to felicitate couples who have opted for late marriages.
Though the legal age of marriage in India is 18 for girls and 21 for boys, various studies conducted recently reveal that in rural India, which constitutes 70 per cent of the total population, girls are married as young as 13 years of age. Many Indians agree with the government's prescription of late marriage. Sarfaraz Hassan, a 32-year-old actor from Bhopal, agrees that there is an urgent need to limit population growth and that late marriages will prove an effective way to do so.
"Early marriage results in producing more children. If a girl is married at 18, she can produce any number of children till she reaches 40 years, and if the marriage age is increased to 30, the reproductive span will be reduced to 10 years. So I think it will prove to be an effective method," he said. He has been in a relationship with a member of his troupe, Khusbu, 30, for three years, and both want to earn more money to provide for a family before settling down. But their families wanted them to settle down as soon as they learnt that they were a couple.
"In our society you can't have an extended premarital relationship. The moment families come to know they will ask for marriage," he said. "If one gets married and adopts family planning, people start questioning. We are bound by social norms more than individual preferences. There is always a societal pressure to have children soon after getting married." Khusbu agrees that late marriages can help control the population: "At the age of 30, a person is mature and can decide to plan their life," she said.
India's population stands at 1.14 billion and is expected to overtake China by 2050 to become world's most populous country with an estimated population of 1.53bn, according to a report by the National Commission on Population. Manish Ujwal, the programme co-co-ordinator of Food For All, a volunteer organisation based in Uttar Pradesh, India's most populous state, said the fast-growing population has put tremendous strain on the country's natural resources and infrastructure. "We have just 2.5 per cent of the global land area but 17 per cent of the world's population. When the population increases, land area decreases. Each development programme means further reduction of land, causing further shortages of food and also employment opportunities."
India launched a national family planning programme in 1952, when its population was less than half the current figures. The programme promoted the use of contraceptives, but repeatedly failed to achieve its total fertility rate target. The rate represents the average number of children per woman. India's current fertility rate is 2.7, and the social welfare ministry's National Population Policy in 2000 set a goal of 2.1 children per woman by 2010. The TFR among rural women is still too high and stands at an average of three children per family.
India has not formulated any comprehensive policy for controlling its population in the last three decades, owing to its vote bank politics, religion and social structures. In the 1970s, the prime minister Indira Gandhi implemented a forced sterilisation programme during the emergency period, which lasted for two years. Officially, men with two children or more had to submit to sterilisation, but many unmarried young men and political opponents were also sterilised. This was blamed for creating public aversion to family planning in India.
In the 1980s, the government formulated a family welfare policy and campaigned for "Hum do, hamare do" (One family, two children), which is still applicable in the country and to some extent became a success in urban India. Last week, the health minister, Mr Azad, appealed to the political parties to reach out to people with the message of family planning. "If all political leaders included population control in their political campaigns, the results could be visible within a year," said Mr Azad. He asked politicians to rise above vote bank politics to control population.