Indian views on population control

The Margaret Sanger Papers
Last updated
Feb. 8, 2011, 10:40 a.m. (view history)

[1157] Hodges claims that she wants to interrupt "the ahistoric smoothness which which overpopulation discourse reproduces itself." She sees three major phases in the history of population in India-

  1. Population as a"natural history" 19th century English colonial government dealt with population in enumeration (census) and famine containment.
  2. Discursive history of population "was a Nationalist-inspired critique of colonial rule that linked the contours of a specific population profile to a nascent modernity."
  3. Third move is the "consolidation and ascendance of overpopulation discourse linked population behavior to models of economic and social development. This did not begin until the mid-1940s, and indeed was contested for a few decades to come. But by the close of the second world war, the ascendancy of overpopulation discourse reworked the ground on which population was understood and analyzed. What had before been purely a national attribute came to be seen as a global emergency. Thus the Indian family. . . [1158] became the target not only of a new bureaucratic apparatus of the independent Indian state, but also of the new post-war global order"

[1158] 19th Century: Older notions of population came not from the census, as some claim, but from the famine policies in the 19th century. Famine deaths didn't usually come from starvation, but from disease that struck weakened populations. Famine policy argued that because the economy was agricultural, that the cause of famine was drought. English administrators thought that they could use technology to fight famine, transporting foods via railroads, using telegraph to send word of droughts, and that they could control this far easier than they could monsoons and droughts themselves. From 1871-1921, though there were famines, population growth continued to increase.  Their understanding came from Malthusian theory--population operates in checks and balances (high death rate during famine, high birth rate after they are passed).  Worry was that population would out grow the lands capacity to support it. The government thought that they could increase the yield of land by "scientific farming" but the farming population was in many ways the least capable of carrying out the programs.

[1159] After a time of considering that "a large population was a good population," there was a giant shift from seeing "the population problem" as the fear that European populations were declining, leading to a weakening of their nations, to the theory that third-world populations are growing too large.  It is the same problem, just turned on its head--means that in the first case the solution is increasing European population, when this doesn't work, they turn to decreasing non-Europeans-CH. 

Between 1920s and the 1930s especially,  "the nature of the relationship between poverty and population underwent intense scrutiny and contest."  By the 1920s, people commonly believed that India was the poorest country in the world; some Indian economists , including Karve, PK Wattal, and Brij Narain thought that the poverty came from colonial misrule, that the famines were as a result of the taxation and inadequate investment in land and industry, not really because there was too much population.  They thought that the solution was to increase food production and industrial development. Hodges describes it as saying that while a large population might have high death rates during a famine, the large population is not the cause of the high death rate.  THis view is different from those that came later in the overpopulation debates.  Karve saw the large population as a symptom of the backwards economy. High population was seen as a symptom, not the cause of poverty.  One commentator wrote in 1920 that you cannot attack economic problems from the population side. You need high populations to industrialize. The lack of industrial opportunities was seen as the main problem in India, not its large population.

Indian independence and the war "created a number of conditions ripe for the ascendency and consolidation of overpopulation discourse as the hegemonic way for understanding a myriad of relationships among population, poverty, and family size as controllable through contraception." The overpopulation discourse brought in a break in the way that population had been understood.  The scale of the topic changed from the individual nation to the globe.  "American-led post-war overpopulation discourse is [1160] unique because it not only framed its subject as a threat on a global scale (that is, the third world a threat to themselves but also to the rest of us) but instituted a policy apparatus on a global scale as well." American demographers, coming out of WW2 sought to create "careful strategies of global rule and containment for a post-war new world order." In the 1940s, the Indians took up this as well, saying that population control was "essential to building an economically viable independent India." Gyan Chand and Radhakamal Mukherjee were known for this view. 

Chand's books India's Teeming Millions (1939) and The Problem of Population (1944) said that reducing the birth rate was the only way to advance; Muhkerjee wrote Planning for 400 Million (1938), arguing that the birth rate had to relate to national production figures.  Chand and Muhkerjee became key figures in the 1930s-40s, invited to serve on National Planning Commissions and advised the government of India once it was independent. Combined with international attention on India's poverty, their work "went far in displacing Indian population as an object of economic investigation.  That is to say that poverty came to be regarded not as a root cause of India's various problems, but as an effect of a too large population. Thus approaches to India's economic problems could be reworked as effects of overpopulation.  Both found themselves fighting against those more skeptical that overpopulation was a useful way of talking about Indian problems.  At the 1933 Birth Control in  Asia conference (London), some skeptics asked how they were to know what the population of a country like India or Japan should be-- how fast should it be growing? Are countries like India overpopulated or is their poverty more from inequitable distribution of resources.  Terms of the debate were always fluid at this point.

Indian government was not sure how large its population should be either--during the 1943 Bengal famine study in 1944 they wanted to know whether the Bengal government thought that they needed to limit the birth rate due to the present or potential resources available. -So the question can be put either way--asking people to limit population to resources, or bringing resources up to meet population needs.  Most of the Indian governors queried in 1944 did not see a need to limit their populations--they didn't yet buy into the idea that famines could be controlled by controlling the number of people in the area.

Back in the 1931 census, they were already identifying the problem was not necessarily with the rising population, it was which segments of the population that were rising. It was the poor agricultural workers whose numbers they were concerned about because they were not able to contribute to society, they didn't produce the foods needed to keep themselves and others alive. While there was division over whether overpopulation was a useful way to look at the Indian situation, over time there was a consensus that overpopulation and India's future were connected in a causal relationship

[1161] The overpopulation argument also gathered steam in India in the 1930s-40s, because it served to rally birth control and eugenics projects. It provided another selling point for these topics, ammunition to overcome the moral argument against birth control, "Birth control advocates pursued the connection and shared agendas with population policy people because it allowed them to hitch the birth control wagon to an agenda that had little if any of the moral approbation that they had earlier faced." BC served as the "localized technological solution" to overpopulation. This can be traced in the literature produced by BC, eugenicists and infant and maternal welfare advocates, and the meetings that they began holding, such as the 1936 All India Conference on Population and the Family Hygiene and Population Conference.

Outside of India a global agenda was being set, largely in the U.S. During the 1940s the global overpopulation discourse gained authority and was ratcheted up to the global scale. Influential figure is Frank Notestein and the demographic transition theory posited that there was a historical model that tied lowered fertility rates to western-style socio-economic modernisation and political liberalism. Notestein framed the argument in terms of a cold war struggle, that overpopulation without modernisation would leave populations susceptible to communism.  Influential works, like Kingsley Davis's The Population of India and Pakistan (1951) thought that too much population in relation to natural resources could cause unrest and calls for the redistribution of national resources. [1162] Davis' book was immensely influential because it created a narrative for India, that it was always overpopulated, always a trouble spot. Says that India has not been able to make the demographic transition to a low birth-rate country, and that this has resulted in "a mismanaged teeming, mass."  Overpopulation theory, as it became more accepted, was written back to the start of the 20th century, it became :"the dominant way of understanding the third world, that it was read back into, or produced its own absent history."

Overpopulation discourse united BC and population control and "sealed the fate for a new kind of strategic importance for the reproductive family in modern India." Using BC, they pictured a new small Indian family which would allow the state to govern through, getting rid of older ways of organizing, by "caste, kin, region and religion." Belief that large family groups were a hindrance to political democracy, industrialization, and social justice. It is too agrarian, stagnant, and old-fashioned to allow India to move into the modern age.