Resuscitate family planning programme

Incredibly, but entirely in keeping with the national habit of ignoring mountainous problems while focusing on political trivia, the United Nations’ World Population Day (July 11) came and went almost totally ignored in the world’s second most populous (1.18 billion) and demo-graphically fastest growing country. According to projections made by the Washington-based Population Reference Bureau, in the year 2050 the population of this country will have surged to an alarming 1.63 billion.

Instead of focusing on universalisation of adult literacy and primary-secondary education, official policy in the early years after independence was to offer cash incentives to citizens undergoing voluntary sterilisation, and imposing disincentives on citizens breaching family planning norms. But given widespread adult illiteracy (35 percent currently), high infant mortality and the financial insecurity of the general populace (which prompts the procreation of children to work and support the elderly), in the country’s most illiterate states — Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand — officially sponsored family planning programmes have proved lamentable failures. Moreover panic-driven forcible sterilisation of millions of minority and poor citizens by rogue elements within the Congress party during the Emergency (1975-76) when the Constitution and civil rights were suspended, not only created a huge electoral backlash which forced the Congress party out of office in 1977, but also made family planning a taboo term in the Indian political lexicon.

Yet despite quadruplication of the nation’s population during the past 60 years stretching resources and socio-economic infrastructure to breaking point, India’s shabby intelligentsia has readily embraced the trendy proposition that India’s young population — 550 million below age 34 — is a demographic dividend. According to this proposition, with Western nations suffering negative birth rates and rapidly ageing population profiles, India’s youth will inevitably emerge as the manufacturers and service providers of the world. However this prophecy will be fulfilled only if this country’s youth population is sufficiently healthy and well educated. On both these counts there’s little cause for optimism. With malnutrition, hunger, disease and poverty stalking the nation’s child population even as public expenditure on health aggregates a mere 0.9 percent of GDP, and 53 percent of the nation’s children dropping out of school before completing primary education, the prospect of harvesting the demographic dividend is dim.

Quite clearly furtherance of the national interest demands the resuscitation of the country’s moribund family planning programme to proactively restrict procreation, especially within the country’s socio-economically most backward states. Simultaneously there’s urgent need to redraw national priorities and double outlays (and outcomes) for education and public health immediately. While education is the proven best contraceptive, a two-pronged strategy which combines sustained family planning propaganda with larger outlays for education and health, is necessary to reduce the heavy pressure of numbers which is negating the impact of India’s impressive 8 percent plus annual rates of GDP growth.

Time to review set positions on Kashmir

The Kashmir valley’s long hot summer marked by the desperate stone-pelting war declared by youth following the collapse of governance in the state of Jammu & Kashmir (pop.10 million), necessitates deep analysis of India’s 63-year-old Kashmir problem, and radical out-of-the-box solutions to cauterise this long-festering wound of the body politic which is bleeding India dry.

Regretably, resolution of the Kashmir problem necessitates revisiting the painful history of the partition of India 63 years ago and accession of pre-independence India’s 500-plus nominally autonomous kingdoms, princedoms and principalities to the Indian Union in the immediate aftermath of independence. Since the religious identity of the ‘Muslim nation’ within the subcontinent was the rationale of the partition, when the Hindu maharajah of Muslim-majority Kashmir dithered on the issue of accession to independent Pakistan, it was invaded by the Pakistan army. After the beleaguered maharajah hastily signed an instrument of accession with India, the Indian Army was flown into the Kashmir valley to save Srinagar and drive back Pakistani irregulars and the army into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

At the time when Sheikh Abdullah’s National Conference threw its weight behind India, promises were made that the state of Jammu & Kashmir would be conferred special status within the Indian Union, with maximum autonomy under its own prime minister. It’s also important to recall that after a ceasefire was called by the United Nations in 1948, newly independent India’s prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru promised a plebiscite in the valley which was never held. On the contrary the special status of J&K was steadily diluted with New Delhi ruling out third party intervention in the Indo-Pak Kashmir dispute.

Since then despite severe resource constraints which hampered its national development effort, New Delhi has invested an estimated Rs.1,000 thousand crore by way of subsidies and development funds into J&K, besides maintaining a massive military presence to safeguard its international borders, to little effect. Lumbered by irredeemably corrupt politicians and bureaucrats, J&K has remained one of the most socio-economically backward states of the Indian Union. And the most rebellious and unstable, hardly worth fighting a nuclear war over.

Against this backdrop of six decades of civil strife and low-intensity warfare in J&K, it’s quite clearly time to review set positions to break the impasse of the Indo-Pak Kashmir dispute. For a start, India needs to offer to restore the pre-1953 status quo ante, and jointly with Pakistan, redeem the plebiscite promise. And in the likely event of the people of the Kashmir Valley opting for independence, Jammu and Ladakh districts can be hived off, with Kashmir’s independence jointly guaranteed by India and Pakistan. It’s time to invest some novelty and hope in the Indo-Pak dialogue to prevent the spread of religious fundamentalism and terrorism in the volatile Indian subcontinent.